DETROIT — As a debate continues about the fairness of food carts setting up shop near already-struggling Detroit restaurants, a tidbit from a story by MLive's Ashley C. Woods caught our eye (read the full story):
"But in America, one out of two restaurants fail without competing against food trucks -- which may inspire Detroit and other nearby local suburbs to place restrictions on vendors in the name of competition. One possible solution is for the city to echo a food truck-mad city like Austin and license mobile vendor pods -- empty lots transformed into trailer parks chock-full of food. Grouping trucks together would inspire more competition between truck vendors, as well as providing a smart, temporary use for vacant land parcels that dot Detroit's growing neighborhoods."
An excellent idea, I say.
As I see it, creating these "cart parks" could be beneficial to the city and its residents in several ways. First, as a potential revenue source, both in licensing fees, taxes and from potential sale of vacant lots. If strategically placed, it could also mean the introduction of new and healthier grab-and-go food options for residents in areas where traditionally, very few or none exist.
For food entrepreneurs, it could provide excellent proving grounds for testing the appetites of city residents for new and interesting cuisines, without having to put up the full cost of setting up a static restaurant while providing good market data for when, and if, it's time to solicit funding to open a permanent establishment.
One example of what I like to call a cart park, is in Ann Arbor. Mark's Carts is a little 2,600 sq. ft. courtyard adjacent to Downtown Home and Garden run by DHG's president, Mark Hodesh. He's particularly proud of the unexpected benefits of the cart park.
"The carts have activated pedestrian traffic. I thought people would be taking the food with them but they wanted a place to sit and stay," Hodesh says. "So we scrambled to get chairs and tables. It was an instant community builder. People wanted to hang out. Here, you sit outside with fresh air, different people. It's a nice scene."
Due to the unseasonably warm weather the first week of Spring, Mark's Carts was able to open a few days early. Hodesh says on opening day, people were skipping across the street to get to the carts.
When asked what he thought about the idea of cart parks being set up in Detroit, he says he's heard about a lot of resistance (read all about the red tape and difficulties truck owners have had at Detroit Moxie).
"This might sound antagonistic, but unfortunately in Detroit, it seems like the casinos are threatened by taco trucks, and big establishment is pushing back," he says. "It's not easy to get a license from the city of Detroit, but I think they miss the point entirely. It's hard to equate the income from a food cart with a big three auto job, but people that run food carts create community ambiance - it's what attracts young people and entrepreneurs, ... social fun, interaction, and [a cart park] raises a neighborhood."
My first experience with a food cart in Detroit occurred during the Roosevelt Park Festival last August. I love tacos and went back to the El Guapo Fresh Mexican Grill truck twice to get my fill. I loved the fact that it was a walk-up, and that it wasn't like carnival fare. It was good, cheap food smack in the middle of what could have been nowhere, save for the festival that day.
Could a more open-minded perspective in Detroit work for food truck entrepreneurs or cart park owners? I say so.
In a city where opening a business is still considered risky, it seems reasonable to think this could be less risky -- and become an incubator of sorts.
"Six of the carts out there (in Marks' Carts) have aspirations of becoming standing restaurants some day," Hodesh says.
Legally define a few spaces around the city where these trucks can set up shop on a regular basis and I think you've got something.
Good idea, or no? Tell us where you'd like to see a cart park (in the comments or via e-mail). We'll post your suggestions next week.