TRAVERSE CITY, MI – It was once a liquor store with a big parking lot on a quiet block. Today, Traverse City’s open-air bar and food truck park is becoming a bustling business incubator with Brooklyn flair.
The founder is Gary Jonas, the 35-year-old owner of the Little Fleet bar. He arrived from the trendy New York City borough and turned Jack’s Market three years ago into a hip hangout in a city increasingly filled with food-savvy empty-nesters and young people attracted to a breezier pace.
“Here, lifestyle is so important,” said Jonas, dressed in dark jeans, cuffs rolled up, and a fashionably wrinkled button-down. He still spends a few days every month in Brooklyn, looking after his businesses, including the Farm on Adderley.
Little Fleet attracted overflow crowds in the summer as tourists and locals alike chowed down on $9 Korean beef tacos with sambal slaw and sriracha mayo washed down with a Shrub Soda rhubarb-flavored pop. It’s a street-level gourmet experience curated by Jonas as food-truck landlord.
His Traverse outpost is one part of a larger regional food economy that has become a kind of favorite son of big-city celebrities, spawning new visitors and residents. Famed New York restaurateur and television host Mario Batali, who vacations in the area, has tweeted to nearly 880,000 followers about his love of the region’s locavore scene. One favorite: The Cooks’ House restaurant across the way from Little Fleet.
The local foodie movement is also an outgrowth of a local economic boom over the past decade and a half with more millionaires, retirees and big-city out-of-towners living year-round in the area with some even commuting by plane to East Coast jobs during the week in bigger cities. These new residents have gobbled up more effete fare and even more Brooklyn-style gritty panache.