Food trucks have a long, storied history, particularly in larger American cities with dense clusters of employment and lots of foot traffic. But over the past few years, they've become increasingly popular in smaller cities and towns as well. These days, it seems like every decent-sized Michigan community--particularly if there's a college or university within its borders--has at least one mobile food vendor.
Getting a food truck off the ground is a bit cheaper than opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, so it's a natural first step for culinary entrepreneurs with more talent than money. But as it turns out, it's not a walk in the park. I worked in the food business for years, and I can attest to the blood (well, hopefully not literally), sweat and tears that go into every taco, sandwich or bowl that you order through the window of a truck, cart or trailer.
Then again, whipping up made-to-order food at farmer's markets and office parks has a lot of benefits too: flexible hours, frequent scenery changes, and lots of person-to-person interaction. I caught up with three Michigan food truck owners and got the scoop on how they got into the business, what keeps them going, what's in store for the future, and how you don't have to grow up with a particular cuisine to do great things with it.
Who Says You Can't Go Home?
Mike Walker, who along with wife Teri Lynn owns Marquette's wildly popular Dia de Los Tacos food truck, has been around. A lifelong musician, the U.P native moved to the Detroit/Ann Arbor area in 1993 to be part of a music scene that he describes as "[just] as explosive as Seattle had been a few years earlier." Over the following 15 years, he joined a succession of bands based there, touring the region as much as possible while working restaurant jobs to make ends meet.
Despite a run of locally successful albums, Walker's mid-2000s marriage to Teri Lynn refocused his energy. "We were looking for something different," he says, and "the Pacific Northwest seemed like the place to be." So they packed up and headed for Portland, hoping to make it big in a music scene that produced such indie groups as Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse and the Dandy Warhols. But it wasn't all they'd dreamed of, "so we packed our rucksack full of broken dreams and came back home to Marquette," he says.
And as in so many happy endings, Walker and his wife found their calling in their childhood stomping grounds. Setting their musical dreams aside for the moment, the couple hatched a plan to open a restaurant in town. Before leaving, Walker worked in the Marquette Ramada's kitchen, so he wasn't unfamiliar with the emerging U.P. culinary scene. But money was tight, so a brick-and-mortar operation remained out of reach.
A bittersweet break came with the death of a close family member, which gave them the financial breathing room necessary to put their dream in motion. When Teri Lynn found a used food truck in Wisconsin, the couple pounced on the opportunity, driving down the next day and paying cash on the spot. Everything was gravy until the truck's engine gave out on the drive back. It took "two weeks and $3,000" to get the crippled vehicle back to Marquette, where it needed some more repairs. But Walker's employee Chris Moore--whom he affectionately refers to as his "crew chief"--has kept it in good working order since.
With a well-outfitted truck, Walker set about devising a menu that honored the "simple, delicious and cheap" taco. The former resident of Detroit's Mexicantown has always loved tacos, and the neighborhood's "hole-in-the-wall taquerias were just mind blowing," he says. "It was a real eye opener for me...so many great little spots just cranking out amazing tacos."
He's brought that same no-frills passion to Marquette and received an overwhelming response from the community, at least in part because DDLT is the city's first mobile taqueria since, well, ever. Since opening about two years ago, he says, "Marquette has been unbelievable," citing online polls in which the outfit was cited as one of the country's most popular and innovative food trucks. One differentiator is something that doesn't get a lot of press around town: DDLT has "the only 100 percent gluten-free menu, that we know of," in the area, says Walker. And he and Teri Lynn have learned a few things along the way, notably QuickBooks. Turns out running a food truck isn't all rock & roll and tacos.
What's next for Dia de Los Tacos? "We fantasize about opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant," to get through Marquette's long, cold winters, says Walker, but such plans aren't imminent. Most winter days, the taco truck can be found making its usual rounds, unless the temperatures get too dangerously low for customers to stand outside, which happened a few times last winter.
The recognizable blue truck would factor prominently into the restaurant's marketing campaign, in any case, though the menu would expand somewhat. For now, they're keeping it lean. "Our belief is that if you keep your menu small and focused, you can execute better tasting, fresher foods more quickly," says Walker. And that makes for a happier food truck owner.
The Next Step for a Lifelong Love
Simon Joseph, owner of the Roaming Harvest food truck and restaurant, has been working in food service for an even greater share of his life. The native of Onekama, Michigan, has been a huge booster of the Traverse City culinary scene since day one. But until recently, he was frustrated by what he saw as a glaring hole in its offerings.
"Given our notoriety as a food town it just made sense that a strong street food culture needed to be added," he says. After all, "food trucks are very much like brick-and-mortar restaurants except for the dining room."
