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U. of C. boasts thriving food truck scene

Chicago may have just awarded its first on-board cooking license to The Salsa Truck last week, but the city still has a ways to go before it sees a vibrant truck scene like the ones that can be found in cities like New York or L.A.

Luckily, the University of Chicago has its own thriving mini-food truck scene, thanks to a stretch of road near the school on Ellis Avenue and University Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets--and the power of Twitter.

Avi Schwab, who works at the University of Chicago as a web project manager and college support specialist, has been tracking food truck visits to the university on his Twitter account @uchiNOMgo since October of 2011. He first opened the account just to keep track of the trucks for himself, but as his list of followers grew, he realized he could use Twitter to make sure the food truck craze didn’t miss his South Side neighborhood.

“Hyde Park has always been one of these places where we’re either totally on top of things or we just get totally left out,” Schwab said. “There have been a lot of really big trends in the city that don’t get to the South Side. So it became ‘I’m going to try and leverage this to get the trucks down here.’ ”

Throughout the morning until lunch hour in the afternoon, Schwab tweets and retweets the locations of food trucks around campus in real time. More than a year after Schwab started tweeting, he has 1,743 followers and has tweeted 3,825 times. He said sometimes as many as 15 trucks will visit the stretch of Ellis Avenue in a day during the warmer months.

Chloe Atchue-Mamlet, a 19-year-old computer science major, said she doesn’t have to keep track of the food trucks on Twitter because of how consistently they are on campus. All she has to do to see what food trucks are out is to look out her bedroom window.

She said U. of C. is a great place for food trucks because everyone on campus is usually very hungry--and very busy. She and her friends will usually stop at the trucks between 12:30 and 1:30 in the afternoon, a time when the dining hall is usually a nightmare.

“It’s so nice to have a bunch of relatively inexpensive options with hardly any wait,” Atchue-Mamlet said. “When I’m in a rush and want to finish up some work from my 1:30 class, I get lunch from a truck, take it inside, and work. It’s very convenient, and the food is so much better than we usually get.”

U. of C. students aren’t the only regular customers visiting food trucks on campus. Joe Scroggs, owner of The Roost food truck that specializes in fried chicken, said the staff from the university hospital also make up a big section of his customer base.

“The stretch on Ellis is right by the hospital, right by the bookstore,” Scroggs said. “It’s sort of like the crossroads for a bunch of different institutions, which makes it a great spot, and I just haven’t found that at other universities.”

U. of C. is the only Chicago campus Scroggs visits regularly. He said he’s tried to stop at other Chicago schools, but U. of C. is by far the best campus for both parking and the availability of foot traffic.

Schwab said the university is also an ideal spot because of its distance from downtown--where food truck owners face a number of parking restrictions--and because of how supportive the university has been of the new mobile businesses.

“The people I’ve talked to in the administration are really happy to support these new, small businesses,” Schwab said. “Basically, their take on it is--as long as they’re safe, park legally and don’t disrupt traffic or pedestrian flows, they have no immediate concerns.”

“I’ve seen people from high levels of administration go out to the trucks; I see the college students out there; community members, visitors--it gets a really interesting crowd,” Schwab added. “The campus is a nice relatively free place--knock on wood--that trucks can come, do their business and serve their food without being harassed.”

Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.

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