Gourmet food trucks spice up lunch hour for workers at Farbman properties.
There’s a new, affordable way to dine and dash in Metro Detroit and busy professionals are quite literally eating it up. Food trucks rallies — large gatherings of mobile food vendors around office complexes, events and central business districts — are a phenomenon gaining popularity across the country and in Michigan.
The Farbman Group, one of the largest full-service real estate companies in the Midwest, has teamed up with the nonprofit Michigan Mobile Food Vendors Association to organize several rallies around Farbman properties like the Fisher Building and New Center One on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, at Sheffield Office Park in Troy and the Bingham Office Center in Bingham Farms.
During an April rally billed as “Dine and Drive in the D,” thousands of nearby employees and curious onlookers lined up to sample the freshly prepared gourmet food that rolled up on Third Street between Lothrop and West Grand Boulevard. About a dozen food trucks participated including Treat Dreams (ice cream), Jacques’ Tacos, El Guapo Fresh Mexican Grill, Taco Mama, Frank’s Anatra (hot dogs and sausage), Concrete Cuisine, Ned’s Travel Burger, The People’s Pierogi Collective, Cheese Dream, Debajo del Sol and Cheese Wizard.
“Food trucks and food carts are part of the creation of a cool city,” says Andy Farbman, CEO of the Farbman Group. “They’re currently producing some of the greatest innovation in the restaurant industry. When we talk about a Detroit comeback what we’re seeing is that, like in other cool cities, having food trucks creates an atmosphere people want to be part of.”
The menus are eclectic and unique, offering customers an opportunity to get out of a lunchtime rut. The Concrete Cuisine truck serves “wedges, sweeties and frickles” (crispy potato wedges, sweet potato fries and lightly fried dill pickles) with all of its made-to-order dishes. Other menu items include “Da-Vine,” a panko-crusted fried green tomato sandwich, and “Oscar,” thick sliced, all-beef grilled bologna, sweet barbeque onion marmalade, American cheese, romaine lettuce and yellow mustard on a toasted Kaiser roll. Another truck, Debajo del Sol, features traditional Spanish dishes including mixed paella, tapas, a chorizo corn dog, and a pulled chicken sandwich cooked in a traditional saffron and almond sauce. Prices vary, but many items can be purchased for less than $10.
“We’ve seen at our buildings that they create buzz whenever we host these events,” Farbman adds. “People come from miles away to partake in the various offerings, whether it’s the hot jalapeño ice cream from Treat Dreams or the fresh-that-day burger from Ned’s Travel Burger.”
For Jordan Ceresnie, 25, of Farmington, co-owning a food cart is both an entrepreneurial and culinary dream come true. The young Jewish chef owns Cheese Dream with his Muslim business partner Afrim Ramaxhiku. The duo serves up a variety of artisan grilled cheese sandwiches and soups with pickles and chips. Some are more adventurous like their mac-and-cheese grilled cheese. Other offerings include a cream cheese and Nutella (chocolate hazelnut spread) sandwich, fresh mozzarella with roasted tomato and olive tapanade, and fire-roasted peppers, arugula, balsamic and Monterey Jack cheese. Cheese Dream is based in Ann Arbor as part of the Mark’s Carts food courtyard (see sidebar). They do prep work in a commissary kitchen (which is required by the state) but make the sandwiches to order. Michigan food trucks must also be licensed, pass health inspections and pay various fees. Cheese Dream participates in local food truck rallies and is also exploring farmers markets and catering. The business, still in its first year, recently booked a wedding. They’ll provide the late-night snacks for guests.
“The exciting part is that it’s on wheels,” Ceresnie says. “It’s mobile so we can move around to find our best markets.”
Ceresnie grew up in Farmington Hills and is a classically trained chef. He attended Napa Valley Cooking School in St. Helena, Calif., and completed a one-year organic farming program at Michigan State University. He’s worked with the Matt Prentice Restaurant Group (now the Epicurean Group) and Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor. Ceresnie decided it was time to move from the kitchen to the cart and focus on comfort food. So, he and Ramaxhiku purchased their own cart (they cost from a few thousand dollars up to $20,000; trucks range from $40,000-$100,000) and opened up shop. So far they say the venture is a success and there’s room to grow.
“I’ve worked in kitchens for a while but I think now is a great time to be part of the food truck scene in Michigan,” Ceresnie says. “Owning the cart is the perfect blend between being the cook and the server. We get to interact with customers on an intimate level. There’s no space between you and the customer and that’s a really cool interaction. I also love the free-spirited side to having a food truck and not being in one location all the time.”
