When Leah Wilcox drives her truck down city streets, she often whips residents into a frenzy, sending grown adults giddily fleeing after her. But make no mistake, Leah is no ordinary Chicagoan. She’s the chef behind Babycakes Gourmet
, Chicago’s only pancake-peddling food truck.
On the cusp of its third year, Babycakes has amassed a catalog of over 200 original pancake recipes, along with legions of fans to hunger for them. On any given day, Leah and her Babycakes cohorts can be found throughout Chicago, serving up piping hot cakes in flavors ranging from sweet and simple to savory and adventurous.
“Surprisingly enough, the savory pancakes are some of our best sellers,” says Leah. “I have a sausage and cheddar pancake that has a garlic-biscuit base. I also make a Mexican tamale pancake with a cornmeal base—and then there are the pizza pancakes that people seem to love.”
With our interests piqued and our mouths watering, we made our way to the kitchen, intent on catching sight of the Babycakes magic at work. While Leah whipped up pancake after pancake in Artichoke Melt with Italian Cheese and Basil, Rootbeer Float with Angel Food Cake Swirl, and Red Velvet with White Chocolate to name just a few, we got to the bottom of the Babycakes story.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about how Babycakes got its start?
I was in culinary school, thinking I’d start a personal chef or party-planning business. Then, I spontaneously got the idea for the truck and decided to go down a different road. When I bought my truck, there were only about a dozen food trucks on the scene. Now, there are around 50.
Q: What was the reaction from family and friends when you told them that your new business plan was to buy an old truck and sell pancakes exclusively from it?
Oh! They thought I was insane, honestly [laughs]. You know, as a creative type, I always thought that there was going to be that one idea for me, like the guy who invented shoelaces—something that would just change my life forever. So when I had the idea for Babycakes, I came home to tell my boyfriend and I was like, ‘I finally have the idea! Don’t laugh. Pancakes on a food truck.’ And of course, he started laughing. That was basically the reaction in the beginning. But I was able to see the scope of this idea right away.
I always thought that there was going to be that one idea for me, like the guy who invented shoelaces—something that would just change my life forever. So when I had the idea, I came home and I was like, ‘I finally have the idea! Don’t laugh. Pancakes on a food truck.’
Q: Why pancakes?
Originally I decided on pancakes because of the cook-on-board law. [Ed. note: Given the red tape around cooking on board in Chicago, Babycakes cooks out of the shared commercial space, Kitchen Chicago. The company then stores its cakes in commercial warmers, ensuring a piping hot and fresh delicacy delivered from food truck to belly.] I saw food trucks as a burgeoning industry and knew pancakes held very well. They don’t lose their flavor or texture. That was just part of the reason, of course. I also became obsessed with reinventing pancakes altogether [laughs]. Now I’ve come up with over 200 original recipes for different flavors.
Q: How does inspiration for a new flavor strike?
Sometimes it’s just something that I eat, even something random like a soup at a fine restaurant. I’ll like the combination of flavors and think, ‘Ohh, I can put these into a pancake!’ Other times, I’ll create a recipe for another dish entirely—like a jalapeño shrimp garlic appetizer I made recently and think, ‘This would be really great in a pancake.’ It’s often just thinking about flavors and how they play off one another. But I’ll also take classic recipes like tiramisu and pink lemonade and make them in pancake form.
Q: What’s the response been like around Chicago?
It’s been really good! When I first started, I knew that people liked pancakes, but I didn’t know that they were insane
for pancakes. I mean, sometimes, we’ll drive the truck down the street and grown adults will literally start screaming ‘pancakes!’ I think it’s because pancakes remind them of their childhood. It’s not something that you have as an adult very often. So I think people get really excited about them, which obviously is great for business!
Q: How often do you yourself eat pancakes?
Not very often! I do taste them, obviously, but I find myself eating them for a meal pretty rarely. You always want what someone else is serving, so we do frequent food trades with the other trucks. We’ll trade for the craziest things: Like I’ll trade curry for pancakes and the curry guy will go home with our pancakes for dinner, and I’ll enjoy a curry dish. The chef from Kuma’s Corner will come out and bring us burgers so that we can give him pancakes. I feel like he doesn’t always want burgers—and we don’t always want pancakes, so it works out nicely. Of course, I do taste all our pancake flavors for quality control and while I’m testing new recipes.
When I first started, I knew that people liked pancakes, but I didn’t know that they were insane for pancakes. I mean, sometimes, we’ll drive the truck down the street and grown adults will literally start screaming ‘pancakes!’
Q: So it sounds like there’s a real community amongst food truck owners. We love that!
Yeah! The [food truck scene] in Chicago is still small, so it’s not very competitive. I feel very lucky to have this community, especially because we help one another. A lot of things go wrong when you’re mobile: We’ve had other trucks give us jump starts or bring us gas. Our truck is pretty old, a 1975 Ford. It’s probably a former ice cream truck and it’s pretty rickety. Being such a small community, we all know our [fellow] food truck owners and we occasionally have meetings. It’s not easy being a food truck in Chicago, especially given the crazy weather. So it’s nice to have each other.
Q: What’s next for you and Babycakes?
I hope to get a restaurant space eventually and a cook-on-board truck. I think having the flavors wafting out the window is really a big pull for customers—and it’s a smart new business model. You can do a little of both. There are so many places around the city where there are office buildings, but no restaurants. Or, in the summer, people will plan events and parties outside and there may not be access to food. So, it’s great that we can take food to them. The downside to having a mobile business of course is that customers can’t find us every time they want to. So, I feel like having a retail space with the truck would be the best of both worlds. I’m [eager to] serve customers where they are—and have them also come to us.
Hungry for pancakes? We’ll meet you at the Babycakes truck! Leah and her team keep their schedule and the day’s menu posted online. Stay in the loop through Twitter and a constantly updated Google calendar you can find on the Babycakes website, ensuring you always know where to find some of the best pancakes in Chicago.