Blog: Phillis Engelbert

Phillis Engelbert is co-owner of The Lunch Room, a vegan food cart operating in Mark's Carts in downtown Ann Arbor. She is also publicity and events coordinator for Mark's Carts and the associated, upcoming Bill's Beer Garden. Prior to becoming a vegan foodie and small business owner, Phillis worked for 25 years as a community organizer, writer, and nonprofit administrator.

Phillis cut her activist teeth as a student organizer at the University of Michigan in the 1980s. After graduating with degrees in biology and natural resources, she moved to Washington, D.C. where she co-coordinated the national march against the first Gulf War. Back in Ann Arbor in the 1990s, she was a union organizer for the Graduate Employees Organization and a writer and editor for AGENDA monthly magazine. For the latter half of the 1990s, as a new mother, she wrote 28 volumes of textbooks and reference books for the Gale Group on science and social science topics. In the early 2000s she was a founder and the first executive director of Michigan Peaceworks.

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Behind the Cart

As Mark's Carts in Ann Arbor demonstrates on a daily basis, food carts build community. A food cart is as small and local as a business gets, and it relies on local connections to operate. We food cart vendors purchase our ingredients from individuals and small businesses, we personally sell the food that we make with our own hands, we know our customers' names – and frequently much more than that about them, we bring people together with food and music, and we constitute a community unto ourselves. This post is about our "food cart community" from my vantage point at The Lunch Room.

The first step in our process is ordering food, itself an exercise in community-building. For example, we call Glenn at By The Pound for cashews and chocolate chips; Linda ("Mama Mofoods") for hummus; Mark at Snow Farms for maple syrup; Ken at Michigan Soy Products for tofu; and Jacob at Avalon Breads for slider buns. We stop by the People's Food Co-op to place a bulk orders for tamari and gluten-free flour then move on to Farmer's Market where we visit various local organic farmers to order cabbage, greens, carrots, peppers, broccoli and the like.

Making the food comes next. Food prep in a shared kitchen is special kind of community-building experience. Cart vendors/cooks share space on worktables, the stovetop, ovens, and sinks. As we find ourselves short of ingredients we make trades: flour for peanuts; dried sage for a cookie; a cucumber for two apples. People keep an eye on each others' burners to keep pots from boiling over. The ancient Hobart 20-quart mixer gets used for pizza dough by A2 Pizza Pi and then for cookie dough by The Lunch Room, before San Street takes its turn to make buns.

Shift to the courtyard where we cart vendors work quickly to stock our carts with food. In between runs back and forth to the kitchen, we cooperatively arrange picnic tables and umbrellas, wipe down tables and chairs, and empty trash and recycling cans.

As lunch hour approaches, a couple of young jazz musicians show up, open a case for tips, and begin to play. Patrons trickle in, then that trickle becomes a stream and sometimes a flood. It is common to see visitors eat their way around the courtyard: they visit one cart for a sandwich, another for a drink, and a third for soup, then pick up dessert on their way out. Every day brings wide-eyed newcomers for whom cart owners are happy to describe not only their own food, but also the food of every other cart.

When patrons come to The Lunch Room window to order, we exchange pleasantries and chit chat. We know many of our customers by name or at least by face, and make an effort to learn new names every day. Sometimes "how are you?" leads to news of triumph and tragedy, for instance a new job or relationship, the birth of a grandchild, an engagement, or even a divorce or death of a loved one. During slow times we sit with our patrons and talk, enjoying each others' company and joking around or talking through life's challenges. I am convinced that many people come to the courtyard as much for spiritual nourishment as for the food type.

With lunch rush over, the cart operators work together to empty trash cans and wash down picnic tables. We visit with each other and make lunch swaps: a pizza for BBQ tofu sliders; a chaat for a wrap; a cup of soup for a piece of pie. Someone cranks up the Motown or Lady Gaga on their outdoor speakers and an impromptu dance party begins. Everyone enjoys the mid-afternoon lull before work speeds up again.

Back in the kitchen, cart people swap stories and suggestions while washing dishes and preparing dinner. Carters think of ways to boost each others' sales, such as: "Add bread sticks to your menu" or "A potato salad would go great with your grilled cheese" or "Your new spicy hot sauce is out of this world; put it on your tofu."  Across the kitchen, Cheese Dream's Jordan teaches Beet Box cooks how to make a balsamic vinegar reduction. Meanwhile, Debajo del Sol and The Lunch Room place a shared order of aluminum foil sheets and food preparation gloves. Nick from A2 Pizza Pi offers to fill everyone's cart tires with his air compressor. Ji Hye from San Street plugs in her ipod and there's more music and dancing.

Community-building just doesn't get any better than that.

