After seven years in the food-truck business, Dan Gearig says the popular wheeled eateries are anything but a fad.
"We figure the industry isn't going away," Gearig says. "It's just getting bigger. We see it being a sustainable business."
Gearig and his wife Lindsey own StrEAT Detroit, which operates the Mac Shack
and El Guapo
food trucks. The Gearigs have recently expanded StrEAT's scope with a new business called Red Beard Customs, which fabricates new trucks from scratch for clients looking to capitalize on the street-eats market. Gearig says that, given the limited availability of food trucks nationwide, it's time Detroit got in on the unique niche of building them.
"Right now the only places to get food trucks are Los Angeles, and some in Miami, Texas, and New York," he says. "It didn't make sense to us to be spending more money out of Detroit when we have the best manufacturers and the best machinery."
Gearig says it can be tempting for new food cart owners to rush into things, installing their own kitchen equipment on an old truck or van, when they'd be better off making an investment in their future with a higher-quality vehicle built for their needs. And his aim is to offer that kind of product, at a lower price than many out-of-state fabricators.
"Just because you put a futon in a van, that doesn't make it a limo," he says. "And a lot of the food trucks out there are like that. I've worked on some of the nicest trucks that are produced on the West Coast, and I've also worked on some really shitty ones. That's why I want to build one that costs 25% less but has the same quality [as a West Coast truck]."
Red Beard's first custom-designed truck, a mobile version of Eastern Market regular Corridor Sausage Co.
, will hit the streets this spring. Gearig began designing the truck to the charcuterie's specifications in October, with the assistance of mechanical engineer Brian Struebing. Working from a computer-generated draft, the two outfitted a basic box truck with specialized plumbing, electrical fixtures and other modifications.
"I know these things inside and out, and I'm also a chef," Gearig says. "I'm able to bridge the gap between engineers and chefs to make trucks that are not only functional, but the whole layout is built with the chef in mind."
But even this veteran of Detroit's youthful food-truck industry found some surprises in the innovative ideas his clients brought to the table. Corridor Sausage partner Gjon Camaj suggested the idea of lowering the truck's serving platform so it would be more at customers' eye levels, eliminating the craned neck necessary to interact with staff on most trucks.
"That was one of the more innovative things I've seen on a food truck," Gearig says. "I never look at anybody as a rookie or a newb, per se, as far as what they think a food truck should be. I feel like they brought as much value to us as we've brought to them."
Gearig says he has a few bids out on new truck-building projects, but he and his prospective clients are waiting to see how the Corridor truck turns out first. So far, Corridor owner Will Branch seems pleased with the way the nearly-finished truck is shaping up.
"We would probably not be launching a food truck right now if it was not for Dan's help and guidance on the project," Branch says. "The work that Red Beard has done fabricating our truck is amazing."
Gearig is even more direct about his enthusiasm for his work on the Corridor project. "Dude, it's killer," he says.
Meanwhile, Gearig's basking in the success of his own food trucks, and planning his next addition to the fleet. Enthusiastic response to the somewhat esoteric concept of the Mac Shack (a macaroni and cheese truck) has inspired him to delve into world cuisine with an Asian food truck that will debut in May. Gearig says the Food Network has helped open people's minds to a broad range of alternatives to traditional fast food.
"All these Burger Kings and McDonald'ses where you drive through and you get your shitty Happy Meal and you're out of there, people are over it, man," he says. "People want creative fast food. And street food is fun."
And, he says, it's great for entrepreneurship. Detroit's food-truck craze has occasionally gotten tied up in legal squabbles over where the vehicles can set up shop. But Gearig says the city would do well to encourage an industry that offers aspiring business owners an affordable way to break in and then expand the scope of their endeavors, as he has.
"A lot of these guys are gonna step up," he says. "And that's gonna grow the city. I hope people start seeing what great resources we have for food here in Detroit. Let's make the pie bigger, man. Let's become a culinary destination."
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography