Food truck revolution: U.P. sees boom in mobile restaurants

The culture of food trucks is really taking off in the Upper Peninsula, with more new additions to the choices each season.
Part of the reason is more welcoming regulations from communities like Marquette, where the city council recently gave food trucks more access to public places. Another part is that even where regulations don't exist, smaller towns and other cities are seeing the benefits of having these lower-cost, on-trend, mobile food businesses active in their community.
And a third piece of the whole picture, according to Mike Walker, owner and operator of the hugely popular Marquette taco truck Dia de los Tacos, is that the food scene in general is getting better and better locally. He notes several local foodie havens are also succeeding, like the Marq, the Steinhaus and the Piedmont restaurants, and the soon-to-be-open Zephyr wine bar.
"The last few years has really seen a positive increase in Marquette for food in general, not just food trucks," Walker says. "Even the availability of foods on shelves in stores has gotten so much better. I can now find good paté, beautifully marbled bone-in steaks, interesting cuts of pork, well-crafted local sausages... it goes on and on. If you love food, Marquette's looking better all the time."
The U.P. has had masters of the food truck craft before, as in Trenary's acclaimed Rollin' Smoke BBQ truck, which has been selling its Southern-style pulled pork and brisket since 2012 at local festivals, fairs and events. In fact, in 2015, it expanded to add a second food "bus" to be able to appear at more places, after a trial run in a brick-and-mortar location in Marquette over the winter couldn't compete with the success of the mobile locations.
The difference these days is the rise of trucks which keep a regular, one-or-two-town weekday and weekend schedule, inspired by the success of similar models in larger cities like Chicago, Seattle, and even Traverse City, more locally.
One of the most recent newcomers to the food truck scene is in summer-tourism boom town Munising, where Loco Poco Tacos is having its first season.
The cart, owned by Munising native Autumn Ballas, brings modern, authentic Mexican food in the form of tacos, nachos and bowls, and can be found at various events around town as well as its regular downtown location. It's even trying out an online ordering system for pickup orders, although the owners plan to close down in Munising for the winter. LPT says as summer tourist season comes to an end, they'll be taking a hiatus until next summer, when they'll look into a possible new longer-term location.
While taco trucks and barbeque trucks seem to be the most popular mobile food spots, others also are succeeding in the U.P.
One standout that does something different is wood-fired pizza truck Copper Crust Co., which has partnered up with both Blackrocks Brewery in Marquette and Cognition Brewery in Ishpeming to find a home in an area that's big on both pizza and craft beer.
Owner Matt Lucas started out by building his food trailer from the ground up in a real labor of love. He says Copper Crust Co. is the result of his food industry experience, which has ranged from distribution and sales to various cooking positions. When he and his wife, a Marquette native, came back to the area, he found fertile ground for the new business here, first serving up their handmade pizza in May.
"Marquette's a great place to start a new business," he says. The truck's first summer has been pretty good so far, and they can also be found at events, private parties and receptions around the area, including this weekend's Bell's Beer Copper Harbor Trails Fest, for which Copper Crust Co. is a sponsor this year.
"I felt wood-fired pizza was a good fit up here," says Lucas. "We've partnered up with a couple local breweries, which is obviously a match made in heaven for us. People like to go out and drink a good craft beer, and often breweries don't serve food themselves."
In fact, local breweries have been big supporters of food trucks, offering up their parking lots or street sides to create a fun atmosphere for their patrons that benefits both businesses in the end. Blackrocks and Ore Dock Brewing in Marquette have both been hot spots for a rotating schedule of food trucks.
Lucas says Copper Crust Co. will look at expanding when the time is right.
"Absolutely we'd like to expand our mobile operation. We'd never rule out a brick-and-mortar operation or adding takeout, but we're going to try to be smart and do what makes sense," he says.
Of course, being surrounded by the Great Lakes as we are, there are some outstanding fresh fish trucks as well. In Munising, a favorite has been The Fish Basket, which serves fresh-that-day fried-up whitefish and other local fish to positive reviews.  And in Copper Harbor, Captain Matt's Fish and Chips takes similar advantage of its perch on the shore of Lake Superior to fry up whitefish and fish tacos, claiming the title of "Michigan's northernmost food cart" -- which is quite true.
Not surprisingly, many of the U.P. food carts and food trucks take winters off, as weather starts to make logistics difficult for both vendors and customers. A few hardy trucks do operate year-round, like Dia de los Tacos, which was one of the first spotted around Marquette. It opened its doors in 2013 and has seen steady success since, with menu additions, collaborations with other businesses and breweries (like this recent event with Detroit-based Slows BBQ).
Within a few years, it's been joined by fellow taco truck Senor's Tacos, with tacos, nachos and homemade salsa, and BBQ truck Wild Blue, which plates Kansas City-style barbeque.
Still, Walker says there hasn't been too much overlap, and there's always room for new food ventures.
"We don't tend to do many of the same events, and as such, I don't see the others all too often. If I'm not on the truck working myself, I'm sitting on my front porch with my wife Christine, playing cribbage and drinking bourbon. I've met most of the folks operating the other trucks, and consider myself friendly with them. I think it's great to see these other options out there," he says.
What's the future of food trucks in the U.P.? If current trends are anything to measure by, we'll be seeing even more trucks chugging along the streets next summer, whether they're from brand new ventures or existing businesses.
Kim Eggleston is a freelance writer and editor in Marquette, Michigan.
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