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One Restaurant to Go

Adventures in Curbside Catering


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They had no reason to notice the man entering the hospital. Richard Bertucci was making coffee in their food truck; his sister Karen Papalia probably was huddled inside the truck's cab trying to get warm.

But when the man ran back out of Northwestern Memorial waving a bloody knife, Richard and Karen got a good look. He had just picked up the knife in the salad room off the Passavant cafeteria, where he worked, cornered his supervisor in his glass-enclosed office, and stabbed him nine or ten times, leaving him for dead.

The man ran right at the food truck, a posse of hospital security guards in hot pursuit. They tackled him and piled on and in a few seconds it was all over. That dreary February morning in 1984 went back to normal.

"As they were hauling him away, people were coming up to us. We thought they wanted to know what happened," Richard remembers.

They didn't. "How about a coffee?" the first one asked.

"That's typical," says Karen. "If there's one thing I've learned on this job, it's that people don't want to stop and talk to you. They just want to grab their food and get out of here."

"How about a black coffee?" some guy shouts. "What's good that's hot?" someone else is saying.

Richard Bertucci, 24, pushes a cup of coffee into a brown bag, takes the change from an extended hand, spins to flip open the hot-food container in the back of the truck, calls out what's inside: "How about a ham and cheese, sausage, we got good Italian beef."

Today their truck's at the very same place--the northeast corner of Superior and Fairbanks. They've been here since they went into the business four and a half years ago. It's not the worst location. The hospital's staff and visitors come by here, plus students from Northwestern's medical, law, and journalism programs, plus office workers from surrounding buildings. And now that Northwestern is building a research center on the corner, there's a steady flow of construction workers.

"A lot of trucks have 15 to 20 stops a day. Stay here 15 minutes, go there for 20 minutes, come back for a half an hour," says Karen, who's 29. "I'd just as soon stay in one spot. It might not be as busy as going from place to place, but you don't have to pack everything up every 15 minutes. You're not driving around in the snow and the ice or the rain, taking out the cream, taking out the sugar."

When he turns around, you can see "Eddie Burke" stitched onto the back of Richard's jacket. "It's my brother Charlie's jacket. He got it for helping out the Burke organization in some fund-raiser."

So you've got friends in high places? "Nah," Karen says, "We don't know anybody. Otherwise, we wouldn't be at this corner.

"We could get some good stops if we knew some people. If we got on the Park District property or something like that, or McCormick Place, or O'Hare."

Karen glances over her shoulder at Geno Kaman. Geno, their helper, is covering cans of soda with ice. Now he's grabbing a brown bag for some lady's egg salad sandwich.

Geno is always watching, watching, watching. But they all do. The truck sits here every weekday from dawn past noon, and all three of them have to see to it that nobody walks off with the profits.

The truck is small, a converted Chevy Custom Deluxe 30. There's room for three to sit comfortably in the front seat. The sides flip open to display an array of cold foods and snack items; the back flips up to expose foods kept hot by propane gas.

This is a Thunderbird truck, leased for the day from Theresa Schaffer, the woman who owns the city's largest mobile vending company. Her late husband John started Thunderbird Catering about 40 years ago. Today the company has about 160 trucks on the city's streets.

A Thunderbird truck costs between $40 and $75 a day to lease, Karen says, depending on its age and condition. An extra $13 covers the price of ice. To get a good truck, you have to be there early in the morning.

By 3:30 AM, Richard and Geno are trudging around their Bridgeport apartment. By 5, they've not only leased the truck from the nearby Thunderbird plant at 35th and Racine but also picked out the food and loaded it up, and now they're on their way to Streeterville.

Karen, who lives with her husband in Forest Park, meets her partners by 7 AM at the corner. When they're done for the day, Karen drives to her husband's body shop, C-W Motors, and helps him late into the evening. "I know, the hours are crazy," she says, "and I'm looking for better."

Richard carefully backs the truck out, blocking traffic just long enough for another mobile vendor to take the corner. The other driver--from a small company called Mama Charlie--always waves. "They buy their food from Thunderbird," says Richard Bertucci. "So, they're part of the family."

