Cloudy with a Chance of Meatyballs

Aliya Ram

On rainy spring days just before noon, the sidewalks of the University of Chicago campus are usually quiet. Occasionally, activists stand on corners collecting signatures, or companies like Zipcar and Monster promote their products with free giveaways, though most passersby are too busy to pay them any mind. Yet in the past few weeks, one sidewalk attraction has started to gain attention. On certain days, an average-looking pickup with a brushed stainless-steel food cart attachment parks along 57th Street. The name of the cart is emblazoned on the side of the cab: “Meatyballs Mobile” has arrived.

If the name “Meatyballs Mobile” doesn’t already give a sense of the truck’s marketing strategy, a glance at the provisions makes the aim clear. Offering an intriguing medley of subs and individual meatballs, the menu ranges from buffalo chicken “buff balls” to the vegetarian-friendly “veg’ta balls.” Though shape isn’t typically a way to classify cuisine, Meatyballs somehow makes it work.

According to Meatyballs truck driver Rich Levy, members of the UofC community and other South Siders appear to be enjoying the fare. “This is our third time at the UofC, and it’s really been a positive experience each time,” he says enthusiastically as a line of customers braving a dreary Friday formed nearby. A small menu circulates through the small crowd, as Levy recommended his favorite sandwiches and praised executive chef Phillip Foss’s most recent additions to the list.

Most of the sandwiches, called “torpedoes,” consist of a few round pieces of meat and a smattering of vegetables, all dressed in a housemade sauce. The truck currently offers six standard options and a rotating special. For those seeking a smaller snack, individual “grenades” of meat are available alongside “Truffle Dusted Potato Chips” and “Chocolate Salty Balls.” The prices, unfortunately, are a little higher than your average Subway sandwich: one standard torpedo will cost you $7-$9. But Meatyballs’s food is so good it’s well worth it to bypass the fast food chain and take a chance on this four-wheeled sub shop. Meatyballs has a gourmet pedigree: Foss served as executive chef of the Palmer House’s Lockwood restaurant until last August.

While the unique style of Foss’s menu sets Meatyballs apart from other mobile canteens, the company is following trends and strategies that have proven successful for other food carts around the country. Meatyballs uses social media to alert customers to their daily locations, and this has been a key factor in their success. Through Twitter and Facebook, the drivers make quick, public announcements to inspire their followers to find them on the street or to suggest new locations. Fans can even use the trail of Tweets to follow the three existing Meatyballs trucks as they traverse different corners of the city in real time.

Whether set up outside of the Regenstein Library on the UofC campus or at the intersection of Dearborn and Monroe, the Meatyballs trucks seem to be enjoying a measure of success wherever they travel. “Often we’ll show up five minutes late to a corner and we’ll already have a line of hungry customers waiting for us,” Levy says, delighted by the new following Meatyballs has cultivated.

If the truck that has begun parking itself at 57th and Ellis is representative of the company’s operations on the whole, then it is easy to see Phillip Foss’s business model as a recipe for success. His employees are friendly and approachable, brimming with charm and quick to answer any questions customers might have. They attract a publicity buzz through effective use of social media, and they follow up with a great product. It’s a combination that their customers–whether bespectacled UofC students or those working on the Mansueto Library construction site–can really savor.

“We’d love to keep coming back, we’ve had great experiences here,” said Levy. Hopefully Chicago’s record gas prices–the nation’s highest–won’t create problems only a brick-and-mortar business can beat.

Follow Meatyballs online for their current locations around the city at meatyballsmobile.com