Blog: Phillis Engelbert

In Portland, Ore., empty parking lots make for good food cart pods. In Ann Arbor, empty parking lots are tailgate heaven but food carts are mostly verboten. This week, Phillis Engelbert, co-owner of vegan food cart The Lunch Room, writes on how food carts could have an easier road into the community.

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.