Then Richard and Geno head back to Thunderbird, where the truck sits overnight.

Mobile vending is a lucrative industry that deals strictly in cash, and the two companies that virtually monopolize it in Chicago don't think their profits are any of our business. One company's Thunderbird; the other's Triple A Services Inc., with about 125 trucks.

Four years ago, the Chicago Crime Commission set up a sting operation by posting a truck at a certain Chicago street corner. A truck from one of the giants came by and the undercover operatives thought this would be it: they'd be told to move on, they'd be threatened, and then they'd have evidence that would stand up in court. Instead, the driver of the second truck got out, made a telephone call, and minutes later two First District policemen were at the scene telling the Crime Commission truck to move.

"We figured, how can you fight this when the police are in on it," says someone familiar with the operation. Also frustrated by the catering companies' woeful records, the Crime Commission turned its file over to the state's attorney, whose organized crime unit was looking over the industry. But there was never enough evidence to warrant indictments.

In addition, the Illinois Department of Revenue has tried to prove the caterers were underpaying their sales tax by a million dollars or more. Again, they couldn't make a case.

Last July, the late Mayor Washington proposed an ordinance to ban the vending trucks from an area roughly bounded by Congress, Grand Avenue, Wacker Drive, and Lake Michigan. The city's intervention was prompted by a number of skirmishes over territory, culminating in a fistfight between drivers from Thunderbird and Triple A over a choice spot on LaSalle Street outside Traffic Court.

"This is the second time in recent years that the city has tried to legally ban mobile vending units," says Joel Sprayregen, an attorney for Triple A.

Last year the police began cracking down on trucks parked near restaurants, citing a city ordinance that forbids mobile vending units within 200 feet of a business providing a "similar service." But the vendors went to court, and Circuit Judge Thomas J. O'Brien threw out the prohibition. O'Brien called it "vague and unenforceable."

The industry has flourished despite the attempts to regulate and diminish it. There have been 307 mobile vending licenses issued this year, according to the City Clerk's Office, against 285 in 1986. Each license costs $60. No other operating fees are required by the city, but the trucks are subject to inspections for health and safety.

"There are so many odds against you," says Karen Papalia. "First of all, you have to get up at 3 in the morning, and be at the catering house by 4 because we open up down here by 5:30. We have to make the coffee, load all the doughnuts, get all the sandwiches in the morning, and then drive here, set everything up. Then we're not always sure a spot's going to be there. Usually we wait until seven o'clock and usually somebody from the hospital's night shift is just getting off so we move into that spot.

"If it's raining, you have to cover everything and not as many people come. If it's snowing, we put up our tent and the heater, and everything's blowing away."

What about your feet? "The feet are always frozen. You can never do anything about your feet or your hands. The wind really whips up. One year, I got frostbite really bad, where your fingertips turn black, and your toes. Last year, we bought a small propane heater, but when it's really windy it keeps blowing out. It can't get wet or it blows out."

Has it ever been too cold to go out? "We were here once and the windchill factor was 70 below," she recalls. "The entire truck was frozen. The pop was exploding on the sides. The doughnuts were frozen. We stayed out for five hours. We had to keep ice on the soda to insulate it. The whole back of the truck where it steams from the coffee was one sheet of ice."

For all this, Karen and Richard split between $75 and $100 a day in profits.

"What's good about it," she says, "is you're more or less your own boss. If you wanted to stay out later and make more money you could. If you wanted to go somewhere else when you left here, pick up a construction site, or maybe try your odds parking downtown for a half hour, you could.

"The weather really takes a beating on you," she says. "When you're outside in the cold, it's ten times worse. You're really tired once you get into a warm place. You just collapse and you don't want to stay out later.

"The summer's the same thing. The heat really wears you out."

There's a funny thing about Karen. She always comes back to the weather, no matter what topic you're on.

Karen Papalia married into Thunderbird Catering. When Karen met Lou Papalia, she was a receptionist at a stuffy Loop law firm and he was part owner of a catering company that operated out of the Thunderbird plant. He heard the truck at Superior and Fairbanks needed a driver and asked her if she'd be interested. Karen was. Richard, who was doing odd jobs then, agreed to help out.