Vegan To Go

My food cart is one of the first you see as you enter Mark's Carts: it is a wood-paneled cabin-like structure called The Lunch Room. Although not posted anywhere on the cart, it's an open secret that The Lunch Room is vegan. Our lack of announcement reflects the split reaction to the word "vegan." For vegans or vegan-leaning vegetarians, discovering a vegan eatery is a cause for celebration. For many other people, it can mean "lettuce and sprouts" or "don't eat here."

The Lunch Room serves vegan food because its owners (myself and business partner Joel Panozzo) are vegan. We have given up meat by choice and dairy by necessity (we are both lactose intolerant)… ergo vegan. We also believe that a plant-based diet is healthiest. But we do not accept that veganism means giving up exciting or hearty food. The mission of The Lunch Room is to provide fresh, healthy, plant-based and mouth-watering delicious food that satisfies and leaves you planning your next visit. Our food offerings are meant to appeal to a universal audience: Pad Thai; BBQ tofu sliders; chili; hummus & red pepper wraps; kids' meals; biscuits, "sausage," & gravy; and desserts including cookies, pies and ice cream sandwiches attract not only yoga instructors, but also construction workers.

Being a vegan in Washtenaw County, particularly in Ann Arbor, while still challenging, is a lot easier than in many other places. Here there are a handful of restaurants that cater to vegetarians and vegans. There is an abundance of fresh, locally grown produce and a community-supported agriculture movement that links consumers directly with farmers. And there are vegan social and activist networks one can join. Of course, eating out is still a challenge. Dinner with a group of friends often means ordering the one thing on the menu that can be made vegan by the elimination of several ingredients (think taco salad without the ground beef, shredded cheese or sour cream). But compared to much of the Midwest, Ann Arbor is a vegan mecca.

If national indicators are correct, veganism is entering the mainstream. Many celebrities, most notably Ellen Degeneres, Bill Clinton, and Alicia Silverstone, have taken the leap. From 2004 to 2010, the search term "vegan" saw a huge increase according to Google trends. There have been several well-publicized cases of super-athletes going vegan. And a vegan diet has gained the stamp of approval of dietetic and medical associations. Veganism does appear to be on the rise. At The Lunch Room we are excited to ride and promote this wave. 

How Food Carts Can Flourish in Washtenaw County

It's food cart time again! March 30th marked the opening of season 2 at Mark's Carts. While the Michigan spring weather has been typical -- one day it's 70 degrees and sunny and the next it's blustery and snowy -- the vibe in the food cart courtyard has been nothing short of magical. Even on the coldest, rainiest days you will find smiling people taking leisurely lunches, sharing picnic tables with strangers. Large crowds have already filled the courtyard on several occasions.

Five of the six carts that finished out season one have returned, lending stability and continuation to Mark's Carts. These veterans, which include Darcy's Cart, Debajo del Sol, Hut-K Chaat, The Lunch Room and San Street, were last year's trailblazers, building a customer base and creating a reputation for Mark's Carts as a place of good food and camaraderie. The arrival of three additional carts -- A2 Pizza Pi, The Beet Box, and Cheese Dream -- has provided a welcome infusion of energy and new, innovative food concepts.

While there are individual food carts dotting the perimeter of U-M campus, Mark's Carts is Ann Arbor's, and Washtenaw County's, only food cart courtyard. Starting a food cart or truck is not cheap or easy. It typically means navigating a maze of health department regulations and city ordinances. Plus there are significant start-up costs for the cart or truck itself, equipment, and licensing. A set-up like Mark's Carts helps food entrepreneurs in two ways: since the courtyard is situated on private property, it eliminates the need for the sidewalk occupancy or peddler's permits from the city. Mark's Carts also provides a support network for novice food cart operators; they benefit from the experience of already licensed food cart vendors.

There are a few measures that would make it easier for individual food carts or groupings like Mark's Carts to open in Washtenaw County. Perhaps most importantly, prospective cart operators need guidance. I personally have met with numerous people who had questions about where to get a cart, how to get licensed, how to obtain their food safety certification, and even how to find the appropriate city and county licensing offices. The second thing that would help would be a fee structure that gave a break to mobile food units. At present, getting licensed costs the same as if one was opening a small restaurant. And finally, cities need one-stop shopping for food sales permits; whether on the street or sidewalk or municipal property. At present, the process involves multiple offices and permits.

This winter I had the opportunity to visit Portland, Oregon, which has over 600 food carts. The carts exist in groups (called “pods”), from six or eight to over 50, and singly or in pairs in vacant lots or corners of parking lots scattered throughout the city. According to food cart proprietors with whom I spoke, licensing is easy and the local authorities encourage food carts. The carts operate year-round, even in the months of relentless rain.  The presence of so many food carts, with such a diversity of food types, was universally liked by the random Portland residents kind enough to speak with me. The carts are a defining characteristic of Portland as a quirky, innovative city where small-time entrepreneurs thrive and the possibilities are endless. With a little encouragement, a food cart movement could flourish here too.