What Food Trucks Say About Ferndale

Last month in Concentrate, the Ann Arbor-based sister publication to Metromode, we looked at the burgeoning food truck scene in Ann Arbor, with the arrival of the new food truck courtyard Mark's Carts. We also looked at Portland, Ore.'s successful "pod" model, groups of food trucks located in semi-permanent positions on privately-owned lots. The scene has been so successful that there are now over 600 food carts operating in Portland, and they regularly make national headlines in food, travel, and business publications.

This week in Metromode, we look to Ferndale to see how feasible a food truck scene might be here, and what it means for the greater community.

In terms of urban cred, Ferndale doesn't really have any one thing that makes it extraordinary. When considering the amenities that typically make a community stand out - rich history, impressive architecture, unique cultural heritage, major museums, exceptional restaurants - the city struggles to distinguish itself. And yet, distinguish itself it does.

What makes this inner ring Detroit burb so attractive is its energetic commitment to developing a vibrant downtown, nurturing local entrepreneurship, drawing young professionals, and facilitating the creativity of its citizens. The nickname "Fabulous Ferndale" isn't just a tongue-in-cheek response to the city's growing LGBT population. It's become a mission statement of sorts. And unlike many local governments, the city has political and municipal leaders willing to embrace the changes necessary to meet those goals.

"Ferndale is easy to work with as far as the city goes," says Chris Johnston, owner of popular Ferndale spots Woodward Avenue Brewers (WAB), the Emory and the Loving Touch. "A lot of other places seem to have red tape for no reason... it should be a given to not get in the way of people who have a lifelong dream of doing something and are willing to put money up to do it. [It almost seems like] some cities watch you do things the wrong way just to say 'Oh, you did it wrong.'"

As if to drive that point home, consider the New Theater Project, an Ann Arbor troupe that was recently driven out of its small space because of zoning issues. Despite a year of performing and renovating the space, the city demanded $1,000 to apply for an exception hearing or move out. The company ended up relocating to Ypsilanti.

Someone says, "I have an idea" and Ferndale answers, "Let's make it work."

Recently a brand-new mobile food truck called El Guapo made headlines for becoming the first fully-sanctioned food truck in downtown Detroit. It only took 60 trips to City Hall to make it happen.

In Ann Arbor, where the city's mantra is "If it's not specifically permitted, it's forbidden",  Mark's Carts opened against all municipal odds. Given the constraints and requirements, it was the urban equivalent of lightning striking.

In contrast, two weeks ago the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority was approached with four applications for mobile vending permits (two push-carts and two trucks). Three out of four are already operating -- Underdog and Motor City Franks, both sidewalk hot dog vendors, and Jacques' Tacos, which is renting a space in the privately-owned parking lot of Ferndale Radiator. The fourth, another Mexican food truck called Taco Mama, is delayed only until an agreement on the truck's location can be reached and secured. Treat Dreams will also soon be operating an ice cream cart.

"We had a vision session at the end of June of what people want to see here," explains Cristina Sheppard-Decius, executive director of the Ferndale DDA. "We had a little wish board and had so many people say 'I wish we had a mobile taco stand, a mobile hot dog stand…' then a week later we got a bunch of applications!"

The myth of competition

As contended in the Concentrate article, food trucks increase street excitement and neighborhood vitality, essential components for urban growth. Rather than creating competition with brick and mortar businesses, on-street vending can be used to help diversify a downtown area, draw a larger customer base (nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd) and supplement specific food niches. Sheppard-Decius notes that food carts help to build what is known in market analysis terms as "good competition" and "clustering."

"When you have clusters of, say, clothing stores or certain types of restaurants or restaurants in general, it actually builds a stronger economy for all those businesses in that cluster," she explains. "With smaller items like food and gifts, people will go out and browse for awhile before they make their selection. When you have [these businesses] all within one area it draws them there and keeps them there longer which means more money spent [in that area]. There's a lot of strategy to all of this!"

