What Food Carts Say About Ann Arbor

Mobile vending (food trucks and the like) in metro Detroit has  become a popular topic of conversation in the local media as of late. While the city of Detroit has come under heavy scrutiny about its barriers to entry, in Ann Arbor, Mark's Carts, the new food truck courtyard located on a private parcel of land on East Washington Street, has attracted the attention of mobile vending advocates, foodies, journalists and bloggers -- even Congressman John Dingell (whose visit in June was well-publicized).

What differentiates Mark's Carts from other attempts at food truck operations is the fact that the trucks themselves are stationary and are located on private property owned by Mark Hodesh, who also owns the adjacent Downtown Home and Garden garden supply and kitchenware store.

"We had a small lot where we were just parking cars and an empty building that [for various reasons] we couldn't rent out," explains Hodesh, who first became interested in food trucks after visiting his daughter in Brooklyn and witnessing the diverse offerings possible with mobile vending. The idea came to him to turn this lot and building into a food truck courtyard and kitchen.

"First, I have to say hats off to the Ann Arbor City Planning Division," Hodesh says. "My basic approach was, 'Here's what I want to do; what do I need to do?' and they told me." Because it is privately-owned property, Hodesh says there were no specific zoning ordinances he had to contend with.  The city doesn't really have a say in food sales on private property (just the Health Department). He also had a full commercial kitchen installed in the on-site building where the vendors prepare their food (as opposed to preparing the food inside the trucks themselves). Because of this highly unique (not to mention serendipitous) situation, Mark's Carts was rather easily made into a reality.

The real question is: how do we create more places like Mark's Carts?

Mobile food vending is the hottest thing since bacon in the trend-driven world of fashionable foods. Its popularity has been covered in every major national food and travel publication, even inspiring its own Food Network series called The Great Food Truck Race. New York's and L.A.'s food truck scenes have received plenty of press. Austin and San Francisco have a vibrant and growing scene. But no city has caught the country's attention for its newfound love of food trucks more than Portland, Ore.

With over 600 operating vending carts, including both motorized trucks and push-carts which the city defines as the same (any food business on wheels falls under the "vending cart" definition), Portland has become ground zero of food truck fever. But these trucks aren't actively traveling the streets of Portland; with maybe a handful of exceptions out of hundreds, these trucks are all parked in stationary semi-permanent locations called Pods - surface lots where several food trucks are located. A pod typically has about 20 vendors; one has 56. Pretty much like Mark's Carts, but on a much grander scale.

There are a number of reasons for the fast and furious rise of food truck popularity, which include low start-up costs for aspiring entrepreneurs, positive economic impact in the local community, a more lively street 'scene', and a heightened social awareness of food production and consumption. But in Portland they seem to flourish particularly well due to a very open attitude towards their creation. And as a result of their get-out-of-the-way approach, the city has added 600 locally owned businesses that require little in the way of infrastructure or formal support.

"Other people oftentimes say that rules and regulations specifically limit the operation of vending carts," says Ross Caron, public information officer for the city of Portland's Bureau of Development Services. "In the city of Portland there are no vending cart-specific regulations. We really deal with them as any other kind of commercial establishment. They still need a food handler's license, and if they use propane tanks there are some safety requirements to meet, but as far as specific codes the city really doesn't have anything regulating vending carts."

The laws in Portland have always been this conducive to this sort of business, and mobile vending is certainly nothing new (up until they became tres chic, they were blue collar "roach coaches"). Where other cities have regulations that specifically govern the operation of food trucks, Portland's comparatively permissive rules have allowed these businesses to thrive (so long as they're on wheels and located in commercial zones). This is in stark contrast to cities that require special licensing and permits and/or have ambiguously defined regulations that even those designated to enforce them aren't sure what they are.

Such is the case in Ann Arbor.

"Basically if it's not specifically permitted it's prohibited," says Alexis DiLeo of Ann Arbor Planning and Development Services.

This sort of closed-door approach makes it difficult to develop an outside-the-brick-and-mortar box business. Want to build another Pot Belly Deli in downtown (headquartered in California)? No problem. Want to launch a half-dozen locally owned food carts? Sorry, that's not permitted.

In fact, the existence of Mark's Carts is an anomaly even more specific than Hodesh already owning the parcel of land AND building a commercial kitchen: he was only able to sell food outdoors on his own property because his pre-existing business (Downtown Home and Garden) which itself already sold food. Wendy Rampson, planning manager with the city of Ann Arbor's planning department, explains that the zoning ordinance for outdoor food sales requires that there is some business onsite that does something similar, such as a grocery store hosting a farmers' market in its parking lot. Downtown Home and Garden has a food stand inside, which toed open the door for Mark's Carts outside.

