Hot Wheels: Detroit’s Food Truck Scene Keeps Growing

By Dorothy Hernandez, Foodable Contributor

Entrepreneurs are helping revitalize Detroit one creative business at a time, especially in the local food scene with alternative business models such as pop-ups and food trucks. With such an influx of food-focused ventures, one would think it would be a cutthroat industry. Not in the Motor City.

“The truck offers the ability to collaborate and be a part of a lot of the exciting things happening in and around the city,” says chef Marc Bogoff of the popular food truck Stockyard. 

He noted that since they started the truck in 2014, there has been a “a steady climb in new trucks throughout the city, and it’s only been a couple of years. I would love to see more public locations begin to take shape on a daily basis as the industry continues to grow.”

Navigating the Legal Process

With the rise of food truck culture in Detroit, the process of getting licensed has frustrated some mobile restaurateurs. One of the chief frustrations cited by business owners is that information is spread out among different agencies, so they have to hunt it down on their own. 

In response to the difficulties of figuring out the process, FoodLab Detroit — an organization that comprises more than 150 member food businesses — launched the grassroots campaign “Operation Above Ground.” FoodLab surveyed food entrepreneurs and found Detroit is home to many alternative businesses such as food trucks, shared kitchen spaces, and pop-up restaurants that can offer locally sourced, healthier food options for locals, especially in traditionally marginalized neighborhoods and communities, while fostering creativity and cultural exchange. 

But many of these businesses were not operating legitimately — not by choice, but because policy around the licensing and regulation of food businesses has not yet caught up to the growing industry, says Devita Davison, marketing and communications director at FoodLab. 

Through “Operation Above Ground,” “we were able to map the current process to help food truck operators navigate the existing (albeit imperfect) licensing process so they can continue to innovate and grow. Second, we were able to identify ways to improve this process to remove the bottleneck that currently stifles organic entrepreneurial energy and creativity,” says Davison. 

Spearheaded by Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López, efforts are in the works to develop a permitting process that would help clearly define different types of mobile units and clarify where food trucks can park.

Davison adds that relaxed land use regulations are credited with “the thriving food truck scenes in cities like Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon. Take Portland for example, the food truck scene has taken on legendary proportions with more than 500 trucks, changing the urban landscape while encouraging sustainability, community, creativity, and entrepreneurship. In Austin, there are even tours dedicated solely to visiting food trucks. The food truck industry is rapidly ascending up the food tourism value chain and food trucks are expected to generate about $2.7 billion in revenue in the U.S. by 2017,” she says, citing Intuit’s report, “Food Trucks Motor Into the Mainstream.”

“Detroit is severely behind other cities as it relates to food trucks,” she says. “Despite the rapidly increasing demand, the food truck industry in Detroit is inequitable. Detroit does not have an ordinance that specifically regulates food trucks, which makes operating a food truck in the city complicated and uncertain. Nearly all food trucks in Detroit choose to operate on private property (primarily Campus Martius downtown and Eastern Market), so you have to know someone, since food truck owners can more easily work out agreements with private property owners. Given the city’s lack of clear guidelines, most food truck owners won’t risk parking on public streets or public property.”

For those who are able to get their trucks on the road, they have found success, feeding the hunger of many who line up at rallies, farmers markets, and other special events around the city to partake in everything from beignets to Caribbean to Korean tacos.

Clockwise: Loaded tater tots, Korean beef sandwich, broccoli melt from Stockyard food truck  | Credit: Instagram @stockyard_detroit

Clockwise: Loaded tater tots, Korean beef sandwich, broccoli melt from Stockyard food truck | Credit: Instagram @stockyard_detroit

Taking It to the Streets

One of the more popular food trucks in Detroit is Stockyard. They started off as a supper club in June 2013 and then followed with a food truck in April 2014. The dinners feature such refined dishes as salt cod croquette with sweet corn, sujuk, salad brunet and ramp oil, and Michigan Lake perch with kumquat butter and tarragon. The food truck offers gourmet sandwiches such as a popular broccoli melt and pulled pork.

“The food truck was always the first plan of action,” says chef Marc Bogoff. “While that was in the works we wanted to offer a different entity altogether to begin building a brand by hosting intimate tasting menu dinners, which started in a friend’s loft and later evolved into exciting yet challenging locations and collaborations with other business[es] and chefs.”  

In just a short time, Stockyard has built up a loyal following, especially on social media where they post tantalizing photos of their food.

“Wanting to tell a story with visuals has always been the approach with social media, using food, collaboration, and travel to connect with like-minded individuals and share experiences in the digital world has been the most rewarding part of watching the business evolve,” Bogoff says. 

A brick-and-mortar is always a possibility, he says, as they continue to grow the business.

“Stockyard continues to evolve having two mobile entities, and taking on new and exciting projects that allow us to be in different environments using the food truck or putting on a public or private seated dinners,” he says.  

And on the other side of the spectrum, established restaurants have gotten into the game. Food trucks aren’t just for entrepreneurs hoping for a brick-and-mortar someday. Bigalora Wood Fired Cucina, the pizza concept by chef Luciano DelSignore, is not only growing in terms of expanding the chain, but also has a food truck, taking its signature wood-fired pizzas and homemade gelato on the road. The Italian staple Andiamo chain also recently launched its food truck, taking favorites such as calamari, sausage and peppers, pasta with meatballs, as well as food with street food flair such as meatball subs, crispy fried mozzarella cubes, and panini. Debuting for the Detroit Grand Prix in the spring, it can be found at various events, festivals, and food truck rallies around town.

Bonus: Tips from FoodLab and the Southwest Detroit Business Association

Here are some pointers from a guide created by FoodLab and Southwest Detroit Business Association through “Operation Above Ground.” The guide explains how to establish a Mobile Food Truck or Special Transitory Food Unit.

  • Define and write out your concept
  • Figure out how much capital you need
  • Make your inspector your best friend
  • Keep records of everything
  • Check Craigslist and eBay for a used food truck, equipment, or trailers in your area
  • Learn about zoning regulations where you intend to operate
  • Consider the best department to apply for your license
  • Understand the ongoing inspection requirements for your license type
  • Use your food trailer seller as a resource
  • Take into consideration seasonality
  • Get the word out
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Be patient, things can get messy
  • Have fun!