By Crysta Coburn
The phrase “street food” may not sound too appetizing, but the real dishes behind the term are now considered by many to be the most authentic sampling of a culture’s cuisine, made popular in part by celebrity foodie Anthony Bourdain, who was a huge fan and helped to elevate street food’s popularity with his travel shows. Street food is sold from baskets, pushcarts, trailers, and trucks. What all of these modes have in common are their transportability, and they’re usually found very close to, if not parked on, the street.
Americans have a long history with street food. The first laws regulating food vendors and their pushcarts appeared in 1691 in New York City when it was still known as New Amsterdam. In the 21st century, we are currently in the grips of a street food invasion in the form of gourmet food trucks. Food trucks actually date back to post-Civil War chuck wagons, which served wagon trains and cattlemen crisscrossing the Old West, and the first horse-drawn diner appeared in 1872. But the modern gourmet take on food trucks can be traced to Los Angeles chef, Roy Choi. His Korean fusion taco truck Kogi, took to the streets in 2008. Choi, though, points to shrimp trucks in Oahu that serve garlic and butter shrimp with rice as his predecessors, operating on the island long before food trucks took over on the mainland.
But Kogi set the precedent for the heavy use of social media to promote the mobile business. Food truck aficionados today rely on social media like Twitter to track where the trucks are on any given day or to be alerted to truck meet-ups, which sometimes take place with little advance warning. Trucks will have their social media tags clearly painted on their sides to be sure they are correctly tagged in their customers’ picture posts on apps like Instagram.
Food truck rallies are getting more and more popular, however, and are popping up with more frequency as communities change their health codes and zoning laws to allow them. In our own community, the Ann Arbor Farmers Market has hosted a rally since 2015 on the first Wednesday evening of every month from May through October. In addition to the trucks, there is live music, kids activities hosted by Give 365, and a few vendors from the farmers market stick around to sell their wares.
“The Food Truck Rally evolved out of the Wednesday Evening Market, which ran 2011 – 2015,” said Stephanie Willette, the Market Manager. “This evening market was originally a mix of the usual farmers market vendors, but we soon realized that folks were more interested in an event with dinner options, music, [and other activities] for that time of day.” A call for submissions is put out from January to March. “Every year we try to incorporate a mix of old and new trucks into the Rallies. We look at things like: Are they a producer only truck? Producer only means all trucks must prepare from scratch all the food they sell. In other words, there is no reheating and then selling premade items. We look at quality. We also look at product mix – is there a diverse representation of types of cuisine? Do they use zero waste [recyclable or compostable] practices?”
The numbers confirm the growing popularity of mobile food vendors in Ann Arbor. Of the Farmers Market Food Truck Rally, Willette said, “In 2015 we estimate we had 1600 customers per event, and this past year we estimate there were over 2400 customers per event. With six trucks in 2015, we now have grown to 15 per rally. Trucks that have participated over time all report an increase in sales each year.”
The Royal Oak Farmers Market also has monthly Food Truck Rallies on the second Wednesday of every month (it is open through the winter). Ypsilanti’s First Fridays has hosted food truck rallies, but this is not a monthly occurrence. Trucks gather at Noel Night and Eastern Market in Detroit. They are rolling up to wedding receptions, graduation celebrations, sorority parties, and it doesn’t stop there.
Despite the popularity, why would an entrepreneur opt for opening a food truck rather than investing in a brick and mortar restaurant? What if mobile food vendors are a passing fad? For starters, cost. Opening a gourmet food truck can be a tenth of the cost of opening a similarly styled (but larger) restaurant. The smaller operation also offers the opportunity to work out the kinks, build the brand, and garner a following before moving onto something bigger.
This is precisely what drew founder of popular local vegan and gluten free food truck Shimmy Shack (opened for business in 2013). Owner Debra Levantrosser, a vegan for 29 years “wanted to show people how good vegan food can be.” She said, “Someone on my idea team (Angie) suggested that maybe a food truck would be a better way to enter the market (less expensive and no building lease required) and to test whether the masses were ready for our kind of food… before we spent money on a restaurant.”
And the people have responded, allowing the enterprise to expand. Not only is there the original truck, Shimmy Shack also provides delicious vegan and gluten free cookies to cafes, such as the Crazy Wisdom Tea Room and The Flower Bar in Ann Arbor, and is opening its own restaurant in Plymouth at the corner of Ann Arbor and Sheldon roads. Levantrosser also hopes to soon expand across the state into Kalamazoo within the next few years and added, “We’d love to have our cookies in 100 stores as well!”
Emily and Corey Russell, the owners of Naughty Boy’s Rolled Ice Cream, which launched in 2016 and quickly became a popular addition to the Ann Arbor Farmers Market Food Truck Rallies, also hope to one day open a brick and mortar ice cream shop in Ypsilanti in addition to having the trailer. (To read more of their journey, please see the Crysta Goes Visiting column in the Fall 2018 issue #70, page 18) Ann Arbor residents might be familiar with the now-closed Mark’s Carts and that several former carts are now restaurants in the Ann Arbor region (Kerrytown’s popular Lunch Room, for example).
Food truck rallies are a true foodie paradise, and as many travelers have learned, street food is an exciting culinary adventure. The first rally of the season at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market is Wednesday, May 1st from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Find the food line-ups for the Ann Arbor Farmers Market at www.a2farmersmarket.org and the Royal Oak Farmers Market at facebook.com/royaloakfarmersmarketfoodtruckrally. To find (and book) trucks and carts near you - for anywhere in the country - check out RoamingHunger.com, “the hub for all things street food and catering.” (Note: Ann Arbor is not included. The closest city is Detroit. However, Roaming Hunger is a terrific resource when traveling.)