Mobile Meal Appeal
So what’s the appeal of these mobile meals? Supporters say convenience is a big part of it. The trucks come to the customers, but they don’t stay long. The city of Ferndale has made food truck rallies a monthly event; one Thursday a month from 4-9 p.m. outside the Rust Belt Market at the corner of Nine Mile and Woodward. Scott Maloney, owner of Treat Dreams (ice cream) in Ferndale and a member of the mobile food vendor’s association, has helped organize rallies in Ferndale, Royal Oak, at the Farbman properties and elsewhere.
“We get hundreds of people. It’s a great vibe. It turns into a real social atmosphere,” Maloney explains. “In a lot of local office buildings and complexes, you have to get in your car and drive a couple of miles just to find fast food. Or, if there’s a cafeteria nearby, you eat at the same cafeteria every day and you’re dying for something new. With these trucks, the food is awesome. There’s so much variety and each truck has a different style.”
The Treat Dreams truck is a converted shuttle bus that’s painted bright purple. Maloney carries push carts on it to sell his innovative homemade ice cream and ice cream sandwiches. Exotic flavors include honey lavender, pistachio wasabi, coconut chai-tea, salty caramel and chocolate-covered potato chip.
But the food truck concept is not without controversy. There have been fights in several major cities including Houston, Chicago and St. Louis between vendors and brick-and-mortar restaurant owners. Many traditional restaurant owners who invest millions of dollars complain the trucks draw away customers while being exempt from property or occupancy taxes. In June, Grand Rapids lawmakers passed an ordinance restricting where food trucks can operate. So far, those issues do not appear to have surfaced in Metro Detroit. On the contrary, the Farbman Group considers the food trucks an asset.
“I think the food is very good. Everything I’ve tried has been delicious,” says Andy Gutman, the Farbman Group’s chief financial officer. “Our hope is to make these rallies a routine thing. They bring tremendous value to our tenants and our community.”
Upcoming food truck rallies are scheduled for Oct. 18 at Nine Mile and Woodward in Ferndale and Oct. 30 at Eastern Market in Detroit. You can also find the Michigan Mobile Food Vendors Association on Facebook.
“Cozy and cute” is the way Mark Hodesh, 68, describes the eight food carts that make up Mark’s Carts in downtown Ann Arbor. Unlike the trucks and vendors that take part in mobile food truck rallies, these carts stay in one place — on Washington between First and Ashley — and customers come to them.
“It’s a community builder and traffic builder,” Hodesh explains. “People are just streaming to and from the food carts.”
It all started two years ago when Hodesh, owner of the century-old Downtown Home and Garden shop on Ashley, was trying to figure out what to do with some vacant land and a building he’d purchased near his business. He realized food carts were becoming popular and a new venture was born.
“I found out the carts needed to be tethered to a legal commissary kitchen,” he says. “So we put in a modern, shiny kitchen with a walk-in cooler, ovens, stoves, a dishwasher and an ice machine.”
Hodesh charges $7,500 rent per season (March-October) for a place to park the cart, access to the kitchen and utilities. The arrangement gives entrepreneurs like Jordan Ceresnie, 25, of Farmington. a shot at owning a business. The young Jewish chef co-owns Cheese Dream with his Muslim business partner Afrim Ramaxhiku. They sell artisan grilled cheese sandwiches and soups with pickles and chips. Other carts in the group offer tacos and burritos, Asian and Indian food, wood-fired pizza and other fresh, gourmet items. There’s also a vegan cart called The Lunch Room with menu items that include barbeque tofu sliders, Vietnamese baguette sandwiches and Mexican hot chocolate cookies.
“It’s this little box. It’s not the mysterious disappearing through the swinging doors and coming back out with the food,” Hodesh explains. “We’ve come a long way from steamed hot dogs. People can do some very good cooking this way. It’s become a national phenomenon.”
In the short time Mark’s Carts has been around, a few of the vendors have moved on and opened their own restaurants. But, Hodesh believes the outdoor setting is what sets the cart courtyard apart.
“People are sitting in their cubicles under florescent lights all day,” he says. “If they go into a restaurant they’re going to be crammed into a booth. I think they like to sit outdoors. It’s a social event. It feels good and the food is good. It’s wholesome on so many levels.”
For more information on upcoming events, go to www.markscarts.com.