"Thunderbird has a commissary. You order every night what you want and you get your order in the morning," Karen says. "They do all their own baking. The food's pretty expensive there. You can get it cheaper at Jewel's."

So, why don't you? "You're really not allowed to buy out from other sources. A pound of coffee is $4.40. I could get three pounds for $5 at Dominick's, but if you're caught buying out, you can get into big trouble. You might not get the truck again. You might be out of a job. And they know their own stuff, they have their own coffee in specially marked bags.

"The soda's really expensive, it's like $7.40 a case, and by the time you add the $13 a day for ice, you're making $12 back on a case. Everything on the side of the truck, all the cold sandwiches, the soda, the chips, you don't make any money on it, nickel and dime. You'd have to sell ten cases to make like $50."

The real money-maker is the coffee. Richard makes fresh coffee about five times a morning, sometimes putting cinnamon in it or a little chocolate to cut the bitterness. It costs a quarter to produce a cup of coffee--that includes the price of the cup, cream, sugar, bag--and they sell it for 50 cents.

They sell sandwiches for $1.50. They pay $1.35 for most of them, so they make only 15 cents on each one.

Diet Coke is their biggest seller.

What does Karen eat off the truck? "After looking at it all day, I'm not sure I want any of it," she says.

Rich eats everything off the truck. He loves the Italian sandwiches. "They're the best value," he says. "Other trucks charge $3.50, $3.75. We're still getting $1.50. For ten years it's been the same price. We haven't raised our prices. We raised the price of doughnuts a dime."

"By the time you give a customer a napkin, a bag, a straw, you're talking a lot of money spent on those things," says Karen. "We pay extra for that, too. The bags are $6.50 for 500, sugar is $12 for a thousand, or maybe it's two thousand packages. Someone will come up and order a small coffee and want a dozen packets of sugar. Once in a while, depending on who it is, I'll say "I'll give you six and charge you a nickel for the rest.'

"You lose money on it. But then, some people just want black so you make it up that way.

"A lot of people take advantage. I've had people come up and ask to put condiments on their own sandwiches that they brought from home. I don't mind it if I know them or they buy a pop or something. They're just walking by and they want to use the hot sauce or they want some tomatoes and onions, they grab a straw and a napkin."

What happens to the food that's left over? "Once you take it out, you own it. So if you don't sell it, you have to give it away or throw it away, as far as the hot sandwiches go. The pop and the chips and all that, that stays."

Sometimes, they leave their extra sandwiches in the truck and the guy at Thunderbird who washes the truck down gives the sandwiches to a night driver. "Or sometimes Geno takes some home."

Richard found Geno Kaman one day at the Pacific Garden Mission. "We needed some help at our house, like steam-cleaning some carpeting," Karen explains. "My dad used to always go down there and pick some guys and let them work for him by the day. So Rich went down there to get someone, and Geno looked pretty good. He turned out to be a good worker. We had an extra room and he didn't have anywhere to go, so we asked him if he wanted to stay, and that was it. He lives with Rich during the week and he stays with me on the weekends."

What about Geno's family? "He has one brother in Hungary, that's all we know. He came to the U.S. in 1957, worked odd jobs, worked for a steel company for a while, and got injured. He has one arm that's disfigured, and he may have gotten some money from that. But he became an alcoholic and ended up at the mission."

"We've tried to rehabilitate him," Richard says. "When we first got him, every other week he'd take off and Geno would get drunk, get into fights with people. He was in the hospital for about two months one time at Christmas. He was beaten up on the bus. All his friends can't believe how we've turned him around. You could say he's like an uncle to me now."

Richard yells at him a lot. "Geno's the type--he knows what a Coke is but he comes with a Pepsi, that's how he is with everything," Karen says. "You'll say 'Geno, get me a Pepsi' and he'll come around with a 7Up. You could just kill him sometimes."

City health inspectors come around maybe once a month. "They come right out of the filtration plant on Grand Avenue and our truck is practically the first stop," Karen says. "They look for outdated food, make sure you have a sink on the truck, a retaining tank to hold excess water and coffee overruns. We got a ticket one time for not having individual cans of soda priced. We still haven't priced it all. It's too much work.