Without this very specific set of factors falling so neatly into place, Mark's Carts would have been an impossibility, and the formula itself will be nearly impossible to repeat. Not that Ann Arbor is lacking for locations for other such food truck pods. For instance, the city has three square blocks of parking lots --which any urban planner will tell you spells certain death for foot traffic and street excitement-- all right downtown. Take for example the little superfluous 30-spot parking lot right next to Palio Restaurant at Main Street and William. There is a six-story parking garage next to it, a 100-spot lot across the street, and another four-level underground garage is being built across from that. The lot itself is, for all city planning purposes, effectively useless. So why not fill it with food carts and provide a small downtown commons?

The answer to that is another muddle of food vending regulations and zoning requirements that equate to a frazzled parent saying "No" before the child even finishes asking his question. The extraneous lot next to Palio falls under the jurisdiction of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA, explains that they would be very open to the idea if there was a strong interest among several cart owners in establishing a new cart area in that lot.

She explains, "The DDA would likely need one person/cart owner to step forward and be the responsible organizer for the project and of course the carts would need to secure insurances to protect the DDA & city. Once their proposal was received, the DDA would then need to evaluate the loss of parking revenues versus the potential rent received from the carts, as well as the potential downtown benefits and drawbacks to such an arrangement."

This of course assumes the DDA's authority would trump the planning department's zoning restrictions (like that pesky little provision requiring that there be a building on the property that sells something similar), as well as the county's regulations on food preparation inside mobile trucks (even the ones that aren't technically mobile). To overcome these obstacles and promote mobile vending, existing laws will have to be changed, or entirely new laws will have to be established.

But to do so is not without incentive - an incentive that exceeds beyond simply bandwagoning on the latest national trend. The entrepreneurial and economic advantages notwithstanding, business models like Portland's food truck pods also help promote street excitement and social interaction, necessary components for the development of downtown areas and neighborhoods alike.

In a study conducted by Portland's Urban Vitality Group called "Food Cartology," which was done in partnership with the city of Portland's Bureau of Planning to study the effects that food carts have on street vitality and neighborhood livability, it was determined that food carts have a positive impact on street vitality and neighborhood life in both residential and high density downtown areas.

"Vacant lots and parking lots can create 'gaps' in the pedestrian environment, reducing 'eyes on the street.," reads page seven of the report. "This decreases safety or perceptions of safety, deterring people from walking in these areas. Interim uses of such vacant land can benefit the public while the market may not support additional investments."

Plus, crowds attract crowds and people want to be around people. As Brett Burmeister of Portland food truck anthropology site Food Carts Portland  notes, "There was always foot traffic [in the downtown area], but by the pods, it increases due to the options of food...  the pods bring the community together."

Portland provided a space to make the food trucks happen, kept the barriers to entry low and oriented to specific social concerns (food safety, commercial zoning), and has seen a positive impact they have had on the community and entrepreneurial landscape (not to mention the constant media attention). In the few months since it has opened, Mark's Carts has already increased foot traffic to its semi-remote location a block and a half off of Main Street in what is practically an alley, though Rampson is hesitant to hail it a victory quite yet by saying traffic has "only anecdotally" increased due to "curiosity," and questions whether it is sustainable.

Mark's Carts is in the somewhat unfortunate position of being the guinea pig food truck experiment: if it's a smashing success, it will take tremendous effort on the part of very few to ensure the model is replicated; if the challenges of its odd location or seasonal nature prove too daunting, naysayers will be able to rest comfortably behind their "I told you it wouldn't work" arguments and governing bodies can breathe a sigh of relief at not having to try to interpret the short-sighted and archaic laws they're supposed to uphold.

With a rallying cry like: "If it's not specifically permitted, it's prohibited," it'll be hard not to view our region as a place that inhibits instead of promotes innovation and entrepreneurship.

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at http://www.eatitdetroit.com She's also a regular contributor to Metromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe

Mark Hodesh at Mark's Carts
Helen Harding and Blake Reetz at the eat cart
Brother and sister Paul and May Lin Kessenich of Darcy's Cart
Cristina Trapani-Scott and Jay Scott of Debajo del Sol
Mark Reetz serving up lunch at eat
Steamed Pork Buns at San Street
Ji Hye Kim and Blake Reetz in the Mark's Carts kitchen
Joel Panozzo of The Lunch Box in the Mark's Cart kitchen
Joel, Ji Hye and Blake in the kitchen
The Violin Monster serenades diners at Mark's Carts

Contact Doug here

Helen Harding and Mark Reetz at the Eat cart
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.