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Feeding Detroit’s Future

One would think food on wheels would be a natural fit for a city built on the automobile.

Food trucks are wildly popular in other U.S. cities, but this month marks only one year since the first officially sanctioned food truck in Detroit, El Guapo Fresh Mexican Grill, began serving gourmet tacos and burritos downtown.

The work began much earlier, though. El Guapo co-founder Anthony Curis bristles when asked about the reported 60 trips it took to City Hall to get the business licensed. “We did have several meetings with the City, but they were all good meetings,” Curis says. “It wasn’t like we were constantly going down there fighting the City.”

Still, convincing civic leaders that food carts can have a positive social and economic impact in a town where the ordinance on mobile food vending hadn’t changed in 50 years took some maneuvering, Curis says. “A lot of municipalities are afraid of food trucks — afraid it’s going to rock the boat, afraid of what it could do to brick-and-mortar — even though it’s a proven thing that, if it’s regulated, it can do wonders for an urban area.”

That’s precisely what the El Guapo food truck set out to do. “Our goal from the beginning was to really help get people on the street,” Curis says, explaining his reasoning for blazing the trail rather than opting for a stationary restaurant. He credits the thriving street-food scene he encountered while visiting family in Austin, Texas, for inspiring him to take a closer look at the nationwide phenomenon, leading him to New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco for further research.

The sleek black truck (El Guapo means “the handsome one” in Spanish) is decked out with flat-screen TVs and now serves, among other items, pork-belly burritos and Korean short-rib tacos in a handful of locations around Detroit, including the Wayne State University campus and Eastern Market. Recently, co-founder Doug Runyon left the operation and was replaced by Dan and Lindsay Gearig, formerly of Chow Catering, another mobile-food venture. El Guapo employs about 10 people, but thanks in part to the new partnership, will be expanding its concept and doubling its workforce.

But can food trucks really have the impact Curis set out to achieve? Actually, there may be even wider economic benefits, as “The Food Truck Industrial Complex,” an October 2011 article in The Atlantic Cities pointed out, saying: “Besides the truck outfitters, there are permit expediters, menu consultants, lawyers, lobbyists, website designers, marketing professionals, and phone-app developers who have managed to expand their businesses thanks to the food-truck phenomenon.” In California, business has been so good for food-truck manufacturer Armenco, that the company moved to a new facility with plans to double its production.

There are currently no food-truck manufacturers in Michigan, but if current trends continue, that could change, too. Curis says that’s just part of the bigger picture. “I see Detroit really taking a turn from a manufacturing-based climate, which is still a major part of it … to a city of creative small businesses, entrepreneurs, all these great little restaurants,” says Curis, who is also a partner in the downtown art gallery Long-Sharp/Curis. “In my opinion, those are the things that make a city.”


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