Joe Doren and Rich Levy

Haute Sausage

02/03/2015

Rich Levy is the owner and Joe Doren is the chef of Haute Sausage, a restaurant and food truck in the Loop.

Food trucks are a relatively new phenomenon. What motivated you to open one?

RICH LEVY: I started the food truck the day after they caught Osama bin Laden. It was actually a month in the planning prior to that, and we went live that Monday. Joe joined the team about a year ago. It was a hot space at that point in time and I was working on a mobile kiosk system that I was going to put in places that didn’t have a kitchen. I was watching what was happening in the food truck space, and a guy by the name of Philip Foss wanted to rent part of my kitchen to start a meatball truck.

And so he did, he started the Meatyballs truck out of our kitchen, with a view to buying our kitchen, and I was watching his success and I said, “Would you like to partner up?” And when he declined, I decided that I'm going to start a sausage truck. So I did. It was a good recommendation, that’s how Haute Sausage came into being.

How about the food truck movement in general?

RL: I think anything cool really comes from the West Coast and East Coast. If you think of all the concepts from a culinary standpoint, they’ve all really had their genesis more on the West Coast than the East, and mostly in ethnic food. Pizza was an ethnic food fifty years ago. Certainly Mexican food was an ethnic food, maybe thirty years ago. Sushi, also. We have different various ethnic, culinary concepts these days.

Food trucks were the perfect storm of a bad economy in 2008 and ‘09, lack of capital to start restaurants, and a lot of entrepreneurial ethnic people who wanted to start trucks and elevate street food. It began in LA, all the way up the West Coast to Portland, Seattle, and started meandering through to parts of the Midwest. So by the time 2010, 2011 came around it was becoming a hot space to be, the Food Network certainly helped, and the advent of social media was a huge contributor to the success of food trucks. And you know, here we are today.

Any unique challenges when it comes to working in a food truck?

JOE DOREN: Every truck is different: some trucks that have everything you could ever ask for, or any kitchen to have for that matter. Ours is definitely more limited, we can prepare on board which is really nice, as opposed to back in the day the city would only let you pre-package something and then heat it up on the truck and sell it, which was kind of worthless. Basically you were a delivery guy for Domino’s.

Now it’s really nice, we can prepare on board, get an order and assemble everything, which is awesome, but obviously you still do have limitations. We only have a couple griddles, and some steam tables to keep things warm. So we can sear, and we can finish, but we have to have things going by the time we get them on the truck. But working in a kitchen you’re always kind of a MacGyver, any chef has had to do something like that.

RL: The day Joe got on board the truck, he took to it like a duck to water. I mean we’d never been on that truck, we reconfigured it going from pre-packaged to selling, and Joe just took it over and said, “Alright, I got this.” And we went out and did a gig, and we nailed it. It was really impressive.

Is there any way to get around Chicago’s weather?

RL: We roll with it. Our rule of thumb is that if it’s below 35°, and there’s precipitation, don’t go out. But if it’s above 35° and you can see your shadow a little bit, then we go out. We send a skeleton crew, we can make money off of as little as twenty-five items sold, and you know, on a busy summer day we can do one-twenty, one-fifty. We’ve actually been to festivals where we did six hundred orders in a day. That requires a little bit more of a team.

JD: It’s like you’re a farmer, you know what I mean? You prepare for the harvest and everything but then all of a sudden a big storm comes through and it can wipe out your whole harvest, and you’re shit out of luck. That’s just how it is, but then hopefully next week you have a better harvest and you have good weather and everything lines up and the gods are happy with you. Chicago’s got about twenty days a year where it’s actually nice outside, and comfortable, so you kind of work against that.

How do you find the best spots to park the truck?

RL: There’s two components to the business. There’s the parking on the street, and we’re subject to city codes and zones. Then there’s the festivals, and where we strike gold is beer festivals. Anywhere there’s people with disposable income and an interest in artisanal beer, that’s our sweet spot. We look for those, they’re published, and we actually get approached to do a lot of stuff, a lot of festivals.

