Patsy the Pastymobile stands out among her gas-guzzling colleagues (most photos courtesy of Bridgeport Pasty)
Although they are beloved by foodies, mobile food trucks are generally not the most environmentally-friendly business model in the world. Most food trucks are big vehicles that use plenty of gas just getting from place to place. They usually have noisy, smelly generators on them to keep the food hot. And a lot of the time the staffers have to run the truck and the generator while they’re selling the food, just to keep their power going. And if they’re cooking on trucks (currently illegal in Chicago but likely to become legal soon) it requires even more power. So conventional trucks are probably less “green” than a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
When Bridgeport Pasty owners Carrie Clark and her husband Jay Sebastian wanted to do things differently when they decided to roll out a vehicle to sell pasties (“pass-tees,” not to be confused with the “pace-tees” worn by burlesque performers), large, savory pies that are the national dish of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. On a recent bike tour in the U.P. I developed quite a taste for these hearty pastries, consuming three of these nearly football-sized pies in one 24-hour period.
The Bear Trap tavern, Melstrand, MI
Clark and Sebastian initially wanted to sell their homemade pasties from a cargo bicycle. After City Hall shot down that idea they opted for Patsy the Pastymobile, a GEM (Global Electric Motorcar) vehicle. This tiny, all-electric truck with a top speed of 26 MPH and a range of 30 miles on a full charge. The truck runs on nine 8-volt gel batteries that recharge via a 72-volt DC charger which plugs into a wall outlet. Sebastian calculates that Patsy costs 1.5 cents per mile in electricity to operate, whereas an SUV or small truck that gets 14 MPG costs 29 cents per mile in gasoline. A large food truck probably gets even worse mileage.
Many Grid Chicago readers may know Sebastian as the drummer from Twang Bang, a folk/garage/psychobilly duo that used to perform on Critical Mass aboard a human-powered quad cycle. I caught up with him via phone to discuss the history of the pasty, the story of how he and Clark launched the business, and the environmental benefits of the GEM.
Twang Bang on Critical Mass – Sebastian is in back
In a nutshell, or rather a pastry shell, what’s the history of the pasty?
The pasty comes from Cornwall, England. It was originally the fast food of the tin miners. Their wives would bake them and put them in their husbands’ lunch pails. The miners would take the pasties down into the mines and they were good in that they would stay hot for hours at a time. Another advantage was they could eat them with their fingers by holding them by the crust. And their fingers were covered with arsenic so they would throw the crust out afterwards. Supposedly the discarded crusts would appease the spirits of the dead miners, known as tommyknockers. They were already dead so the arsenic didn’t hurt them. And then the pasty migrated with the miners to the U.P.
How did you guys get the idea to start a business selling pasties?
We were riding our bikes around London a couple of years ago at Christmastime and we saw pasty stands, and little kiosks in the train stations. Their stations just put Chicago to shame. There are little flower shops, gift shops, food stands and decent little grocery stores. I’m not sure what the rules are about eating on the train. Here that might be the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) complaint would be that people would be eating them on the ‘L’, but there might be ways to get around that. Because in CTA stations you see empty spaces where there must have been businesses before – it seems like a missed opportunity.
I digress, because we’re not going to sell pasties in the stations anytime soon. But when we saw pasties in London we thought, this would be hit in Chicago because it’s their equivalent of deep-dish pizza or a Chicago hotdog. It’s fast, and you can eat it while you’re standing up and not make a mess. And it’s hearty, for those big Chicago appetites we’re supposed to be known for.
Why kind of pasties are you selling?
What we have right now is the Yooper [the nickname for a U.P. native.] That’s beef, potato and rutabaga, in the tradition of the Upper Peninsula. Our Chicken potpie is exactly what it sounds like, with a little more spice. And we have a veggie, which is a spinach and mushroom.
You guys were originally going to sell pasties from a cargo bike. What happened with that?
I bought a three-wheeled Worksman. I bought it brand new from a guy up in Madison for $300 – they’re usually about a grand. I drew up some plans where we had a little hand washing sink and a propane canister to keep the food at a safe temperature. I took it all in to Consumer Affairs and Business Protection and they said nope, no bicycles. I said, if bikes are supposed be treated like vehicles – no cell phones, no texting, stopping at stop signs and everything – why can’t you treat this as a vehicle. And they just said, no bicycles. The Worksman is still sitting in my basement if you know anyone who’d like to buy it.
So how did you get the idea to use a mini electric food truck?
I had looked at tuk-tuks, those crazy little taxicabs they use in Indonesia and India. I looked at Cushmans, which are the little three-wheeled vehicles meter maids used to use. I couldn’t find a good deal on any of those and it’s also difficult to get them licensed. And then I spotted the fact that Illinois just changed the laws in January to make [GEMs] street legal. It’s called a “low speed vehicle,” although not all low-speed vehicles are electric. The GEM has a limited range and you can’t take it on the expressways or Lake Shore Drive. But then again nowadays you can’t take Critical Mass on the drive either. After looking at different options the GEM was the greenest vehicle [that could legally operate as a food truck] I could find.
Passenger’s view from a Bangkok, Thailand, tuk-tuk
You charge the batteries by plugging the charger into a wall outlet, so you’re using electricity that probably comes from a coal-powered plant. Is that actually greener than if you were just running on gasoline?
Absolutely. Compared to a vehicle like the Chevy Volt [hybrid car] which gets the equivalent of about like 100 miles to the gallon of gas, the GEM doesn’t require anywhere near as much juice because it’s smaller, lower-profile and lighter. So it might get the equivalent of 150 or 200 miles to the gallon, in terms of how much fossil fuel is being used to charge this thing as opposed to gas.
Is there a hand washing station on your truck?
Yup, it’s all legal, City of Chicago licensed. The pasties are kept at 150 degrees plus for food safety. That actually uses a small amount of gasoline – there’s a turbine that heats it. And that takes about a gallon for six hours of use. We keep a container at home.
Inner workings of the GEM electric car
One idea I think could be phenomenal is that this truck can operate indoors, for a Bike Winter event or an art show, or any event in a building with a loading dock. The little bit of emissions from the turbine I just run outside with a hose. So I think there’s a lot of potential for indoor food trucks.
Is there much movement among your colleagues to move from gasoline-powered trucks to electric-powered trucks?
I think they envy us only in that we can park a lot easier than they can.