This should be of some comfort to those businesses who have expressed concern (to put it mildly) that our downtown areas will be overrun with food trucks stealing away jobs and customers. The hand-wringing makes for good rhetoric in an "earth is flat" sort of way, but the experiences of cities that have embraced food cart culture doesn't support the argument.

Consider fast food franchises. How often do you see McDonald's, Subway, Jimmy John's and Tao Bell all within hailing distance of one another? Consider how often you see those very same places open right next to each other.

Or to give a more localized example, take the WAB. A taco cart serving carnitas for $1.50 each is not going to cut into the customer base that is paying $8 for the WAB's taco entrees. One is a sit-down full-service establishment. The other is a truck. One serves a wide selection of hand-crafted beers, wines and spirits. The other is a truck. One has live music on weekends. The other is a truck. The reason you typically find fast food joints clustered together, food courts drawing large crowds, and so many food options in Chinatown (pick any Chinatown) is because having all of those places in one area creates a destination for customers, a reason to go that they wouldn't otherwise have if each establishment were an island unto itself.

Brad Dahlhofer, owner of Ferndale's B Nektar Meadery, loves the idea of working with food trucks for his annual "Mead Day" celebration. He has to sell food in order to serve alcohol, which is a challenge for his business which does not have the equipment to prepare food and must bring it in from the outside.

"This could be the future of our Mead Day," he says. "I welcome every one of those carts and food trucks to get a hold of me!"

Mobile economics

Let's say you love to cook and dream of one day opening your own restaurant. The challenges associated with opening a brick and mortar establishment are enormous. Couple that to the financial failure rate of most eateries and it's a minor miracle when a local restaurant survives, no less thrives.

But lest you think food trucks have some unfair marketplace advantage, consider that the average owner-operator puts in 12 hours of work a day and typically employs only one or two additional people.

According to "Food Cartology", a study conducted by Portland's Urban Vitality Group, food trucks tend to be family-operated businesses that attract unskilled minority workers and mostly generate a modest living wage. No one is opening a food truck to become a millionaire. They don't have the advantage of investors, and rarely qualify for bank loans.

This low barrier to entry is part of what makes mobile vending such an attractive option to aspiring entrepreneurs. While opening a restaurant might cost up to $2 million before a single customer is served, a mobile vendor needs only the truck itself, food and supplies, necessary permits and leased space (if in a permanent parked position).

There is a certain "grass is greener" mentality here, as Johnston mentions: lower overhead might sound like a dream to a restaurant owner, but challenges such as lack of seating, limited menu options, inability to sell alcohol, and the pitfalls of Michigan's weather all ensure that there is a pretty low ceiling to how much money a food truck can make.

From the city's standpoint, however, every food truck that opens is one more locally-owned business generating tax revenue for the city and employing local residents with little infrastructure or formal support needed. Five carts may seem inconsequential, but on the scale of Portland's 600 mobile vendors that's thousands of added jobs and nearly $100,000 in additional tax revenue for the city. It adds up.

For Ferndale, it just means more of doing what they do best.

"Ferndale has always been very pro-small business, especially with things a little left of center," Johnston notes. "The government itself is very easy on everybody; there are rules you have to follow and if you do that, no problem."

The rules governing mobile vending in Ferndale are thus: mobile units must have all necessary permits and food handlers' licenses; meet health department requirements; can prepare food inside the truck itself (no commercial kitchen required); and must relocate every two hours unless renting a permanent space in a privately-owned lot. The DDA has said it is amenable to discussing a "pod" concept so long as the location has the volume potential and doesn't eat into available parking spaces).

Sheppard-Decius explains that the DDA has a motto: "Change is good." And in today's shifting and shaky economic climate, change is not only good but necessary. Food trucks may be a "fad," but they're also an innovative approach to a sole proprietorship business that may have as-yet unknown effects on the local economy and the public approach to entrepreneurship.

And if anything, they're certainly DIY. Which means they're the perfect fit for Ferndale.

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer and popular Metro Detroit food blogger. Read her blog at http://www.eatitdetroit.com

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