JD: And every weekend in the summer, there’s at least two street festivals going on at the same time, so you can look on the parks directory and they tell you, this is what they’re gonna be, and we’re like, “Oh, Ribfest, maybe that will be good for us.” Or SausageFest, obviously we want to be there.

Will you go anywhere?

JD: If they’re gonna pay for the truck… [laughs] If the money’s right, yeah, we’d go anywhere.

RL: That’s true. I mean it would have to make economic sense. Joe’s right, I mean we--- our truck is an old lady, she’s a 1986 Chevy P30 and she likes to stay local.

Is there competition for the best truck spots in the city?

JD: For the good spots, Rich will go there at five in the morning, pay $40 to park his car. When I get here, get all the food ready, and the truck gets down there, we can switch with Rich. If you know you’re gonna make money in a spot, then there’s other trucks that want to go there that day, that know they’re gonna make money too, so…

RL: The numbers break out like this: right now there’s about fifty trucks, there’s probably five decent spots. And some spots are only legally allowed to take two people, two trucks. So do the math. There’s a lot of competition, a lot of vying for and jockeying for position, but for the most part the community plays very nicely with one another.

JD: Yeah.

RL: They’ll work with one another, to say, “Hey, Tuesday our day is here, and if we’re not going we’ll advise you.”

It’s surprising that things stay so friendly.

JD: There’s definitely no backstabbing. You see somebody gets there before you, you say “All right, good for him,” you know what I mean? You’re not trying to sabotage other people because everybody is in the same boat.

You also rely on those other trucks so much. You’ll be somewhere and your generator will fail, and one of those guys will just give you a quart of oil, and just be like, “You owe me ten bucks,” something like that. I mean it’s constantly, somebody forgets to bring napkins, here’s napkins. Don’t worry about it. This or that, it’s definitely everybody working together, for the most part. I mean, I’m sure you’ll always find that one odd duck that doesn’t want to…

RL: That’s true, and also as pertains to the competition for spots, the more interesting your menu is, people will find you. If the Rolling Stones played on a barge in Lake Michigan in winter, its the Rolling Stones, people will get their boats out and go and watch them. Even if it was a cold, blustery day they’d somehow figure out a way to go see them.

And so if you’ve got something really unique, and outstanding, and we get to use our social media to talk about that, and other people spread the word for us, people will find us. And that’s the best defense to no parking available: create a great dish, an interesting dish, that people say, “Wow, that’s fantastic.” And Joe’s really talented at doing that. Goat-leg poutine, for example, over yucca fries.

JD: Quality. And also you’re willing to put the hours in.

How do you build repeat customers when you’re always moving around?

RL: The scarcity thing works to our advantage. I remember as a kid when the ice cream truck would come around, and you’d hear that song a mile away, even in South Africa we had that ice cream jingle. We would all stop and listen, “Oh my god, the ice cream truck’s here,” you’d run, ask your mother for fifty cents, and try and track it down. That’s old school social media.

The new version of that: if you have a mobile device it can tell you what you’re looking for, that’s good. And if you happen upon something outstanding, and there’s no line, people get very excited. So from that perspective, this is one of the most fun businesses I’ve ever operated, because when people are all happy to see you it’s very rewarding.

JD: On the flipside of that, sometimes people are like, “Tuesday, I want to eat at Haute Sausage,” they look at our website, we have planned where we want to go, in a perfect world. So we’re gonna go to Clark and Monroe, or Randolph and Franklin, and we get there and it’s full. Okay, we have to go somewhere else, so we change it and that person calls us and they’re like, “Hey, I’m at Clark and Monroe, how come you’re not here?”

That is definitely a problem. Sometimes you don’t know where we’re gonna be, you’re not paying for that spot, as opposed to here at the restaurant. We pay rent, nobody’s gonna show up before me here in the morning and be like, “No, this is my restaurant today.”

Did you open a brick-and-mortar to have that kind of permanence?

JD: I think that and--- correct me if I’m wrong, Rich--- you have to have somewhere where you prepare the food for the truck regardless.

RL: Right.

JD: So if you can make money off that spot rather than just paying rent and losing the money, then it’s kind of a win-win.

