Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=202475
Story Retrieval Date: 11/22/2014 11:45:06 AM CST
Chicagoans braved the winter cold this past week to patronize Jim Nuccio and Gabe Wiesen's mobile doughnut shop, Beavers Donuts.
Chicago entrepreneurs beaver away at new doughnut venture
James Nuccio spends most of his Saturday mornings bouncing around a 10-foot by three-foot space, doling out spoonfuls of honey and Nutella, and playing with a Samsung Galaxy tablet. This isn’t some kid’s weekend breakfast filled with cartoons and handheld games—it’s his job.
Nuccio, 28, and Gabe Wiesen, 26, own and operate Beavers Coffee and Donuts LLC, one of the country’s first doughnut food trucks, and one of the few trucks in Chicago to operate throughout the winter.
Those in search of a quick bite can nab three doughnuts and a coffee for $4, while hungrier patrons can take home up to 30 confections for $14. The doughy magic is made in the back of a teal and green truck with two beavers painted on it, a design inspired by a childhood drawing of Nuccio’s god-daughter.
It might sound comical, but in a matter of months the pair has built an untested culinary concept into a $100,000-a-year business. Both are salaried workers and share the informal title of co-owners.
Nuccio and Wiesen are lifelong friends and long-time business partners. After forming an event-planning company called Debonair Entertainment a few years ago, the Chicago natives spent much of 2011 developing plans for a pizzeria and bar in Rogers Park.
Despite a strong credit rating and several backers, they couldn’t find a bank willing to give them a small business loan. When the plans for the restaurant fell through, some of Wiesen’s family members – who operate one of the largest vending truck companies in the country – turned him on to the viability of operating a food truck.
“Taking the experience we had with event planning, and being able to do a lot of grassroots and social media marketing, it kind of seemed like a natural fit,” Wiesen said.
The two put their knowledge of the industry to use throughout 2011, establishing potential locations for Beavers and honing their doughnut-making skills. Wiesen even traveled to southern California to learn the doughtnut-making ropes from his cousin Anna Andriese, a pastry chef who owns a food truck named Haute Skillet.
One of Beavers’ first sales locations was the parking lot of gourmet fast food restaurant Big & Little’s. The truck can still be found there most Saturdays.
Big & Little’s chef Tony D’Alessandro said he was comfortable welcoming Beavers onto his property because its product line compliments rather than competes with his.
“Jim’s been a regular customer of mine almost every day. He just asked, and I said OK,” said D’Alessandro, who is known for his appearances on the Food Network, and television cooking show Hell’s Kitchen.
“I don’t look at it as anything affecting me. I look at it as, I feel bad for the guys who can’t cook on the truck,” said D’Alessandro regarding the difficulties start up food truck operators face.
He said if Nuccio and Wiesen developed a product that fit with his food, he wouldn’t be opposed to featuring some Beavers creations on his menu.
The Beavermobile is both a migratory and technologically savvy creature. It recently set up shop at Northwestern University, in River North, the Loop, Fulton River District, and at the University of Illinois at Chicago all in the same week.
Nuccio uses Twitter and Facebook each morning to alert Chicagoans to the location the truck will operate from that day. The strategy attracts young professionals looking for a quick bite as they browse their social media accounts on their way to work. It also attracts hungry (or hung-over) college students on a budget in search of fried dough. A recent appearance at Northwestern resulted in the truck being swarmed by long lines of customers.
Nuccio’s Samsung tablet also doubles as a de facto credit card machine. He already owned the tablet before starting his business, but he recently purchased a credit card processing application called Score that allows his machine to facilitate credit transactions.
Beavers doesn’t rely on traditional flavor standbys such as cinnamon or powdered sugar. Whether it’s the PB&J (peanut butter and strawberry sauce), the Grandma (honey and graham cracker) or the popular Turtle (chocolate, caramel and pecans), the gooey morsels are drizzled with gourmet toppings after they’re quickly fried and popped out onto a small conveyor belt.
The mechanized frying contraption would violate a Chicago city ordinance banning cooking on trucks, except that Beavers operates with a catering license and does so exclusively on private property, allowing it to work around the law. While Chicago is one of the few major cities in the country with an ordinance banning cooking on trucks, the practice could be legalized if a contentious bill currently before the City Council wins enough support.
While food trucks have sprung up in cities all across the country, doughnuts don’t yet appear to be 2012’s version of the cupcake – a kitsch sensation that swept Chicago in recent years. Beavers no doubt benefits from the popularity of its cross-town rival, the Doughnut Vault, notorious for its hour-long lines and contented customers. The Doughnut Vault was named by Time Out Chicago as one of the city’s best new restaurants.
“You can definitely tell they’re fresh,” said Dan, a River North resident who was turned on to Beavers after the truck started selling doughnuts next to his apartment building. He said he enjoys the convenience of a sugary treat right outside his front door.
In addition to attracting customers from nearby wherever the truck sets up, Beavers is popular with office workers where Wiesen has catering contracts.
Josh Tsui, co-founder of video game developer Robomodo, says he enjoys having Wiesen and Nuccio cater the food at his West Loop company. Tsui is in discussions with them to develop a Beavers smartphone application.
When Nuccio and Wiesen aren’t busy feeding the masses or catering private events, they’re consulting with prospective food truck owners and operators. The pair also owns Midwest Food Trucks LLC, which serves as the Chicago-area sales and leasing representative for Wiesen’s uncle’s company, New Jersey-based Vending Trucks Inc.
“We realized immediately when we were trying to open up a vending truck in Chicago that there wasn’t any Chicago-based manufacturers or consultants for food trucks. So, we decided to go that route,” Wiesen said.
Nuccio and Wiesen credit their success so far to cultivating positive relationships with D’Alessandro as well as other area restaurateurs, a group known for its opposition to food trucks.
One local restaurateur who asked not to be identified said he considers himself good friends with Nuccio and Wiesen. His restaurant and Beaver’s work together despite operating only a few feet away from each other in the River North neighborhood. On one recent morning, he even went as far as to change out Beaver’s large-denominated bills for a fresh supply of ones.
“Food trucks need our support,” said Beavers patron Jordan Wilson, who ordered 30 doughnuts for he and his fellow office workers.
He noted that competition between restaurants and food trucks, and even between doughnut outfits, could benefit both businesses and consumers.
Nuccio and Wiesen hope to compete in the Chicago culinary scene for a long time.
Wiesen said their next venture is hopefully a pizzeria that will showcase his background in Italian cooking. “We obviously are going to continue Beavers, but our ultimate goal is getting into our own restaurant.”
With doughnuts this tasty, they might get there faster than they think.