It's been two years since Grand Rapids passed an ordinance allowing food trucks to set up shop on private property, and it's the start of the first summer vending season since the GRAM opened up Wege Plaza for the trucks. Lauren Carlson checks in with the growing food truck scene downtown and gives you all the delicious details.
Food trucks are evolving from a grab-and-go convenience to a mobile culinary destination. And the almost two-year-old Grand Rapids ordinance, as well as the Grand Rapids Art Museum'
s (GRAM) invitation to set up shop in its piazza, are assisting in this rapid evolution.
Grand Rapids roadside staples such as What the Truck
, newcomers like A Moveable Feast
, and Kalamazoo-based visitors like The Organic Gypsy
are now finding a home, and new patrons, at popular downtown destinations. Finally, as the ordinance has taken shape and the record-breaking winter has thawed, local residents and visitors are seeing an explosion of food truck mania downtown.
In July 2012, the Grand Rapids City Commission
voted to approve an ordinance that allowed for food trucks to vend on private property. This big step encouraged food truck hopefuls that more vending locations were on the way. However, it wasn't until September of 2013 that the city approved the GRAM's landowner request for a special use permit to establish its Wege Plaza, the roomy space in between the museum and Rosa Parks Circle, as food truck central year-round. Finally, food trucks had a popular downtown location to call home.
2013, food trucks gathered in the newly approved location to test the waters. This short season allowed for a momentary increase of food truck traffic downtown but, due to the seasonal nature of the industry, only now can vendors truly begin to rub elbows with fellow truck owners and open themselves up to a whole new crowd of devoted eaters.
"It's a very seasonal industry," says Leslie Rulewicz, general manager of The Winchester
, What the Truck's parent restaurant. Though the four-year-old food truck only began selling outside the GRAM on May 3rd, its staff has seen a steady increase of interest and business in lunchtime sales. In addition to the "good mix of people" working at downtown businesses, says Rulewicz, What the Truck also welcomes patrons who purposefully make the truck their go-to spot. "It's really cool to see that food trucks are becoming a destination for people to go eat," she says. Their consistent weekly schedule also assists in a reliable flow of business.
Open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. until 2 or 3 in the afternoon (weather permitting), downtown goers can select a taco, burrito, or rice bowl from a variety of Asian-inspired menu options. These varieties, including four types of tacos, are prepped daily at the Winchester kitchen and built fresh and customized to order on the truck itself. "Everything is really fresh," says Rulewicz. The truck's two- to three-person staff utilizes steam wells and a flat top to ensure hot, made-to-order meals in handheld form.
What the Truck often shares the pavement at Wege Plaza with the new truck in town, too. "[We] are in the trenches together with A Moveable Feast," says Rulewicz. A Moveable Feast, owned by Michigan native Brennan Summers, also typically sets up shop Tuesday through Friday.
After hearing of the ordinance two years ago, Summers, who returned to Michigan after a stay in Minneapolis, was "cautiously optimistic." As the city's interest in food trucks grew, and the GRAM opened the doors to its coveted plaza, Summers jumped in with both feet.
"It's been an interesting year and a half," he says. Purchasing The Silver Spork Food Truck last fall and renaming it, Summers sought to create a food truck that sourced local, high-quality meat and produce, with a focus on unique creations and complex flavors. "If I can make something from scratch, I prefer that," says Summers.
Though "[Grand Rapids] is a great place to have food trucks," he says, he "would like to see the ordinance loosened a little bit." As it stands, private property owners are required to submit an application, receive approval from the city, and pay an annual permit fee. However, despite these somewhat strict regulations, "We're getting a pretty good response," says Summers. This positive reaction from the public further convinces Summers that the trend "brings people outside" and "helps to create a fun space for people to mingle."
Bridgett Blough, owner of the Kalamazoo-based truck, The Organic Gypsy, is glad locals are embracing the food truck trend. "People think it's so cool," she says, and describes eating at a food truck as an "intimate food experience." This unique experience, argues Blough, does not compete with brick and mortar restaurants, whose patrons enjoy sitting down and relaxing at meal time. Blough's menu also expresses the singularity and freedom of the food truck, as she focuses her products and her menu items on her passion: local and organic food.
Sourcing 70-90 percent local products, depending on the season, and utilizing 90-95 percent organic items at all times, Blough strives to create portable meals that are "handcrafted and thoughtfully sourced." This thoughtful approach fits well in the marketplace, and The Organic Gypsy makes frequent trips into the city to share space at the GRAM and attend events such as the New Belgium Brewing Clips Beer and Film Tour
at Ah-Nab-Awen Park last June. "The people there were awesome," says Blough. With a highly successful reception last year, she looks forward to this summer's event, and continual positive response from Grand Rapids residents. "The people in this town love what we're doing," she says.
As the fickle Michigan spring finally warms into summer, and local residents and visitors once again seek fresh, portable, gourmet meals to accompany the many events and attractions in the city, food trucks live again. And having now carved out a cozy weekday spot at the GRAM, and supplementing bad weather days with catering and private events, these culinary entrepreneurs are here to stay.
Though summer is king for the industry, the year-round future is bright. "I would love for GR to get to the point where food trucks are not just a seasonal business," says Rulewicz.
Consistently craving the friendly competition, Summers agrees, as he says, "I love food trucks. I'd like to see more of them."
As the city sees more and more of these mobile destinations, and food trucks evolve from a trend to a staple, more residents are convinced that "You don't need to be inside a restaurant to get a great meal," says Rulewicz.
Lauren F. Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at www.emptyframecreative.com, and she can be reached at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.
Photography by Adam Bird