"You can get a ticket for not having ingredients on the package of doughnuts. If you get a good inspector and he sees the truck is clean, he'll let some things pass."

Then there are the beggars. "I figured, if they're hungry enough and they're willing to work, I say 'Listen, I'll feed you but you're going to have to sweep over here.' And most of the guys say OK. They clean up, and I give them a sandwich and coffee.

"But when they come up and say 'You got to give me a sandwich' I just say I don't have to do anything. I've had to throw a couple of people out.

"We get drunks early in the morning," Karen adds. "But we never call the police. We don't even think they'd come."

Richard says he can smile at anybody but the police. "They hassle us. The police will pick up a doughnut, ask for a coffee, and they'll turn around and walk away. They won't say thanks, good-bye, can I give you a dollar? It's like you're supposed to give it to them. It got to a point we were feeding 30 policemen a day.

"We've been there for four years steady. For the first three years we put up with it. We got to a point we told them we had to start charging them. Ever since then we've been having trouble.

"They'll come up and make sure we're not more than six inches from the curb, that we have money in the meter, that we're on the meter, just anything to aggravate you to death."

Last July, there was that fistfight outside Traffic Court. "The 18th District decided to put the pressure on everybody," Karen says. "They had a 30-minute meter law they were enforcing. You can't park at a meter more than 30 minutes. So we had to move the truck. We had lines of people, in the dead of summer, and the police come up, saying "Move!' Where are we going to go? We don't have any other spots. We lost big money because we didn't know they were coming. You buy $300 worth of food and they kick you out. Where are you going to go?

"We switched places with the guy on the next block. We played musical trucks for a while. We went to Huron, went to Erie. You lose a lot of money in setup times, customer confusion. His truck opens on the other side and our truck opens on this side. He puts the cream and sugar in the coffee, I don't. It was a big mess."

When the City Council License Committee met to discuss the new ordinance, Rita Fry, an assistant corporation counsel, said violence among drivers had escalated to the point that the public could be in danger. "It's gotten down to guns and knives in a couple of instances," said Fry.

The police agreed with her. Central District Commander Robert Casey created a new foot patrol to watch food truck operators during the morning rush hour. "It costs me two men five days a week," says Casey.

The proposed new ordinance would forbid the trucks in the center of the city and within 100 feet of any church, library, courthouse, police station, government building, museum, or hospital. But after the License Committee voted unanimously to recommend passage of the measure, Alderman Burton Natarus spoke up. Natarus, in whose 42nd Ward many of the trucks operate, pointed out that the food vendors hadn't had a chance to testify. Anyway, he said, his favorite food truck near Traffic Court serves up a great cheese sandwich. The City Council kicked the measure back to committee for another hearing.

"The media was reporting only what the police and the restaurant owners were saying," says Joel Sprayregen. "We knew we had to get our side out and get it out fast."

Triple A hired a PR firm--Kraus Dunham Nikolich--to blitz the media with press releases.

"The proposed ban is unconstitutional because it singles out a specific business," Sprayregen was quoted as saying. "We are fighting protectionist legislation that would destroy a legitimate business."

Thomas Whennen Sr., president of Triple A, was described as a man who had worked his way up from a hot dog truck to owner of the company. A driver, Andrew Trubowycz, was reported to say, "I left Poland because the Communist government was putting us out of business. Now this government wants to do the same thing to us here."

General contractors provided letters hailing the food trucks as an invaluable asset to the construction industry in downtown Chicago.

The strategy paid off. Newspaper editorials denounced the new ordinance; and when Whennen showed up before the License Committee bearing a petition with more than 6,000 signatures, it was clear the tide had turned.

Even the reclusive Theresa Schaffer showed up to add her testimony: "Over 200 Chicagoans, mostly minorities, immigrants, women, owe their livelihoods to our small business. Multiply that by the other Chicago companies providing the same service and we are talking about well over 1,000 jobs which are a result of the mobile food catering industry.

"We make no claims to perfection," Schaffer went on. "We are a service industry, and in all such endeavors probably mistakes have been made. But, please don't put us out of business."

