Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=196841
Story Retrieval Date: 3/11/2014 12:25:58 PM CST
It’s pronounced pass-tee—not paste-y—and it’s a popular British fast food that can now be found on the streets of Chicago. Three years ago, while vacationing in London, Jay Sebastian and his wife, Carrie Clark, experienced the warm, flaky, “hand-held potpies” known as pasties for the first time.
“We both looked at each other and said, ’Why doesn’t Chicago have something like this?’ It seemed like a good, working-class, Windy City type of hand-held food,” Sebastian said. “Every culture has some version of this. Calzones are similar, empanadas are similar… but this is uniquely British, and it uses a pie crust, which is different than a pizza-dough crust.”
Once they returned home to Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, both Sebastian and Clark proved to be talented pasty chefs. The couple noticed that, with the exception of some pubs that sell them from time to time, pasties were not available to the lunchtime crowd in Chicago, so they began exploring their options to start a pasty business.
“It has been, and continues to be, a one-step-at-a-time process,” Clark said. “We are faced with external and internal challenges daily. These can range from getting the pastry just right [which took about 6 months] to the slow and intricate process of negotiating the city's licensing requirements.”
Among those requirements was operating an approved vehicle. Both avid cyclists, the couple originally drafted a plan to sell pasties from bikes. Sebastian even purchased a three-wheeled ice cream cart, but the city was quick to shun the idea of propane tanks on bicycles in the financial district. Still, Sebastian and Clark didn’t give up on their food-on-the-street idea.
“In my past, I always had an attraction to selling things out on the streets,” Sebastian said. “When I was a kid I always used to have Kool-Aid stands and run carnivals and circuses in my back yard, and just really liked the idea of direct sales in that kind of way.”
Eventually, Sebastian stumbled upon a small, electric vehicle that was perfect for his needs. The Global Electric Motor car, or GEM, was originally manufactured by Chrysler and costs about a third of the price of an average gas-powered vehicle, according to GEM’s current parent company, Polaris Industries.
“This little electric car had coincidentally become legal on the streets of Illinois as of Jan. 1 of this year,” he said. “This is a low-speed vehicle with special plates. It doesn’t go faster than 26 miles per hour, and you can’t drive on streets that are posted over 35… which is fine for us at lunch time in the Loop.”
The zero-emissions vehicle has the added benefit of being eco-friendly—which was a main reason the couple didn’t want to use a regular food truck.
After getting all of the necessary clearances from the city, Sebastian and Clark finally hit the road in August, joining a close-knit, growing community of Chicago food trucks. Bridgeport Pasty was born.
Antonia Ruth, who recently tried a pasty for the first time said, “Food truck people are much more friendly than regular restaurant people. This is their livelihood, and they act like it.”
Ruth, who works in the financial district, also said she’s grown tired of the typical sandwich shops available near her job.
“Whenever I see that they’ll be here, I have to buy from them,” she said. She added that she would be on the lookout for her favorite trucks both on the streets and on Twitter.
Despite the competition among mobile food venders, most of the food trucks in Chicago are very supportive of one another.
“If we’re in some location with another truck, they’ll usually tweet that we’re there, and we’ll tweet that they’re there,” Sebastian said. “We’re more or less all friends, but, of course, we’re all out there to make money too.”
Social media have become instrumental to Chicago’s food truck scene. In order to find out where their favorite food truck is, customers can follow the trucks on Twitter or Facebook—where the owners post their routes and daily specials. The rise of social media has made it possible for food truckers to run their businesses with little to no marketing budget.
Two things that are costing the food trucks, however: parking and licensing. Although certain truck owners have started a movement to get Chicago’s current food truck ordinance amended, many brick-and-mortar restaurants oppose making it easier or cheaper to operate a truck. So far, there is no change in sight.
The current law states that trucks in Chicago must obtain a $275 mobile food dispenser license and any food sold must be pre-packaged and prepared in a facility with a wholesale or retail food establishment license. This means vendors are not allowed to prepare any food in any way on a truck. Trucks also have to undergo health inspections and aren’t allowed to park in certain areas of the city.
To strengthen the movement for change, ChicagoFoodTrucks.com was created in 2010 to promote awareness of the food truck scene. The website represents several members of the food truck community.
“Cities like New York and Los Angeles boast thriving food truck scenes. Food trucks provide a diversity of fare, serve local foods, and use fewer resources than traditional restaurants,” the group wrote on a September 2011 petition. “Yet in Chicago, food truck owners aren't allowed to cook on board their vehicles, a limitation that thwarts what could be a thriving local food truck scene.”
The most recent petition did not garner enough signatures and, as of late November, no progress has been made on changing the ordinance.
Even if the proposed ordinance was passed, the owners of Bridgeport Pasty say it would have little effect on their business. Sebastian says that is because the company has been functioning just fine without cooking on the truck and, especially, because he would have to invest in a more expensive vehicle with cook tops and ovens.
Just like their brick-and-mortar counterparts, food truck owners have to pay for insurance and taxes. But, Sebastian said, not having to pay rent makes a food truck business a little more recession-friendly.
Regardless of the savings on rent, though, Sebastian said he is only now beginning to break even.
Bridgeport Pasty was able to turn a profit faster than most other restaurants because of low start-up costs. Sebastian and Clark estimate that they spent between $20,000 and $40,000 to get their truck started, though Sebastian says he has heard that other truck operators have spent anywhere from $10,000 to $200,000 to get up and running. Though the truck has only been out for a few months, Sebastian estimates the company’s yearly revenue will be around $150,000.
An additional factor in breaking even was that neither Sebastian nor Clark has been taking a salary. They have just one other employee—the only one getting a paycheck—to help out with the business while they both work at their other, full-time jobs. Sebastian is the director of client intake services at a major Chicago law firm, while Clark is the outreach program coordinator at a national science laboratory.
“Before we jump ship on something like that, we want to make sure this is very viable,” Sebastian said. “We’re being sensible.”
For Clark, working full-time and running a business on the side is an enjoyable way to give back to the community.
“My full-time job gives me a chance to do good in the world by supporting scientists and researchers who are figuring out how to cure cancer and optimize solar energy systems,” she said. “Being able to feed my fellow Chicagoans is another way I can help out. I used to work in an industry that did nothing but make rich people richer. That's not a bad thing, but I need to feel like I'm doing some immediate good in the world.”
As winter draws near, Sebastian and Clark expect business to slow. From this point on, their main goal is building pasty name recognition.
“The biggest thing is explaining to people what a pasty is… but it kind of makes for a nice interchange with people,” Sebastian said. “It’s very easy to keep a pulse on what people are thinking about it because you can watch what they say on Facebook and Twitter and everything.”
Those human-interchanges were the motivation behind Bridgeport Pasty all along.
“Our real dream is to be able to sell pasties to commuters in the morning and evening through kiosks in train stations,” Clark said. “How great to come home with a bag of pasties for the family!”
Sebastian and Clark hope to expand their dream with another food truck and, if ever possible, a bicycle. The couple will be adding more flavors to their menu and are looking forward to bringing pasties to food festivals during the spring and summer.