RL: Believe it or not, the biggest impediment to changing the Chicago food truck laws was plumbing. The Health Department stamps all licenses for food in the city, and their code said you need to have hot running water that’s piped to the city sewer. And since a truck, no matter who was operating it--- you could have the advanced, most-modern technology of plumbing but if it wasn’t hard piped to the city sewer…

The city bureaucrats looked at it and said, “I don’t know what to do with this, what zone is it in?” Bam. Rejected. So opening a brick-and-mortar, and having that kitchen we can say “this is where our food is made,” it can be inspected, and it has plumbing. Plumbing is really what’s driving the whole issue.

And now City Hall changed the ordinance and allows a truck to be tied to a commissary. But it still has to be tied to a commissary, you can’t just operate a truck out of your house, for example. You have to have a licensed commissary where your water’s changed, where your truck’s parked overnight. It’s really about covering your ass, if someone gets sick they have to be able to say, like, “So and so inspected that facility, on this date,” and they’re responsible. This person signed off on it. It’s the system you have to work within.

So where was your commissary before this place?

RL: That’s a very interesting question. We used to rent space from a bar. The old ordinance, the way it was written was very gray, you could have a licensed mobile dispensary, “dispensary” meant pre-packaged, and you could buy your food from a licensed restaurant. A lot of the original operators got around that, they would rent space from a bar that’d be open at 5:00pm, but no one was there from 5:00am to 10:00am so they would rent that space, have a few shelves. They would actually make the food there but the restaurant would really be, technically, selling them the food.

That’s the way we got around it in the old days. Another thing about this city is they don’t do anything half-assed. When Chicago got its food trucks, it went and did its research from other cities, what’s working, what’s not, let’s write our ordinance to work. Now there are definitely holes in it but it’s a strong ordinance, the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted, to make sure that we can operate.

Do you always want to keep the truck?

RL: Yeah, it’s a big part of our history, so yes.

JD: I mean, if it’s hemorrhaging money and everything else is making a lot then I think we’ll reevaluate, but for now it makes money, it’s a mobile advertisement too, you know you see the Haute Sausage truck go down the street you’re like, “Oh, what’s that place?” Puts it in your mind. It’s like a billboard that roams around and serves food.

RL: What’s interesting is that a lot of the trucks, I can’t count about… maybe ten of the original trucks including ourselves, have all started brick-and-mortars. The truck was a precursor to our own store, and our stores are in bad locations. “C” locations, because the store doesn’t necessarily need to make money if it has a truck attached to it.

It’s an interesting business model. On paper it works great, but if you get a really awful week weather-wise, you can’t take the truck out, you’ve no retail coming in, so you kinda just have to hunker down, and wait for warmer weather.

Joe, you’re originally from upstate Michigan. Rich, you were born in South Africa. Would you describe your food as a meeting of those two cultures?

RL: The original menu, the food truck menu, was very much inspired by me growing up in South Africa and then moving to the States. But I’d say the menu we’ve now established between Joe and myself is really a collaboration, it’s Johannesburg meets Traverse City. And there’s a lot of great things we have in common. Guys are guys everywhere: they like beer, grilled meats, women, and sport.

If you go to any town in South Africa, on a Sunday afternoon that’s probably what the guys are doing, and I imagine Michigan on a good Saturday or Sunday in fall, you have a similar kind of atmosphere.

JD: It’s approachable, there’s definitely South African influence, there’s a lot of Midwest influence, we try and not limit ourselves to any certain thing, but those are just naturally gonna be ingrained into us and come together. For the most part our big thing is we like to take things that people recognize and do them in a much different way. Like make a buffalo chicken sausage, something like that, so it’s not too crazy, it’s a new way of having it.

RL: One of our other cool things is what we did with the bison, what Joe did with the bison, we made it almost like a Chicago bison dog, done with celery salt and the sport peppers and what have you. And then we’ve also got a chili bison dog, which is I think very derivative of a Detroit Coney. So it’s Detroit meets Chicago, which is Joe’s story.

Joe, what was the journey like between Traverse City and Chicago?

