Meatball dreams in the West Loop
12/05/2012 10:00 PM
A cornucopia of West Loop restaurants vie for the attention and affection of hungry hipsters and tourists. The stakes are high and competition is fierce among the nearly 120 bars, bistros, cafes listed in 2012’s “Discover the West Loop” brochure.
One year ago, Anna Caterinicchia waded into this fray, with no restaurant experience but a strong will to succeed. And just to make things a little more challenging, she chose, as the venue for her foray into the food service business, a food truck.
Caterinicchia is a 44-year-old West Loop resident who spent 20 years working in a corporate environment, the last five as the director of project management for General Growth Properties. She sat at a computer and was the fixer, the go-to person who could complete any project on schedule, on budget, and on time. However, all the planning, preparation, and discipline she can muster counts for very little in the unpredictable, competitive, and highly regulated world of food trucks.
The birth of Getta Polpetta!
One victim of the economy in 2011 was General Growth Properties.
“It was an awful environment toward the end,” Caterinicchia said. “It was palpable in the hallways at work. I’m a product of the 1980s corporate structure. I was the responsible one, always did what was expected of me. Then, they eliminated my position.
“I had a little money saved, and while I was out riding on my scooter, I saw a mail truck for sale. I bought the truck and went into this totally blind, but I thought it would be my dream job — no more computer and desk, get to spend more time outside. And, as a kid I wanted to have a hot dog stand.”
Caterinicchia bought the truck for $7,500. She already had two marketable products: her mother RoseAnn’s famous meatballs and her aunt Francine’s shortbread cookies. Next, she needed a clever name.
“My best friend Jennifer’s daughter goes to Whitney Young High School where she takes Italian. We were brainstorming and I yelled out ‘how do you say meatball in Italian?’ She answered ‘polpetta!’ So we started calling out ideas and finally arrived at ‘Getta Polpetta!’ And it just stuck.”
The decision to buy a food truck was like “totally jumping off a cliff. But everything clicked.
A tough city to run a food truck
The Draconian food truck regulations in the city of Chicago make you think it would be easier to sell pulled pork in Tel Aviv or shaved ice in Wasilla.
There’s the parking restriction, with a limit of two hours at any spot. You can’t park within 200 feet of a restaurant (if your truck only sells cupcakes, you get a 100-foot advantage). There’s even a division of the Chicago Police Department whose sole responsibility is to make sure food trucks are working within the regulations. Let’s say the Little Italy-based Flirty Cupcakes food truck accidentally parks 99 feet from a restaurant and someone notifies the police. That’s a $2,000 fine, or 600 more cupcakes to break even.
“They make it tough,” Caterinicchia said. “It’s been exciting to have my own business. But the way the city treats us makes it disheartening.”
If Caterinicchia could predict how many meatball sandwiches she’d sell on a given day, she’d be in heaven. The former project manager was all about control in her corporate job. The fickle nature of consumers and the unpredictability of sales is the new reality she faces every day.
On one night, she prepared 100 sandwiches to sell near UIC but only sold 20. But outside a festival this summer, she sold 1,000 $8 three-meatball sandwiches in no time.
“It’s a much different business model than if you’re a caterer, where you can plan exactly how much to cook, how much you prepare for each event,” she said. “I have a lot of costs and little way of assuring a profit.”
The next chapter: TBD
Caterinicchia would be happy surviving in a tough business a year from now — when she’ll be celebrating Getta Polpetta’s second anniversary. But she loves the independence of the food truck, so mainly she’d be happy to make a decent living and not wipe out her savings.
Recently, Getta Polpetta generated several hundred new followers when Caterinicchia participated in a Check, Please! food truck event at WTTW. It meant giving away free food for three and a half hours, but public relations is part of the game.
For now, Caterinicchia plows ahead, cooking, marketing, driving, hustling, doing whatever it takes to succeed. One meatball at a time, she’s focused on doing it right.
“We spend a lot of time rolling meatballs,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like it’s that hard, but it is to get it perfectly round.”