Food Truckers: Inside Michigan’s Burgeoning Food Cart Experiment

By | June 28, 2012

Interviews
The Silver Spork food truck in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Photo by Stephanie Harding courtesy Silver Spork)Food carts aren’t just for working stiffs anymore. And you won’t only find them in big cities. Across the country, food cart culture is getting so sexy, it might be at risk of becoming a hipster cliché. But in contrast to some of the West Coast states that embraced the food cart revolution years ago, running a food cart—or bigger yet, a food truck—in Michigan ain’t easy. Just ask Leslie Narsisian-Voss: A mother of five, who, for the last several years, has been paying her daily permit fees and wading through the complex set of laws that govern Michigan food cart culture to bring a $5 falafel sandwich to the faithful in Traverse City and Grand Rapids—the latter of which just approved new, controversial food vendor regulations that have the city’s food truckers up in arms.

And you thought food cart culture was as simple as a Koegel on a steamed bun.

Earlier this week, we got this food cart veteran to dish about Michigan’s evolving food vendor scene, what she thinks of the new GR law, why she doesn’t hate hipsters, and how she breaks in “falafel virgins” (hint: she lets them watch). (Photo credit: Stephanie Harding, courtesy Silver Spork)

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Leslie Narsisian-Voss and her beloved Pita Pitstop food cart

Leslie Narsisian-Voss and her beloved Pita Pitstop food cart in Traverse City.

Found Michigan: So I guess the food cart thing in Michigan is getting big enough where you might call it a “scene.” What’s your take on it?

Leslie: Well, the thing about food vending is that every single community has a completely different opinion about it. And it goes from wildly excited to completely put-off and angry. For instance, Traverse City right now is working on doubling its daily street vendor’s permit from $50 to $100. I think they’re concerned about sunglass vendors and all those people that come for festivals setting up and selling their ten dollar shades, and taking away from the two sunglass stores downtown—you know, that kind of thing. So I actually don’t think I’m the reason for the change. I don’t park near restaurants—I park in these vast places where there’s a lot of people that don’t get fed. I’m not even slightly bothering any other business owner. But I think I’m rare because I think the new movement is more like C’mon, get over it—free enterprise, man! We should be able to park in front of a restaurant, even though we pay nothing. So the scene is very much a mixed bag. But it is frustrating for a vendor, because every single time you want to go anywhere, you have to dig and read and try to figure out what the rules are.

FM: And what are the rules?

Leslie: Well, like I said, it’s different in every community. But in Traverse City, for instance, the city has jurisdiction over everything. You can only park on private property; you cannot park on any government property—beaches, parks, whatever. So you have to find a landlord that will let you sit there; and maybe they’ll charge you rent, maybe they won’t. However, even if you’re on private property and you have permission of the property owner, you will pay the city $50 a day in the summer and $50 a week in the winter.

FM: Wait a minute—so before you even start, you have to literally scope a piece of property that you might want to set up on, then find out who owns that piece of property, and then cold call them to see if they’ll let you vend there?

Leslie: Yep, that’s exactly what I’ve done countless times.

FM: Wow.

Leslie: But then in Grand Rapids, the other place where I vend, they have a totally different take. They’ll only allow the little carts downtown—no big food trucks—and you have to be in one of 13 designated zones. But their fee is $246 for the entire year! And you can go out there anytime you want, until like three in the morning or something—with certain restrictions during festivals. And if I had a second cart, it’s only $22 more per year. In order to vend in Grand Rapids with my little cart, though, I just found out I have to make the tow hitch on my cart removable to comply with their safety regulations. In fact, I just got back from a welding shop where I was talking to a guy about doing that! So, you know, like I said, every city is different.

FM: And Grand Rapids, they’ve just passed some new laws about food vendors, right?

Leslie: Yeah, well before, food trucks weren’t allowed in the city at all. Just the little carts, like traditional hot dog carts. And now they’ve made this lovely proposal—and it passed last week—which allows you to park your truck in the city. But as I understand it, it involves a bunch of complicated and potentially expensive permits, and still only allows you to park on private property, and only if you have permission from the property owner. So it sort of defeated everything that the food trucks wanted, which—I get the feeling—was complete freedom: you know, to be able to park most anywhere.

