Fighting for the feast: Food truck owners & city leaders aim for culinary change in Grand Rapids

From Los Angeles to New York, food trucks have begun to play a starring role in our country's culinary scene. Now, local truck owners and political leaders are hoping these small, mobile businesses will have the chance to become an integral part of Grand Rapids' food fabric.
Though booming in popularity throughout the country, the food truck business in Grand Rapids is growing somewhat slowly. After being in existence for four years, the city ordinance on the matter has frustrated many current and would-be food truck operators, and even more are seeking major changes. As these mobile food vendors' busy season kicks into full gear, the newly-formed Grand Rapids Food Truck Association (GRFTA), along with other city officials and business owners, are seeking to improve the licensing scope and process, and in turn make way for a more welcoming atmosphere for vendors who hope to play a starring role in the city's food scene.

"[Grand Rapids is] not a particularly friendly environment from a regulatory standpoint for food trucks to operate," says Brennan Summers, owner of A Moveable Feast truck and founder of the GRFTA, a nonprofit organization that began meeting this past January and is designed to support food trucks and their owners. "Our first goal is to see that change.”

With the current ordinance, only private property owners may apply yearly for a special land use permit—which costs $1,900—in order for to food trucks to operate on their land. Other licensing procedures cost far less—a liquor license, for example, costs $1,031. After the application, the owners then must submit to a mandatory 30-day waiting period for public comment before receiving approval. Currently, only one spot in the city—the Grand Rapids Art Museum—has received this permit for trucks to operate in their Peter M. Wege Plaza adjacent to Rosa Parks Circle. The only exception to this rule is a special event license, that allows single locations—such as Ah-Nab-Awen Park during Movies in the Park and Festival of the Arts—to host a variety of trucks on their land for up to three days.

Food truck owners themselves must obtain a mobile vending cart operator license, which costs $267. This license, however, is tied to the owners themselves, and not the truck, so this particular individual must be present on the truck while it is operating. These complex hoops have many food truck and other business owners scratching their heads.

According to Summers, many other businesses would like to welcome food trucks to their property, but are barred from entry due to the cost and difficulty of the licensing process. "I'm hopeful that we'll see a new and improved food truck ordinance within the next couple of months," says Summers, who is working with newly elected Mayor Rosalyn Bliss to update and change the ordinance. "[We have] a willing ally in Mayor Bliss," says Summers.

Moveable Feast staff work in close quarters to prepare food.

"It’s critical that we foster a strong and supportive climate that helps food trucks across the city flourish and reach more customers," Bliss says. "Toward that goal, we need to look at whether it makes sense to expand designated areas and hours of operation for food trucks, as well as streamline licensing," she continues. Much of the frustration of the current ordinance also has to do with limited 9am to 9pm operating hours and the prohibition of sale on public property. This complex process has intimidated many would-be food vendors from starting their businesses.

So, why should Grand Rapidians care so much about the accessibility of food trucks? Besides the delectable treats they offer [think smoked ribs, spiced peach shrimp tacos and beer brats], many trucks are mobile startups dipping their toes into the culinary waters. Renowned chef Anthony Bourdain says in his CNN show "Parts Unknown" that food trucks “allow creative chefs without a lot of money to start creating and selling their stuff, introducing themselves to the world without having to gather up $1 million or credulous partners. And they’re affordable. They’re democratic. And they are faster, better and infinitely preferable to fast food like the king and the clown and the colonel.”

The mayor also emphasizes this point.

"Not only are food trucks an entry point for culinary entrepreneurship, they—along with other food businesses—make up one of the fastest-growing sectors of our small business community,” Bliss says. “We need to do everything we can to support their startup and success.”

This accessibility of food trucks is what interests many culinary entrepreneurs. Without the cost and commitment of a brick and mortar location, restauranteurs can experiment with their business and gain popularity. This somewhat unconventional business model is what attracts Paul Moore, communications director for Start Garden, the Grand Rapids-based venture capital fund that has funneled millions of dollars into startup businesses throughout the area.

"Start Garden has always been interested in food trucks…and startups like Uber, Airbnb," says Moore. Recently meeting in Minneapolis with Bliss and Monica Steimle from 616 Lofts, among other influential Grand Rapidians, Moore and the group sought to "uncover what's going on in that city that we can learn from," including their completely unregulated approach to food trucks, he says. The group is looking to cities like this with a more fluid environment for transient vendors who have benefited from their culinary success. Another example is Traverse City, a city that allows food trucks to operate in four city parking lots—as well as a few other areas like nearby high school and college campuses—from 7 am to 11 pm.

"We're not going to see entrepreneurship in the city unless we make some of these entry points accessible," Moore continues, arguing that the current ordinance is simply too strict and complex to allow food truck operators to easily start their businesses. So, they remain stuck on a hope and a dream. Without allowing entrepreneurs to get started, "we just don't know how many potential food entrepreneurs there are that couldn't make the $10,000 to $80,000 investment," says Moore.

While capital and local ordinances are two of the largest hoops for would-be food truck owners to jump through, many entrepreneurs are also seeking support through the form of community and education. Here, Summers notes the second goal of the GRFTA, which was launched earlier this year with assistance from the National Food Truck Association and is "doing whatever we can to advance the food truck culture."

“And we look forward to sponsoring public food truck events,” Summers says in a press release. “Food trucks have a remarkable way of building community and bringing people out into the city. Anyone who has witnessed firsthand the great food truck cities in our country knows this, and while we’re not as big as Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., there’s no reason why we can’t have a smaller but equally vibrant food truck scene in Grand Rapids. Food trucks are great at bringing people together, and that’s what we want to do.”

With the influence of the organization, Summers intends to educate the public, increasing awareness of food truck culture and the many benefits it brings to the city. Bliss too emphasizes the benefits food trucks bring, noting, "I’m a big believer in buy local—and I hope others will join me in supporting food trucks. We have some really great food trucks in our city that offer delicious and unique dishes."

In order to spread the word throughout the city and the region, Summers intends to sponsor events that showcase food trucks and the unique culinary experience they bring to the urban landscape. "I think it's a really fun culture," says Summers, noting that—with member trucks like D'arts Donuts frying their D'artagnan beignets and Daddy Pete's BBQ offering the ‘bacon explosion sandwich’—these mobile vendors have the freedom, and gumption, to try "interesting, innovative things."

Summers' third and final goal of the GRFTA is to "serve as a support resource for new and existing food trucks," he says. By becoming a central point of information about area trucks and food trucks in general, Summers hopes that the organization will become somewhat of a beacon of light for hopeful entrepreneurs. "We all learn from experience," says Summers. In addition to simple community building within the organization, Summers hopes to perhaps offer classes on running a food truck in the city in order to educate fellow vendors.

Summers also enjoys the ability to band together in a unique culture that allows for friendly business done side-by-side. "It's really not terribly competitive. We all kind of feel like the underdog," he says. "What's good for one food truck is good for the food truck industry as a whole."

As Summers and influential leaders like Bliss and Moore work to effect change in Grand Rapids, Grand Rapidians themselves can be heard begging for more food truck presence in just about every nook and cranny of the city. With the now nine food trucks banded together as the GRFTA, and changes to the city's ordinance on the horizon, the city could soon transform into a welcoming place for the vendors and their die-hard fans…even, shall we dare say, after 9pm?

Photography by Adam Bird
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