So after making a name for himself in a succession of cooking jobs around town, Joseph took the leap. He bought the No. 12 delivery truck in the Model Coverall (a Grand Rapids-based company) fleet, christening it--what else --"Old Number 12." Unlike the Dia de Los Tacos crew, Joseph had to refurbish the truck and add all its cooking equipment. He quickly found a home at the Little Fleet, Traverse City's booming "food truck cluster."
Thus far, Old Number 12 has held up well. Once the heart of Joseph's culinary empire, it now serves as a nice complement to Roaming Harvest's newer physical location, known simply as Harvest. The restaurant offers an opportunity to keep cash coming in during the cold months, when Joseph shutters his truck. Its small menu is similar to the truck's, but both change often, so you never know quite what you'll find.
Indeed, Joseph's approach is a bit more scattershot than Mike Walker's, though he's no less devoted to top-notch cuisine and relentlessly sources fresh, hyper-local ingredients. "I just focus on what I want to eat or learn how to cook and go from there," he says. "Typically if I'm having fun it turns out pretty good."
Seems like his customers are having fun. In the three years that the truck has been operational, Roaming Harvest has "been welcomed by the community" in a "way that never ceases to amaze me," says Joseph. That's the best part of the job, hands down.
But there are challenges too, he says, citing practical limitations like water--the truck only holds 35 gallons, enough for no more than six hours of operation--and high temperatures in the cooking space. Weather is a limitation as well: Joseph shuts down when it's raining and typically puts the truck away after the first snowfall of the year.
What's next for Simon Joseph and the Harvest/Roaming Harvest crew? For the time being, the focus is on working out the kinks of running a physical restaurant. But next year's food truck season is right around the corner, and who knows what that will bring.
Don't Call It a Truck
In the heart of the mitten, Brandon Morey and his wife Katie found themselves wondering the same thing a few years ago. Neither worked in the food service business--Brandon was a nurse's aide at a local nursing home, a somewhat depressing gig that "made me feel like I wasn't making a difference," he says.
Along with mutual friend and partner David Bailey, they mulled the idea of opening a cafe in Midland or Mt. Pleasant, but ultimately settled on a more mobile venue after running the numbers on a physical location. Despite a complete lack of formal culinary training, let alone a familiarity with French cooking, the Moreys embraced a friend's suggestion to make crepes the centerpiece of the new establishment. They bought a few 10" x 20" skillets for $20 at Walmart and began honing their skills at informal "crepe parties" in their home.
Long story short, they were naturals at making crepes--"It's fun, not that hard, and lets you experiment," says Brandon. "That's good, because I get sick of making the same thing every week." Before long, they were pumping out creations like the Jealous Elvis (banana, nutella and pecans) and the Crash Landing in Laguna (turkey, spinach, avocado, mayo and tomatoes), an ever-popular choice.
Of course, they still needed a truck. After some scouring, they found an older lady in the Mid Michigan area who'd had an 8' x 12' hot dog cart--technically a trailer--on the market for several years. "It was definitely set up to make hot dogs, not crepes," says Brandon, so the couple (with Bailey's help) had to make a substantial investment in a propane crepe maker that wouldn't overload its fragile electrical system. It's a big improvement over the more haphazard system that they started with, though, cutting prep and cooking time in half while producing a more consistent product.
So is the trailer's exterior. Originally forest green and purple, a nonsequitur in an area where loyalties divide sharply between green-and-white and blue-and-maize, the Moreys painted the vehicle to resemble a nighttime view of Paris. Crepformally debuted in April 2013, shuttling between farmers' markets in Mt. Pleasant and Midland, Central Michigan University Research Corporation's Food Truck Fridays gathering, and various other locations around the region. Armed with a food truck license, "[w]e can go anywhere in Michigan," says Brandon, "as long as we give four days' notice and fill out a brief form."
They haven't been too busy to try new things, though. The Moreys specialize in putting new twists on classic sandwiches. Crep's best seller is the Edmond Dantes, an altered version of the timeless Monte Cristo. The literary reference--Dantes is a character in the classic novel, The Count of Monte Cristo--goes over well among well-read customers, says Brandon, particularly on CMU's campus. "It's nice to have crepes that double as conversation pieces," he adds.
Indeed, the Moreys relish their interactions with their customers. "The most surprising thing about this job is that working in retail, or a retail-like profession, isn't thankless," says Brandon, who has worked at places like Aeropostale in the past.
Looking ahead, the couple is gearing up to open a proper retail location that, like Simon Joseph's Harvest, will tide them over during the winter. They've picked out a cafe space in Midland and hope to be open for business by mid-November. And further down the road, an upgraded mobile venue--possibly a real truck--could be in the offing as well.
So maybe the Moreys, Walkers and Simon Joseph's crew can convince us to update the old saying a bit: If you drive it, they will come.