And I’m not really sure I totally agree with the whole “complete freedom” thing anyway. You know, if I put a few million dollars into a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and I was paying property taxes, and you park in front of me on a festival day because you can—I don’t think that’s goodwill to anybody. On the other hand, I understand that everyone needs to step up their game. And some of the people that are against the food trucks, these are old-money folks that have been raking it in for years in their restaurants. And they don’t want to look at pricing—at value—on their menus. They don’t have that passion anymore. So these young people come in with the passion, and they become more interesting to the customer. And to those more established people, I say: Tough rocks. You need to wake up and understand this economy is tight and people don’t always have $20 for lunch, and give people what they want. Or don’t be angry when someone comes in and does give them what they want.

Molly Clauhs' Silver Spork food truck in Grand RapidsFood Trucks in GR? So are food truckers on their way to Grand Rapids? The short answer: Maybe. Last week, the Grand Rapids City Commission voted to allow food trucks on private property in the downtown area under certain—and arguably prohibitive—restrictions, but stopped short of giving food truckers the change that they say could really help their businesses: carte blanche access to city streets. “I’m getting a lot of people saying ‘Congratulations!’” says Molly Clauhs, owner of the Silver Spork, a Grand Rapids food truck. “But it’s like saying ‘Congrats, you broke your foot; at least it wasn’t your leg.’” Vendors and their followers worry now that the city will consider the issue resolved and stall on comprehensive food cart policy that eases tensions between food vendors and brick and mortar restaurateurs. “I’m sure in a couple years they’ll look at it again,” Clauhs says, “but a couple years is a long time when you’re a young entrepreneur.”

FM: Well said. And for you, you’ve actually been able to make a living at this, right?

Leslie: Yeah, well last summer, when my husband Pete lost his job, his unemployment and my falafel cart—working two days a week for three hours a day—paid all our bills. And we’re better off, financially, than we’ve ever been. And that’s just with my little cart. But I like my style. I like the fact that I can tell another person who has a passion about food and the perseverance to jump through the hoops, how they could do it. You can’t really say to somebody from the window of one of these cute, fancy food trucks: You can do it, too. You can’t—because it’s maybe $80,000 for the truck. But I can walk up to somebody and say that for under 10 grand, if you love what you do, and you love the people you serve—you can make a living. And I love that. It feels like I have the best of all worlds.

FM: So when people think of food carts these days, they probably think of young hipsters in skinny jeans lining up to get their vegan sandwiches. And not that you’re not hip, but you don’t exactly fit the mold. Do you ever roll your eyes at those folks?

Leslie: Ha! You’d think I would! But I’ll tell you truth: When I bought my cart three years ago, I never Googled food carts; I didn’t touch the internet. I just went to Craigslist and I just bought a freakin’ hot dog cart. I didn’t know it was cool. And the guy delivered it from Urbana, Illinois—this beautiful black man; half Indian, half African American—and we spoke for two hours in the rain in my garage after he dropped this thing off after a nine hour drive. I was so excited. And the next week, I went online and I typed in “food carts.” And up came the first article about—of course—Portland, Oregon. They had 450 food carts! And I got chills from head to toe knowing something that I knew I would love and that I could work hard at, was actually something that the country was recognizing and that smart innovative people were doing. And I thought, What the hell?! I’m an old lady with postpartum depression!

FM: [Laughs]

Leslie: So no, I don’t roll my eyes at anyone. I love them all. I eat at other people’s food trucks, and I just enjoy everybody. Some of the craziest people come up to my cart. And I love every one of them, from every walk of life. And the trendy ones? They’re just making my job easier.

FM: So Leslie, one more question. Even though food carts are “in” now, they really are kind of a relic of the past. Do you find that people don’t know how to act around them? Like, are people shy about approaching you?