After five hours of testimony last July 28, the chairman of the License Committee, Alderman William Henry, said a subcommittee that includes representatives of both sides should be formed to rewrite the bill. And nothing has happened since.

Andrew Kelly, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, refers to Thunderbird and Triple A as the mobile vending equivalent of Yellow Cab and Checker Cab.

"They've monopolized business. They hire independent contractors and get them between the company and the law. You superimpose on that a very complex, unenforceable law and you find that these two large, large corporations are insulated from obeying the law, which says that mobile units cannot pull up in front of restaurants and existing businesses and use public thoroughfares to sell food any more than a guy can pull up in front of a Marshall Field's and sell suits, or pull up in front of One Magnificent Mile and compete against a gynecologist whose office is in the building.

"You can't do your business on the public streets. That's the issue and that issue has gotten muddied up in terms of who it is on one side and who it is on the other side.

"We love these mobile vendors," Kelly says. "Obviously we're an industry made up of brothers and sisters who have gone into business for themselves. All we're saying is that it is unfair to have somebody invest their life savings in a restaurant and then to find out that a gypsy can come up and pull in front of their restaurant, cream off the business, and then leave during the hours when the business is not as heavy. They can come in and from 6:30 in the morning until nine o'clock, compete for that coffee and doughnut business, leave, and come back if they see another rush at noon.

"The restaurant owner is stuck with property tax. He's also made a commitment to the community, whatever community that is. So we have been strongly opposed to the concept of using the streets for selling.

"We say if it's going to be done at all--which we believe it shouldn't--then it should be given to the guy who's already made an investment, who has toilets, who has hot water.

"We're saying these mobile units should be banned."

"Free enterprise," says Richard Bertucci. "That should say it in a nutshell. They asked the restaurant owners at the hearing what they made and they grossed $8 million a year--$8 million and a catering truck is hurting them! I don't see how it's hurting them. As far as where Karen and I are concerned, we leave at 12:30. Most of the restaurants in our area aren't open for business until lunch, so we're not hurting them.

"You can have 60 restaurants in Chinatown next door to each other, but you can't have a mobile truck doing business downtown in the Loop. Does that make any sense?"

Besides, "Most restaurant owners started this way, on a truck, pushing a hot dog cart. They did the same thing we're doing. It was right for them, but not for us."

"We were conned out of money one time--$300," says Karen. "One of our customers that we know really well, he comes every day. One of his friends came down with him one day and asked if we wanted to buy a VCR and a TV for $300. We said sure. He said he works at the Radio Shack on Michigan Avenue, so we said, yeah.

"He said come in the store and pick out whatever one you want, and I'll give you my price--$300. So, we said all right. We drove him to the store after we were finished and he goes up to the store with Rich. He told Rich to look around and pick out what he wanted, and he went out the back and got the $300 from me. He told me Rich is coming down with your stuff. He said 'Give me the money,' and I did. Well, he was gone. He never even worked in the store.

"Rich came down about 45 minutes later and asked 'Did he ever come back?' I said no. We just looked at each other and said I can't believe we got robbed.

"So when we saw that guy the next day," Karen says, "we wanted to know what happened. 'Cause we had asked him if he knew that guy and he said 'Yeah, he's a buddy of mine.' So we said 'What's the story here? This guy robbed $300 from us.'

"He said 'Oh, I only see him once in a while. You know, he's from the neighborhood.' We never pressed it. We never reported it to the police. We just chalked it up as a loss."

"A lot of stealing goes on at the company," Karen says. "You can't even turn your head or they'll rob your truck at Thunderbird. The other drivers, they'll rob you blind. You bring a knife and you're cutting your cake, you turn around and the knife's gone. You'll be on one side of the truck and they're robbing the other side.

"One guy was stealing my hot water because he's too cheap to turn on his propane gas. There's a lot of cutthroat stuff going on in there."

The Chicago Crime Commission thought so too. Its interest was piqued in 1983 when Michael Spiotto, partner of Karen's husband, Lou Papalia, was gunned down on the south side. Spiotto and Papalia owned Best Catering, in which Theresa Schaffer also had an interest. A fusillade of gunshot blasts greeted Spiotto as he left his girlfriend's apartment. His 1981 Mercedes-Benz was found nearby.

