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.

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.