The whole freebie cupcake thing was wearing on Patty Rothman.
"I'm ready to start selling," Rothman, owner of More Cupcakes, 1 E. Delaware, said Thursday as we headed for the Willis Tower. She was at the wheel of the sleek More Mobile, not the city's first cupcake truck but most certainly the Mercedes of them all (literally -- it's a Mercedes Sprinter, outfitted with a battery-powered generator).
This was the fourth day of Rothman's week-long promotional push for the truck -- the fourth day of handing out thousands upon thousands of free cupcakes to sometimes perplexed but mostly delighted pedestrians.
At her two-year-old store and on the truck, each cupcake will sell for $3.50. "We handed out 500, 600 in 12 minutes by the Wrigley Building," said Rothman, a lithely built, red-haired mother of five. She didn't want to do the math, didn't want to think about the possibility, or impossibility, of recouping all of that.
"We're convinced the whole world knows about us, and we come down here and people see us and say, 'Oh, are you new?' So we're really looking at it as the cost of introducing ourselves. We're thinking of this as launching an ad campaign," she said as she drove south on Wacker, approaching the Willis Tower.
"It's funny," she continued, "when Sprinkles came to town, our business went up, insanely up. We probably tripled our value in the first week." (Sprinkles is the Beverly Hills-based chain that opened just around the corner from Rothman's shop in July.)
On Tuesday and Wednesday, while Rothman was out on the truck, her shop completely sold out of cupcakes, she said.
Like the handful of other food trucks out on the streets now, Rothman announces her whereabouts on Twitter and Facebook. It's her tweeting -- her iPhone sat in her cupholder, and her laptop rested in a groove on the dashboard. During our drive, she checked her phone to see how many new Twitter followers had come in.
Rothman did a U-turn to face north on Wacker; at the corner of Wacker and Jackson, a middle-aged guy holding his cell phone waved and yelled out, "Where are you going to park?"
"I was waiting for you!" he said after Patty and her assistant-on-board, Lyndsey Knauf, parked and lifted up the window. He walked away smiling, a cupcake box (Chinese takeout container, actually) in each hand, one for him, one for his wife.
It was just past 4:30 p.m. We were parked in a no-standing zone, the Willis Tower looming above us. The wind whipped hard. It took some convincing by Knauf to get people to stop; some didn't. An Argo Tea employee ran up to the truck, wearing no coat but carrying two warm teas in hand. "Can I do a trade?" he asked.
Surprisingly, it took nearly 20 minutes before two security guards approached and politely told Rothman to move. We were on our way quickly, but not before Rothman gave them each two cupcakes.
Heading west on Madison, we glided into the taxi loading/unloading zone in front of the Ogilvie Transportation Center. People walked briskly to catch their train, but soon enough, a small crowd formed. What is this?, they wanted to know. Who are you? What flavors do you have? Upon learning there were two flavors, red velvet and chocolate, some asked for one of each. Knauf cheerily obliged.
The "More" name struck a chord with one woman, who gasped, "Oh, yours is the best red velvet I've ever had!" She asked Rothman about ordering a dozen for an upcoming party.
"We've picked up a lot of catering business," Rothman told me later. "I'm counting on a lot of that."
Another woman wanted to know if the truck was on a regular schedule. "Because we're government employees. We have breaks from 10 to 10:15, 2 to 2:15 and lunch from 12 to 1," she said.
"That's good to know," Rothman replied. Later, to me, she said it again -- good to know. You could see her wheels turning.
En route back to the shop to load up on more chocolate cupcakes, Rothman acknowledged this was all still a work in progress. She's picked the brain of Matt Maroni, owner/driver of the Gaztro-Wagon naan-wich truck and a leader in the effort to revise the city's regulations governing mobile food vendors.
"He was like, 'Always pay for your parking spots, and go to Ravenswood and practice parking in the smallest spots,' " she said.
She is working out where to park the truck at night, what the truck's hours will be, how logistically they will stock 12 flavors as promised, whether they'll need another production facility.
But, she added, she envisions adding a second truck that will work the suburbs. "I tend to think this will end up doing better than our store," she said firmly.
At the last stop of the day, in front of the Wrigley Building, three tween boys approached tentatively. "Free cupcakes?," one said. "You made my day!"
The van was cleaned out of cupcakes in 21 minutes -- a little longer than usual, Rothman said.