DETROIT, MI – The food-truck trend has been burgeoning on both coasts, and now these restaurants on wheels are trolling into Midwestern cities like Autoweek’s hometown of Detroit.
Working out of refurbished vintage Volkswagens, ancient travel trailers and old catering trucks, the proprietors of these mobile kitchens are using some creative body work and a lot of elbow grease to bring movable meals to the Motor City.
Join us for a look at what it takes to turn a truck into a restaurant all this week as we explore the food trucks of Detroit.
Bill the “Hot Dog Guy” of Frank’s Anatra hot dog truck was inspired to bring mobile food to the masses when he saw an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile cruising the streets of his Detroit neighborhood as a kid. He ran up to the truck hoping to get a hot dog and was crestfallen upon discovering that the people onboard were only handing out plastic wiener-shaped whistles. He vowed to save future hot dog seekers from similar disappointment, eventually founding an itinerant eatery in a Volkswagen pickup. The truck can be found parked at the Birmingham farmers market or catering events at the Woodward Dream Cruise, serving hot dogs, Polish and Italian sausages, salads and vegetarian options.
“While browsing eBay, I accidentally hit the ‘Buy it now’ button for a cool single-cab ’65 Volkswagen pickup,” Bill said. “I got the VW home, and here I am seven years later, writing a kid’s name on his hot dog with ketchup.”
Bill worked for Volkswagen in the 1970s and knew that the German automaker had produced a pickup. He sought one out, thinking it would be perfect for his purposes, with enough room in back for his equipment, an open-air bed so that he could interact closely with his customers and a hint of nostalgia. He flew out to California to buy the 1965 model that houses his restaurant and had it shipped home rather than driving it. The engine, a VW 1600, would have seriously limited highway speeds. The truck originally came with a 1200 engine when it was built.
Bill makes small updates to the truck each year, though the Porsche wheels that were on it when he bought it remain. So far he has installed disc brakes (before, the truck would drift into the next lane whenever he tried to stop, Bill says), propane and water tanks and a surfboard rack that supports an awning covering the kitchen–key for meeting health-department standards. Five years ago he had a transmission specially built with lower gearing in the first few gears to help with the heavier loads his truck generally sees.
One of his favorite parts of his job is chatting with nostalgic customers about their memories in similar old VWs. “A lot of my time is spent talking to people about what Volkswagens they used to have, saying, ‘My first date, my first kiss was in one of these vans,’” Bill says. “I love those stories; they bring so much happiness out of people. It’s really fun.”
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