JD: I went to culinary school in Vermont, and then I went to South Carolina, Charleston for a little while, and then came to Chicago to work at Blackbird, under Paul Kahan. I wanted to be a little closer to home, but wasn’t ready to be back home, you know what I mean? I wanted to be in a big city, wanted to get a lot of that experience as far as food goes.

Where I’m from is an amazing town, they have great food, but they’ll always been ten years behind what we’re doing here. You know, any small, Midwestern town, small town for that matter, is always gonna kinda be like that. I wanted to be at the edge of it. I worked at some great places, getting that fast life while I was still younger, and just really fell in love with Chicago. Been here for about ten years now. No plans on leaving.

Was it a challenge to adapt your skillset to working in the truck?

JD: I mean, cooking at its most basic is gonna be the same no matter where you are. There’s only five different things you do, you sear, you incorporate water into things, steaming or boiling things, you can render fats, I won’t go into all of it--- but it’s very basic, and you can apply those to different things, fine dining, getting really creative. Or you can use those same cooking techniques, ingredients and everything, and apply it to a more approachable street food.

With the economic downturn we saw a lot of these restaurants open up, we see places like Au Cheval offering the best burger. Fine-dining diners are really big. People love the Graces, the Alineas, they’re amazing, but that’s kind of a once in a lifetime meal, to go there, you know? Even the 1%, they’re not gonna go to Alinea once a week.

Whereas we have people who come in here three times a week. You can use those cooking aspects anywhere, and that’s what I like, I like for my friends to be able to come in whenever they want. I don’t know if my friends ever went to Blackbird in the three years I was there. Unless it was a big occasion, or if I could slip them in and give them some free food or something.

How do you build the menu?

JD: We try to put a new special on each week. It’s just whatever inspires us, it’s not necessarily a set format. I’ve got Chiana in the kitchen, she helps me too and it’s just, “Alright, we’ve got a lot of beef stuff on, let’s come up with a new poultry idea, a new pork idea,” or Rich will come up with something, “Jack and goat, that just sounds cool.” And then we’re like, “OK, how can we incorporate these two things together?”

RL: It very much is a collaborative process, like a musician. I’ll come up with the title of a song and I’ll say, “All right, make it work,” you know? Literally fill in the meat. And Joe’s really great at doing that. Two guidelines we take: we obviously want to sell sausages, and our pedigree is street food. So it gives us permission to sell you fish tacos. Why would you get fish tacos at a sausage place? Because Haute Sausage began alongside a taco truck, that’s why our menu is divided into the street food section and the sausage section. So it gives us a little bit of leeway to have some fun.

JD: Especially for what we do, it’s so hearty, and everything is so good that it’s kinda hard--- you could put bacon with another hearty thing and it’s gonna be delicious. Bacon and chocolate, it’s hard to go wrong. There is, I mean we definitely test things, we work them out, but most of the time we put it together, we take the first bite, and we say, “Well this is fuckin’ awesome.” Maybe add a little crunch, add a little sourness to it, or some citrus, or whatnot, it’s gonna be good to go.

RL: Right. The other easy way we can cheat these days is to take a picture with a smartphone, send it to ten thousand people and see what the response is. If you got crickets, you probably might want to rethink either the presentation or the title. But if you get a lot of engagement, people are like “What the hell is that? When can I get it?” You’re like, “Okay, we may have something here.”

In the old days you had to make the dish, hire a food photographer to come and take a picture of it, get a graphic artist to put it on a poster, get the poster printed, put it in your window and then see. And now we can do it in less than thirty seconds. Now we have a thirty second leeway to test, implement, and pivot.

Are food trucks just a fad?

RL: I think food trucks are here to stay. I think the time is right for them to, you know, come into being. The interesting thing also about food trucks is that they can’t be franchised. They’re not the kind of thing where people say, “Oh, you should have ten of these.” That defeats the whole purpose. You want to have the scarcity element to it, “It’s only here on Wednesdays.”

The only food truck I’ve seen do this well is Kogi in LA. They’ve got five food trucks but they were the original Korean taco truck, they’ve got the biggest brand locally. But other than that, what creates long lines is, “We’re here today. Come on out and find us.” And that’s it.

Haute Sausage