Pictures by Anne Sorenson
It housed a catering business in Arizona. It served up Vietnamese sliders in San Francisco. It saw companies rise up and fail, and then it collected dust in a garage. In 2012, it traveled across the Rocky Mountains to a commissary on the South Side of Chicago to be gutted and transformed into another restaurateur’s vision.
Today the black step van is parked along a curb in Chicago’s loop, pushing exhaust into the cold morning air as businessmen and construction workers hurry up to the welcoming window of the Eastman Egg Company Food Truck.
Maybe they ordered a Scoundrel, layered with locally farmed turkey, spinach, cheddar cheese, and an egg, drizzled with from-scratch spiced honey mustard and enclosed in a soft pretzel roll. Maybe they came for a steaming cup of coffee, a local brew from Humboldt Park roaster, Dark Matter.
One thing is for certain: the truck, the customers, the employees and the carefully crafted egg sandwiches would not exist without Hunter Eastman Swartz. Armed with an economics degree, no previous food industry experience and the black step van that traveled the country, Swartz has been bringing breakfast to the streets of Chicago since 2012.
The idea first struck Swartz, 29, while he was working as an investment and equity banker at Goldman Sachs in New York City and San Francisco.
“When I looked at the people that were 10…15 years older than me and saw what they were doing, I didn’t want to be them. I always wanted to be the person we met when we were trying to make an investment,” Swartz says. “When I was meeting a CEO, and she was telling me about her business and why it mattered, who her customers were and what she was doing for them, I wanted to be her.”
As business strategies circulated in his head, breakfast always fell front and center. As a member of the Yale rowing team during his undergraduate years and a current triathlete, Swartz sings the praise of breakfast as the most important meal a little louder than most. He fondly recalls memories of enjoying breakfast with teammates in the dining hall after a grueling morning practice. He also says the difference between a hurried morning investment meeting without breakfast and a morning that started with a bite to eat is easy to identify.
“Getting people a better breakfast means they have a better day and ultimately we have a better world,” Swartz says.
The green light for bettering lives through breakfast came in June 2012, when Chicago changed its food truck laws, allowing restaurateur’s to cook on-board. Previously the law mandated that all food served be pre-cooked and packaged, stymying the vision of a truck that serves fresh cooked breakfast.
Swartz had recently moved to Chicago to attend business school at the University of Chicago, keeping his food truck vision in the back of his mind. When the law changed, he realized that he could make his dream a reality much sooner. The ability to cook the eggs from scratch on-board, creating a fresh breakfast sandwich that aligned with his vision, gave Swartz the final push to get the wheels of his new truck rolling.
The main roadblock Swartz faced in opening and operating the Eastman Egg Company was gaining enough capital to purchase, renovate and maintain the truck. Enter Smartwater and GQ. The two companies had partnered on an advertising campaign in search of the “Smartest Man Alive”, where contestants with an entrepreneurial vision could enter their ideas for a business. Swartz entered with the vision of building a better breakfast company that would change the way people start their days, he says. He became a finalist, competing against a stroke awareness campaign and a mobile banking company for Haiti. When the votes were tallied, Swartz came away with the title of “Smartest Man Alive” and $50,000 in seed money to begin spreading his breakfast message.
A key component of the “better breakfast” concept lies in liaisons with the right vendors, which accounts for a large portion of Swartz’s day-to-day routine.
“For us, it’s about picking vendors that deliver on quality and do that the right way,” Swartz says.
The truck relies heavily on local sustainable ingredients such as meat from Slagel Family Farms in Fairbury, Illinois, and bread from La Farine Bakery in Logan Square. Swartz emphasizes the importance of finding ways to deliver these high-quality products to Chicago, without getting drawn into food snobbery and sustainability buzzwords that often plague companies with similar visions.
“Our goal is to create a sandwich that you can trust,” Swartz says. “We try to build our sandwich with as few ingredients as possible. So you have a really great tasting sandwich, but it’s not overcomplicating it.”
The other key to Swartz’s success lies in the team he has assembled to run The Eastman Egg Company. He currently employs a roster of 10 workers ranging from high school age to 40, equipped with the skills to produce breakfast curbside each morning. When speaking with Tyrone Williams, Jr., a 35-year-old shift lead on the truck since August, it is clear that a team is exactly what Swartz works to maintain.
“He makes you feel like you’re not going to be working for him but you’re part of a team and he’s a part of the team too,” Williams says. “He’s not only your boss, he’s a team player.”
Swartz makes it clear that he wants success for his employees, both inside the company and out. He recalls that his brother’s first job was scooping ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s, a job that was a stepping-stone to greater things. Swartz has taken it upon himself to be that stepping stone for his employees.
“I want [my employees] to have to leave the Eastman Egg Company after five years because you’re so qualified and so talented that you can go run whatever you want,” Swartz says. “That’s what we really want to get to.”
The vision he has for his employees to do something that they are passionate about is reflected in his own life and his dedication to the business he has created.
“I think he thinks about this 23 hours a day and the other hour is for his wife,” says Drew Davis, 26, Chief Operating Officer at Eastman Egg Company. “He has an incredible drive to be successful and do things well.”
After leaving Seattle, where he grew up, Swartz majored in economics at Yale and entered the career force with a job at Goldman and Sachs, which brought him to New York, London and San Francisco. Throughout all of this his mind continued to churn out business ideas. A recent venture was a technology company called Verko, which aimed to teach young people how to network beyond the resources offered by a career services office. While it didn’t work out and is still awaiting a patent, Swartz has never slowed down on the road to creating business models.
Still, the greatest success on this road has been starting Eastman Egg Company. In recent months Swartz and his colleagues have begun exploring opportunities to expand the business, including a storefront location on Wacker Drive this summer.
But today, the great monument to his entrepreneurial success, the black step van, remains the sole incarnation of Swartz’s better breakfast model. Braving the cold, Chicago workers and tourists reach up to the window not only for a warm and hearty sandwich to start their day, but for a piece of Swartz’s vision, to improve lives by starting their day right.
“I’ve always wanted to change the world… build something and make a difference,” Swartz says. “For me, that is the Eastman Egg Company.”