From Food Truck to Brick-and-Mortar: Q&A With Chicago’s Amy Le

By Dorothy Hernandez, Foodable Contributor

Amy Le | Credit: Crain's Chicago Business

Amy Le | Credit: Crain's Chicago Business

It might seem like a big leap to go from journalist and social media/public relations professional to a food truck owner, but for Chicagoan Amy Le, it makes perfect sense. “To me, journalists are historians and storytellers,” says Le, who quit her social media gig at GrubHub to launch the Duck N Roll food truck a few years ago. “As a chef, I still get to record history and share stories. But now I do it through my food.”

Le’s background helped with building her brand.

“My social media and PR skills taught me how to share these stories on a wider platform (FB, Instagram, Twitter, TV, newspaper, blogs, print, etc.). As a food truck owner, I was always faced with lots of unique challenges (tight working quarters, daily parking, how to attract new customers, etc.). These challenges taught me how to think quickly on my feet and to be creative at problem solving.”

“However, the thread that weaves my professional journey together is my passion to connect with people. I love meeting people and I love sharing ideas, stories and food.”

In 2013, Le realized she could have more financial stability with a brick-and-mortar versus a food truck, and opened Saucy Porka in the Loop. She also just recently opened Spotted Monkey. The busy restaurateur took some time out to talk about Chicago’s food truck scene, what it’s like to work with your partner, and how it’s possible to have nights and weekends off when you own a restaurant:

 

Foodable: You helped start the Illinois Food Truck Association. What was the catalyst for that? What role did you play in shaping the current landscape of food trucks in Chicago? How would you compare it to when you first started to now? 

Amy Le: John [Keebler, her partner] and I helped to start the food truck association because we wanted a platform that connected the eclectic food truck community together and allow owners to share their ideas, frustrations and vision for what would become the Chicago food truck scene. We were also faced with stifling legislation that hindered the community’s growth at the time we started the association. We wanted to help shape the laws that governed our business. When we started the association, food trucks couldn’t cook onboard; they had to serve pre-packed foods. We helped push through legislation that now allows for cooking trucks. Trucks also can’t park 200 feet from any food establishment. The 200-foot rule still exists today, but the association worked with the city to help create designated food truck stands that allowed trucks to have more of a presence in the Loop (I still feel that it wasn’t enough, but I guess we will take what the city will give).

Foodable: How would you compare Chicago's food truck scene to other cities such as Portland and Austin? 

AL: The Chicago food truck scene is still a young community. It is not as robust compared to other cities such as Portland and Austin because of certain factors like weather and current food truck legislation in Chicago. If we didn’t have the kind of frigid winters that we have in Chicago, it would be more of a sustainable business model.  

Foodable: Is it easier to have a food truck or a restaurant? 

AL: It is much easier to have a restaurant. Looking for parking is not easy with the 200-foot rule in Chicago. And there are only a limited number of designated parking spots in the downtown loop for food trucks. With a brick-and-mortar, there is more consistency. You can better predict the number of patrons you serve daily by knowing foot traffic patterns in certain areas. And rain or shine, your patrons always have an enclosed spot to comfortably eat their lunch.  

Paella and chorizo egg banh mi at Saucy Porka | Instagram @saucy_porka

Paella and chorizo egg banh mi at Saucy Porka Instagram @saucy_porka

Foodable: You opened Saucy Porka in 2013. Tell us how you connected with your partner Michael Yousef and chef Rafael Lopez and the culinary collaboration between you and Lopez. 

AL: I met Rafael Lopez on the food truck scene. He was working on the Wagyu Wagon and we collaborated on some events and realized how much we liked working with each other. We were kindred spirits. Michael Yousef found my truck and really liked my cooking style. He had been renting the 400 S. Financial Pl. space, and reached out to me to see if I would be interested in launching a storefront.

Foodable: Just a couple years after opening Saucy Porka, you launched Spotted Monkey. When did you decide to expand? How is it different from Saucy Porka? It sounds like both are very personal restaurants with the homage to childhood memories and family.

AL: While my culinary endeavors have all happened in the past four years, the path to which has gotten me here has been a decade in the making. The decision to open my businesses is never about a head count per se (i.e. how many businesses can you open within a certain time frame). It has also been inspired by very personal moments that are happening in my life. I look at Spotted Monkey as the next evolution into what I have begun. Similar to Saucy Porka, I stay true to my Latin Asian cooking style, but with Spotted Monkey I dive deeper into Mexican, Cuban and Puerto Rican flavors with influences from Thailand, Vietnam, China and Korea. Family is always a key theme in my cooking and with Spotted Monkey, my restaurant family whose backgrounds range from different regions of Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico and Korea helped inspired this new menu. Our staff lunches are almost always dishes we cook up from someone’s hometown. When you can’t be with the people you love, you bring them to you through the smells and tastes that evoke the memories of your past. It is such a beautiful and powerful thing that food can do.

Foodable: You opened the new spot with your life partner. What is it like to be in business with your significant other? 

AL: John and I really do balance each other out. He is very business savvy and creative, but he allows me to have free rein in the kitchen. However, he likes to tell people I’m often the gas pedal and he’s the brakes. He knows when to pull me back so we can keep the car from driving off the cliff. But it’s not always easy. There are moments where we are both tired, overworked and want to tear each other’s heads off (like when I made him stay at the restaurant until 3 a.m. to finish hanging up decorations, two days before our opening. We had already been at the restaurant for 15 hours that day. I thought ‘Why not another 3 hours?’). And sometimes we both wake up in the middle of the night to ask each other if he or I remembered to mail out a bill or call a vendor. There is no separation of personal and business once you become business partners. It all blends together. But like a really great stew that cooks for a long time with a hundred different ingredients, you just have to know how to balance all the flavors.     

Foodable: How many employees do you have at each spot? How would you describe the culture at your restaurants? 

AL: Staffing ranges depending on time of year but let’s say between four and six. I like to describe the Saucy and Spotted team as one big dysfunctional family. We all have our quirky personalities, but we also care about each other like family. I like creating an environment where people’s ideas and opinions matter. I encourage my team to share ideas for new menu items and thoughts on how to improve daily operations. It doesn’t always mean I agree with them, but I want them to tell me if I’m being a crappy boss and if my ideas are insane. The openness and transparency is something I picked up from my days at a tech startup and growing up with a Tiger momma. As an entrepreneur you have to have thick skin and you can’t ever take anything personal (even the Yelp reviews). The only way to ever grow as a person or as a business is to be honest with yourself and with the people that work alongside you.    

Foodable: You cater to the office crowds and aren't open for dinner. Any plans to offer dinner service or is it part of your business strategy? Sounds like a very specific focus that perhaps may be a factor in your success with opening two restaurants in a short period of time.

AL: No secret formula. John and I just like having our evenings and weekends off. I will take the occasional catering gigs at night and weekends. I grew up in my mother’s Chinese restaurants and we used to open seven days a week, 360 days out of the year. My mom once told me she worked so much not because she wanted to but because she had a family to support. John and I still put in 50+ hour work weeks, but we do it not because we have to, but because we want to. If the day comes that we have the resources to launch a nice sit-down restaurant open 7 days a week with evening hours, then we will ponder that idea when the time comes. But for now, we’re digging the lunch crowd.