"Mike was in a motorcycle gang," Karen Papalia says. "After Mike was killed, Lou said 'That's it' and sold the company to Theresa Schaffer."

Spiotto's slaying was described as the fifth since 1976 that could be linked to the mobile catering business. The violence actually dated from May 1975, when a bomb exploded in Theresa Schaffer's empty auto. Nobody was injured.

Two and a half years later, Richard Crofton, 47, manager of Thunderbird, was slain gangland style by two masked men outside his garage. Schaffer told police someone called her with a death threat two hours after that slaying.

Police speculated the Crofton murder was linked to three others, including the death of Rita Payonk, 31, of Oak Park, who was found shot to death in her auto on February 5, 1976. Payonk was a bookkeeper for La Hacienda Del Sol restaurant, then owned by John and Theresa Schaffer.

Patrick Healy, executive director of the Crime Commission, said authorities told him that Payonk's death was narcotics-related, and he said that drivers of some catering trucks might be selling narcotics and parlay cards for organized crime.

The other murders possibly tied to the mobile vending business were of John Lourgos, a former Chicago policeman slain in April 1977, and former Chicago police commander Mark Thanasouras, killed in July 1977. They were associated in a restaurant venture, and police said Lourgos frequented a north-side Chicago restaurant where he met drivers and employees of Thunderbird catering.

One day after Spiotto was killed, DeMar Thorton and his wife Norma were found shot to death in the bathroom of their Bellwood home. DeMar Thorton owned E & D Catering, which did business out of 28th and Christiana Avenue, also headquarters of M & S Catering. There'd been a suspicious fire at the plant that March, and the previous July the owners of M & S had complained to authorities that they were targets of an extortion attempt. Patrick Healy of the Chicago Crime Commission says the message was for M & S to stop supplying small, independent truck owners who didn't want to buy from one of the two giants.

"There's not much room for democracy in the mobile catering business," Healy says. "You buy your supplies and food from certain people, and that's it."

All the investigations came to nothing. "I would say they're fishing expeditions," says Joel Sprayregen. "Fishing for some impropriety, but none comes up."

Police later reported that the Thortons had been killed in a robbery unrelated to any "war" in the mobile catering business.

Karen Papalia has left the truck.

She went into the hospital last month, and when she came out she went to work full-time for her husband Lou, managing his body shop and looking for a building to lease so he can open another one.

"I like it here in the winter," says Karen. "In the summer it might be different. I might go back to the truck."

On the truck, she says, you are your own boss.

Richard Bertucci replaced his sister on the truck with his older brother Charlie. But Richard thinks he'll move to Hawaii next April. "My grandmother lives there," he says. "I have an uncle who lives there. I figure, I'm still young, all my brothers are in their 30s, they're all married with kids and they wish they would have done something. I'm a little more adventurous."

Besides, he says, "I'm really tired. I am so tired of being tired. This business is doing me in."

When he leaves, Geno Kaman will live full-time with Karen. "Geno's part of our family," Rich says. If Karen's still at the body shop, Geno will work there. If Karen's doing something else, Geno will do it, too.

At some point, says Karen Papalia, she wants to open a restaurant. If she acts soon enough, maybe Rich will even stay to help her. She hopes so.

"He's good with people. He's good to have around. One day, a woman was upset when she came up for coffee. She said she just saw somebody jump from the Lawson YMCA on her way to work. A jumper. Rich kept her there for a long time, just talking to her. He knew she wanted to tell someone.

"Another time, a girl came up with a pile of books, crying. Rich asked what was wrong. She threw the books down and said she was fed up with Northwestern. She was taking the bar exam and got propositioned by one of the examiners. Rich picked her books up and her purse. He said 'Don't worry about it. Do you think ya passed?'"

"You know," Karen says, almost wistfully, "Rich, he makes me laugh. You know where he goes when it's too cold out and we need to get a break? He goes to the coffee shop at Passavant and has coffee. Coffee! I say to him 'Rich, aren't you sick of coffee?' But he never is. He's better at it, I think, than I am."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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