Korean beef tacos; ham, apple, and fontina cheese sandwiches; wood-fired pizza topped with prosciutto and arugula — all available from a food truck near you.
Mobile food vendors have come a long way from the purveyors of yore serving up cellophane-wrapped sandwiches to line workers on their lunch break. Today, in a trend that’s taken hold nationwide, many food trucks cook fresh, creative fare. More than a dozen mobile vendors can be spotted around metro Detroit, selling everything from beignets to pierogi.
Metro Detroit’s food-truck scene got off the ground just last year. For some businesses, the truck is an expansion of a brick-and-mortar operation; for most, it’s a low-cost way to incubate a concept. The number of scheduled rallies, where multiple trucks host an event together, is about double this year over 2012, and individual trucks can also be found at farmers markets and public events.
The local movement can be traced in part to Scott Steigerwald and Carl Patron, friends who, facing retirement and seeking a project, started Ned’s TravelBurger in 2011 and formed the Michigan Mobile Food Vendors Association in January 2012 to ensure proper licensing and inspections for participating members.
“We didn’t know much about the restaurant business except that restaurants have, like, an 85 percent failure rate,” Steigerwald says. “So we decided to investigate the mobile-food industry. We found a truck, made it beautiful, and started serving food.”
Ned’s TravelBurger serves 7-inch-long sandwiches, made from Michigan grass-fed beef and buns baked at Holiday Market, out of a 1946 aluminum Spartan Manor Trailer.
Shortly after getting started, the duo connected with Daniel Gearig, who, with his wife, Lindsey, was busy rolling out El Guapo Grill, which serves quirky Mexican food (like those Korean beef tacos), and the Mac Shack, which specializes in some imaginative takes on macaroni and cheese.
Patron and Steigerwald invited him to join the MMFVA, and more trucks and carts soon followed, including Green Zebra (gourmet sandwiches and salads), Jacques Tacos, People’s Pierogi Collective, Concrete Cuisine (creative comfort food), and Franks Anatra (hot dogs and sausages).
Shortly after forming, the group approached Shelly Mazur, market manager at the Royal Oak Farmers Market, about holding a rally in the building.
“We were hoping for 500 to 800 people,” Mazur says. “More than 4,000 showed up.”
“That was the beginning of the food-truck rally movement,” Steigerwald says. The association began holding the rallies monthly at the Royal Oak Farmers Market (you’ll still find them there every second Wednesday), and anywhere that would have them.
Many food truck owners bring decades of experience in the food industry. Green Zebra’s owners used to work in catering at Forte and Holiday Market; Concrete Cuisine’s owners are culinary-school graduates and veterans of the Lark and Marriott; the owners of Corridor Sausage, which just debuted a food truck, met while working at the Whitney.
Gearig, a former caterer to film and video sets, is now manufacturing the trucks, and says he’s motivated by his own love of street food, cultivated during global travel.
“I’ll never forget my first day in Bangkok — outside my hotel window I saw a little soup cart,” he says. “I paid $2 for pork ball soup and sat across the table from people who could not have been raised different from me, and it was great. I wanted to bring that to Detroit.”
Whether you’re fresh to the food-truck scene or a seasoned street-food eater, you’ll enjoy sampling who’s new (or nearly new) this year.
Hamtramck-based Beignets, owned by Michele Pearson and Mark Hausner, draws inspiration from the food of New Orleans, a frequent destination for the duo. (Beignets, a French pastry, took hold in Louisiana in the 18th century.)
“When we were out in New Orleans in the late hours, there was this place you could always go and get some beignets and coffee, 24 hours a day,” Pearson says. “We thought, wouldn’t it be great to have something like that here.” They spent a couple of years perfecting their recipe, and it’s paid off. Already the truck is luring patrons from up to an hour’s drive away.
Corridor Sausage, which began in 2009 selling its concoctions to restaurants and at farmers markets, debuted a food truck, Grindhouse, in early May. Co-owner Will Branch says the company wants to serve a product that you can’t find anywhere else. “When we started, we knew we’d have an Italian and a brat,” he says, “but we also wanted to do a Thai curry and a Vietnamese sausage, too. Not necessarily traditional sausage flavors, but big flavor combinations that carry through in sausage.”
Rollin Stone Wood Fired Pizza is the work of Jim Combs, who turned his love of homemade pizza into a mobile unit, serving up wood-fired pies that cook in a copper-mosaic-tile-wrapped oven in just 90 seconds. Rollin Stone serves up a Neapolitan-style pizza, ordering its flour directly from Italy. “Our goal is to use the best ingredients,” Combs says. “Once people taste the quality and freshness of our food, they want more.”
The Pho Truck is Gearig’s latest creation. Pho is a Vietnamese dish made of broth, rice-based noodles, herbs, and meat, usually beef or chicken. Gearig has been selling pho on the Mac Truck and says it routinely sells out. He also plans to open a bricks-and-mortar pho joint in Detroit. “The Pho Truck will reflect the heart and soul of a southeast Asian food truck,” Gearig says. “We want to keep it very simple and all about the food.”