From El Guapo to Concrete Cuisine, food trucks on a roll
It was just four years ago that businessman Anthony Curis broke through the bureaucracy after more than 60 trips to City Hall and obtained a license for Detroit’s first modern-day food truck — one aimed at savvy young consumers who wanted gourmet flavors and a taste of the mobile dining trend just beginning to sweep the nation.
The young entrepreneur’s shiny black El Guapo truck was big news in 2011, as were the Jacques Tacos and Concrete Cuisine trucks that rolled out soon after in the suburbs.
Today, new food trucks barely merit a mention — not because they’re passé but because they’ve become such a regular part of the food landscape. More than three dozen trucks, serving everything from vegan drinks and pulled pork sliders to beignets and burgers, now operate in metro Detroit, and new ones open regularly.
Even well-known restaurant companies are launching trucks — a sure sign that food-industry pros think trucks are more than just a fad. The Andiamo Restaurant Group unveiled its first truck this spring. “It’s great marketing,” said Dominic Vicari, the company’s operations director. “I think it was a great move.”
Food trucks are so numerous, diverse and popular, they’ll be the sole food providers at this weekend’s Mo Pop Festival, expected to draw a total of 20,000 people to West Riverfront Park in Detroit. With more than 15 vendors, its Food Truck Alley will be the largest gathering of food trucks ever in Detroit, organizers think.
While owners still must navigate a confounding patchwork of governmental regulations, the industry has delivered on many of its early predictions: Trucks have been a stepping stone for owners hoping to open bricks-and-mortar places, few if any restaurants have failed because of truck competition and streetscapes have become livelier where the colorful vehicles gather.
Downtown on Cadillac Square, hundreds of people line up for stone-fired pizzas, pad Thai, barbecue and other street foods when the trucks open. When several vehicles rallied at Hart Plaza this week, employees began walking over from nearby offices to check out them out — including Donald Settles of Detroit, who works at the City-County Building.
“It’s my first time” eating at a food truck, he said, waiting for a bowl of grilled chicken with brown rice and vegetables at the Delectabowl truck. “I’m trying to eat a little healthier,” he explained.
Food trucks used to sell junk food, “like funnel cakes,” he said. “But they’ve evolved — they have so many different things now. And surveying the scene on the plaza, he added, “they definitely add to the city.”
THE EARLY DAYS
Even with its 30-plus trucks, metro Detroit is far from a food-truck hotbed.
Nationwide, so-called gourmet food trucks number between 4,500 and 5,000 and comprise an industry estimated at $1 billion, says Matt Geller, a founder of the California-based National Food Truck Association. (Those numbers don’t include the many thousands of small, neighborhood taco trucks and food carts that operate only in their immediate neighborhoods, like those that have served the southwest Detroit community for years.)
The pioneers in metro Detroit’s modern food-truck scene know better than anyone else how dramatically it has changed in four short years.
“In the beginning, it was hard to find places to operate. We didn’t know what we were doing, to be honest,” says Jeff Aquilina, co-owner of Concrete Cuisine. “Now it’s more like ‘How many places can we get to in one day?’ Everyone wants a food truck to come.”
He and co-owner Justin Kava have been asked to open a second truck, he said, but they’ve resisted. Instead, they try to choose the most profitable venues in order to maximize their time and investment. They’ve also opened their own commissary, a place where trucks store and prep ingredients and service their vehicles.
James Mastrangel of Jacques Tacos, another of the area’s first trucks, remembers the early days when business was scarce and people were suspicious of food served from a truck.
“We literally had to ask (building owners) if we could please come and bring our truck, and they’d say, ‘Oh, no.’ They thought of the old roach coaches.” (He credits cable TV food-truck shows for changing those attitudes.)
Soon, though, the truck became “a wonderful business, and the opportunities kept opening up and up and up,” the Farmington Hills resident said. In fact, business was too good.
Every weekend, he says, he would find himself in “someone else’s driveway at someone else’s party,” and his wife started saying she never saw him anymore.
So, at age 53, after owning multiple other businesses, he decided his personal life was more important than having yet another career — and he sold the business. “If you want to work seven days a week, you could work seven days a week” with a food truck, he says. “I love the business. I miss it sometimes. But I think being on my boat on a Saturday afternoon will be way more fun,” he said.
Even Curis, who worked so hard to win approval for El Guapo, is surprised by how far trucks have come. “The food truck scene has definitely matured over the past few years, particularly in downtown Detroit,” he says. “I must admit, i didn’t think it would progress this quickly.”