DETROIT, MI – Well, that’s not really fair to say. It implies that the concept of mobile food trucks is a new thing here, and it isn’t. (Hell, it was even my first feature article.) What is new is the sudden emergence of mobile food trucks and carts outside of Southwest Detroit, away from areas predominantly filled with construction workers and skilled laborers, and out into trendy suburban neighborhoods like Royal Oak and Ann Arbor. They used to be called “roach coaches.” Now they are tres chic.
As “foodie fever” sweeps the nation, the hottest trends lie in presenting old things in new ways. Salami is nothing new, but call it charcuterie and people start forming fan clubs. A hot dog represents the lowest common denominator of American cuisine, but getting it from a food truck that serves it with some fancy fixin’s and it’s a gastronomic adventure.
Food trucks were christened as the hottest new foodie scene by national media a few years ago, to the point that Eater L.A. is already calling it “like so totally over.” (Admittedly the craze started in L.A. and will most likely die there first, much like the hopes and spirits of millions of aspiring starlets.) Elsewhere, the popularity is still strong. It even has its own TV show, as any trend who’s any trend should. (Here Delish lists the most of-the-moment food trucks in the country, at least as of last month.)
Part of the reason it’s “over” in L.A. is because opportunists capitalized on it (as they do with any trend who’s any trend):
A piece in the LA Times quotes Josh Hiller, a partner in food truck outfitting business RoadStoves, as saying, “the problem came when the other commissaries and truck owners saw money and basically just prostituted the whole culture.” So to keep it “real” he’s rejecting 95% of requests for a truck.
Food truck malaise! Evidence that the trend is over: copycat trucks by people with “no culinary experience” looking to make money, corporate trucks from chains like Jack in the Box and Sizzler, and even the Food Network co-opting the craze with The Great Food Truck Race.
The “exciting, underground food scene driven by a punk rock aesthetic and an exploratory mentality”? It’s done. Kogi BBQ truck’s Roy Choi winning Food & Wine’s Best New Chef award last year — while a very respectable accolade — was anything but “underground.” Perhaps the award can now be seen as the signifier of the end of the food truck trend.
But in Detroit, food trucks, and food start-ups in general, don’t carry the same instant gratification, fame and fortune promised by other cities, and despite the nation’s fascination with Slows it’s not likely that any of our handful of legally-operating food trucks will be deemed a “scene” by outsiders anytime soon. Here the laws are still extremely prohibitive. It isn’t a simple as buying an Airstream, getting a fun logo and driving around serving quirky food; just ask Kristyn Koth.
“It was a complete dead end with city,” Koth says of trying to get the proper licensing in order to legally operate her mobile food truck, the Pink FlaminGO! “If you open up a commissary you can do your mobile food, but you need a car wash to be able to wash the truck every day. In Southwest Detroit there were two commissaries but one closed, and all the people who were permitted there were thrown into the one existing commissary. But there were too many so now they’re only going to license half.” (There is good news, though it’s not easy to come by in the city’s muddled stream of information: a hopeful food truck operator can approach any commercially-licensed kitchen and ask to use it as a commissary, as long as the truck itself is kept clean.)
As a fledgling business, it can be daunting to go through the various licensing and permitting processes demanded by the city in order to be up to proper code. But as a “new” kind of business not easily defined by existing standards and for which the laws are unclear to begin with, the process becomes proactive, demanding the kind of passion and perseverance that exceeds beyond a simple desire to start a business and becomes a matter of social advocacy.
“I bought the Airstream from a friend,” Koth explains. “I had loved it from being in design school; I always loved the design of the Airstream. When the Social Forum came here there were 100 campers in lots nearby