Leslie: Ha! Well, it’s a total mixed bag. But I’m sure that a lot of customers do not come because they’re shy. But the shyer ones, sometimes I can warm them up and they become regulars. It helps that they can see how I make the sandwich and that makes them more comfortable—that they can watch the process from a safe distance of three feet away. Plus half of my customers seem to be what I call “falafel virgins.” Up in Traverse City, especially. But once they’ve tasted it, honest to God, they become my slaves. It’s just frightening—I have stalkers! You know, you just have to try my sandwich.

FM: Well, we’re glad to see that it has pickled turnips on it.

Leslie: Oh yeah? Well, I’ve got four buckets sitting right here in my dining room that are just marinating in garlic and look so good.

FM: So you make your own?

Leslie: What—are you from the Health Department? I refuse to answer that question.

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Leslie Narsisian-Voss runs The Pita Pistop, a falafel cart you’ll find roaming the streets—correction—occupying officially sanctioned spots in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Find out exactly where by following her on Facebook.

 

So are you a food cart virgin? Time to get that monkey off your back. There are literally dozens of food carts and trucks operating now in cities across Michigan. Here are some good places to start.

Mark's Carts in Ann ArborAnn Arbor

Food cart heaven in Ann Arbor is a cement courtyard behind Main Street called Mark’s Carts: a little oasis of eight different food carts specializing in everything from artisan grilled cheese to wood-fired pizza to Asian street food. What Mark’s might lack in the charm that comes with hunting down a roaming truck, it makes up for in dependability: plus, plenty of seating, something for everyone, and even live music on the weekends.

What the Truck in Grand Rapids, Mich.Grand Rapids

Despite the ongoing debate about mobility restrictions, GR remains one of the food-cart-friendliest cities in Michigan. Two favorites include What the Truck, which serves pork tacos, breakfast burritos, and other treats, and The Silver Spork, with a menu of seasonal gourmet soups, smoothies, sandwiches and pastries (a signature dish: the Mitten Bagel, made with locally sourced smoked whitefish, watercress, red onion, capers, tomato and cream cheese).

El Guapo Grill in DetroitDetroit

Food-on-the-go has been a part of Detroit culture for many years, from the stalwart taco trucks of Mexicantown to newer enterprises like gourmet coffee purveyor Urban Grounds, whose cute, vintage red kiosk has been a fixture in Campus Martius since 2008. The mobile part of mobile food vending in Detroit has been tricky, though: For a long time, ancient laws prohibited trucks from operating on streets within city limits. The first truck to clear that red tape was El Guapo Grill, a slick black truck serving fresh Mexican fare like cilantro jalapeno lemonade, pork belly confit, and fish tacos. Since then, other trucks have entered the scene in the metro area, including Green Zebra (elevated American street food; fresh-made chips, fried green tomato sandwiches, shortrib grilled cheese), Concrete Cuisine (creative gourmet eats like fried calamari sandwiches and cinnamon-sugar sweet potato fries), and, the winner of our unofficial Best Name for a Food Truck Contest, the Peoples Pierogi Collective (serving—you guessed it—all manner of pierogi). To sample the best from these vendors without driving all over metro Detroit, keep an eye out for upcoming food truck rallies at Ferndale’s Rust Belt Market and Detroit’s Eastern Market.

The Purple Carrot in Lansing, Mich.Lansing

Food carts are nothing new in the capital, where the El Oasis food cart has been dishing up authentic Mexican eats–sopas, tortas, tacos, and tripe–for seven years. Newcomers include Trailer Park’d, focusing on locally sourced ingredients in “slow fast food” like chorizo tacos, burgers, and ribs; and the adorable Purple Carrot food truck, dishing up a Michigan-centric, farm-to-table style menu of fresh foods, like strawberry soup, Oberon ham and cheese, and chicken bahn mi.

 

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3 Comments

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Leslie on July 1, 2012 at 4:09 pm.

FM, you did a wonderful job on the article about MI food trucks. We owe you!!!!

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sonja on July 27, 2012 at 2:01 am.

I justed wanted to thank you so much for your article. I am attempting to start a food truck business in metro Detroit. I had no idea that Michigan is so far behind in the current trends. I ‘m ready for the fight to get my truck on the street……thanks for the information.

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