Leah Wilcox is the Executive Chef and Owner of Babycakes Gourmet in Chicago, Illinois. To say that Leah makes pancakes would be like saying Michelangelo painted… A massive understatement. Leah Wilcox makes EPIC pancakes. Just check out the entertaining video below to get a sense of what she’s got on her griddle:

In addition to cooking delicious pancake sammmies, gourmet waffles sticks, and other mind altering delights, Leah is also a business owner. Today, she was kind enough to respond to a gaggle of questions submitted by email to learn what it’s like to start and operate a food truck in the Chicago area. We want to thank Leah for taking the time to respond to each of these questions. Check out Babycakes Gourmet if you live near the Windy City. Your tummy will thank you.

FTE: Give us a brief explanation about yourself.

Leah: I consider myself an artist, primarily, so I paint and write fiction, and cooking became a creative passion for me. I went to culinary school, thinking I’d start a personal chef or party-planning business. Then I spontaneously got the idea for the truck! I thought pancakes would be smart business, because they are cheap to make and there could be so many varieties. Then I sort of became obsessed with the idea of reinventing pancakes altogether! I’ve created over 250 pancake recipes. I bought the truck nearly 3 years ago, so I’ve been in the pancake biz for a while now.

FTE: How did you go about conducting research for the business in Chicago?

Leah: I did everything by internet research. The small business resources in Chicago are very minimal, so it wasn’t easy.

FTE: What are the unique opportunities in your city?

Leah: I do think the layout of the city, being so vast geographically, lends itself to mobile food. There are a lot of “food deserts” where restaurants are few and far between. Also, with a city as large as this, there is a constant stream of special events, especially in the summer.

FTE: How about the challenges? What is the business climate like here?

Gourmet pancake - Babycakes Style.

Gourmet pancake – Babycakes Style.

Leah: The city is not very friendly for small business. The laws can be very confusing… and may change depending on which city official you’re talking to. Since food trucks are relatively new here, the customers are also not very educated about trucks, which means they don’t frequent them. And on top of all that; the weather, the godawful weather!

One of the most common challenges beginning food truck owners have is navigating city regulations, including health and fire safety requirements. As you know these regulations vary considerably from county to county and city to city. Where should entrepreneurs go to find information about the local health code and fire safety regulations?

I think now that there are more trucks in Chicago, going to local food truck owners would be worthwhile. There weren’t many trucks when I started, so that wasn’t really an option for us. Also, of course, the internet is a huge resource, as well as city and government web pages.

FTE: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us about your business. Any parting tips before we go?

Leah: The city is extremely difficult to work with- be prepared to wait many months before being granted a license of any kind. Be realistic about how difficult running a small business will be, and what the finances will actually look like. A lot of people think food trucks are a goldmine and that is just not the case. There are a lot of good things about this business, but like any small business, it is an exhausting enterprise. Also, capital, capital, capital! Things always go awry and if you have some money in the bank to get through those rough patches, it will be possible to pull through.


Additional Resources for Getting Started

Chicago Food Truck Finder – This is a website created by Andrew Violette that tracks the current location of food trucks operating througout the windy city. This technology is made possible through Twitter feeds. If you’re planning to start a food truck in Chicago, this is one service you’ll want to connect with to ensure more people know where you’re going to be parked each day.

18 Awesome Chicago Food Trucks – This is a list of some of the most popular mobile food vendors operating across the city per Chicago Magazine. PS – Beavers Donuts and Haute Sausage look amazing.

Chicago Food Truck Fest –  This is a yearly festival held each year in the Chicago area and a great event to be part of if you plan on launching your own concession business here. Planning has already begun for 2015. Visit the website for updates.

Food Truck Corner –  This is another online service that provides updates about vendor locations across the city. If you’re operating in the windy city, make sure your mobile food unit is registered here.


Want to start your own food business?

Hey! 👋I’m Brett Lindenberg, the founder of Food Truck Empire.

We interview successful founders and share the stories behind their food trucks, restaurants, food and beverage brands. By sharing these stories, I want to help others get started.

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