DETROIT, MI – The gourmet food truck is a movement in Los Angeles, celebrated on its own television show (“The Great Food Truck Race”) and spawning followers from Portland to Asheville, N.C.
That trend is hard-pressed to pick up steam in Metro Detroit, given decades of ordinances designed to benefit restaurant owners and thwart mobile operations.
The trend here? Two chefs parked in a Garden City auto repair parking lot last weekend, hoping that cars whizzing by would wonder about the old ice cream truck wrapped in tomato-sauce red and marked by a chef’s knife and the name: “Concrete Cuisine.”
Jeff Aquilina and partner Justin Kava — chef veterans of Matt Prentice’s restaurant operations — were inspired by effusive magazine articles, like one in Time last year, that described how gourmet street food sold from mobile trucks had become a multimillion-dollar business in Los Angeles. But when they revved up their $60,000 kitchen on wheels on the streets last month, they soon discovered that “innovation” and “entrepreneurship” in Metro Detroit were empty words when it came to selling fried pickles (“frickles”) and a Southwest brisket taco served in a crisp won-ton shell with yellow tomato salsa for $6.95.
Licensed by Wayne County, eager to pay fees and follow rules, the pair quickly hit a wall of regulations and resistance, including Detroit ordinances that essentially ban mobile food operations from anywhere near the downtown stadiums or central business district.
“They’re basically not allowed anywhere,” says Chris Gulock, a staff member now drafting a new ordinance for the city’s planning commission.
The rules prohibit even a fully inspected and licensed restaurant on wheels from public and private property in Detroit, as the law has been interpreted.
But officials in Detroit and elsewhere say the rules date from a previous era that didn’t anticipate modern, well-equipped trucks.
This wasn’t news to other mobile food truck vendors, from the Airstream FlaminGO! Truck that brazenly flouted the rules for months last year, to Jess Daniel’s Neighborhood Noodle, a celebrated “pop-up” noodle shop that briefly morphed into a Neighborhood Noodle cart and is now being retooled, probably as a small brick-and-mortar cookery.
But Aquilina and Kava were stunned to discover they had put their cash and entrepreneurial dreams in a truck — and a trend — with nowhere to go in Detroit.
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