Monday, May 16, 2011

Pink FlaminGO!: Food Truck Fever Hits the Streets of Detroit

Well, that's not really fair to say. It implies that the concept of mobile food trucks is a new thing here, and it isn't. (Hell, it was even my first feature article.) What is new is the sudden emergence of mobile food trucks and carts outside of Southwest Detroit, away from areas predominantly filled with construction workers and skilled laborers, and out into trendy suburban neighborhoods like Royal Oak and Ann Arbor. They used to be called "roach coaches." Now they are tres chic.

As "foodie fever" sweeps the nation, the hottest trends lie in presenting old things in new ways. Salami is nothing new, but call it charcuterie and people start forming fan clubs. A hot dog represents the lowest common denominator of American cuisine, but getting it from a food truck that serves it with some fancy fixin's and it's a gastronomic adventure. 

Food trucks were christened as the hottest new foodie scene by national media a few years ago, to the point that Eater L.A. is already calling it "like so totally over." (Admittedly the craze started in L.A. and will most likely die there first, much like the hopes and spirits of millions of aspiring starlets.) Elsewhere, the popularity is still strong. It even has its own TV show, as any trend who's any trend should. (Here Delish lists the most of-the-moment food trucks in the country, at least as of last month.)

Part of the reason it's "over" in L.A. is because opportunists capitalized on it (as they do with any trend who's any trend):
A piece in the LA Times quotes Josh Hiller, a partner in food truck outfitting business RoadStoves, as saying, "the problem came when the other commissaries and truck owners saw money and basically just prostituted the whole culture." So to keep it "real" he's rejecting 95% of requests for a truck.
Food truck malaise! Evidence that the trend is over: copycat trucks by people with "no culinary experience" looking to make money, corporate trucks from chains like Jack in the Box and Sizzler, and even the Food Network co-opting the craze with The Great Food Truck Race.

The "exciting, underground food scene driven by a punk rock aesthetic and an exploratory mentality"? It's done. Kogi BBQ truck's Roy Choi winning Food & Wine's Best New Chef award last year — while a very respectable accolade — was anything but "underground." Perhaps the award can now be seen as the signifier of the end of the food truck trend.
But in Detroit, food trucks, and food start-ups in general, don't carry the same instant gratification, fame and fortune promised by other cities, and despite the nation's fascination with Slows it's not likely that any of our handful of legally-operating food trucks will be deemed a "scene" by outsiders anytime soon. Here the laws are still extremely prohibitive. It isn't a simple as buying an Airstream, getting a fun logo and driving around serving quirky food; just ask Kristyn Koth.

"It was a complete dead end with city," Koth says of trying to get the proper licensing in order to legally operate her mobile food truck, the Pink FlaminGO! "If you open up a commissary you can do your mobile food, but you need a car wash to be able to wash the truck every day. In Southwest Detroit there were two commissaries but one closed, and all the people who were permitted there were thrown into the one existing commissary. But there were too many so now they’re only going to license half." (There is good news, though it's not easy to come by in the city's muddled stream of information: a hopeful food truck operator can approach any commercially-licensed kitchen and ask to use it as a commissary, as long as the truck itself is kept clean.)

As a fledgling business, it can be daunting to go through the various licensing and permitting processes demanded by the city in order to be up to proper code. But as a "new" kind of business not easily defined by existing standards and for which the laws are unclear to begin with, the process becomes proactive, demanding the kind of passion and perseverance that exceeds beyond a simple desire to start a business and becomes a matter of social advocacy. 

It's a little ironic then that the Pink FlaminGO! started somewhat accidentally in response to the influx of social advocates during last year's U.S. Social Forum.

"I bought the Airstream from a friend," Koth explains. "I had loved it from being in design school; I always loved the design of the Airstream. When the Social Forum came here there were 100 campers in lots nearby [in North Corktown] who needed food, so we started serving them food and never closed our doors."

The Airstream is a classic retro design that makes you think of retirees in Sarasota, Florida wearing khaki shorts pulled over their waists and white orthopedic shoes with cameras strapped around their necks and ... plastic pink flamingos. "I always associated those plastic pink flamingos in Florida with the Airstream; I always had that vision. And all caps 'GO' at the end made sense for traveling around." And so it was the Pink FlaminGO! was born.

Koth has a restaurant background and has always wanted to do her own thing - she was the kid in Home Ec class (remember that??) who would put her own spin on the recipes and get in trouble with her teacher. "I knew I wanted to turn the Airstream into a food business, but I didn't think I'd get to it that fast," she says.

When the Pink FlaminGO! hit the streets last year, they did it on the fly without going through the proper procedures to be a fully legal operation. "We were definitely rebellious in the beginning," Koth admits. "We weren't trying to be like that but we hit a dead end early on so we decided just to do it because that’s how it’s been for so long here - don’t wait, just do it." That's Detroit-style DIY she's referring to, a charming entrepreneurial spirit that enacts social change and economic growth but stops being charming once the city decides to act - a gamble many are willing to take, however, given the city's notorious roster of other woes.

This year, the FlaminGO! is a fully-compliant operation and now other people are following suit: Jess Daniel of Neighborhood Noodle just bought her own cart, and she's one of the people Koth says is "really pushing to create laws for street vending." (You can join their conversation or just listen in this Thursday as the Detroit Food Policy Council presents their first summit, "Powering Up the Local Food System.")

"The dynamics change every month," says Mailk Muqaribu, Koth's partner in the Pink FlaminGO! who describes his PR/Marketing role as "Strategic Airstream Commander." "Fear of obsolescence makes what we’re doing hard," referring to an unfounded Luddite fear that the existence of food trucks will cut into the business of brick-and-mortar establishments and everyone will go out of business and Detroit will be a ghost town ... [crickets chirping] ... "Other major cities haven’t become a ghost town because of embracing this idea." Just like all those bars that were going to lose all their business and close forever once the smoking ban went into effect, right?

"Mobile food in its truest nature is recession proof," Muqaribu continues. "It is a dynamically green business. You’re creating 3-10% of the carbon footprint of a typical brick and mortar establishment and creating a situation where you use less energy."

From a business standpoint, food trucks make sense because they cut down on vast amounts of overhead in rent, utilities and payroll; need very few employees to operate; act as their own mobile advertising; and even offer traditional brick and mortar businesses a chance to try out some new products and have increased presence and visibility. But they also offer customers a whole new way of making choices in what foods they eat.

Koth speaks of downtown workers and their extremely limited choices for lunchtime dining. If you work in a building where all you have nearby is a sandwich shop, then your only choice to get out of the office for those 35 minutes during your lunch break is that sandwich shop. "It just makes sense to me for how people eat nowadays – you can stop at the truck, grab something healthy to eat real quick, and go; versus [only having a few options], having to find a place to park, wait for them to make it ..." she says. "Why not just be able to walk outside, get some exercise and sunshine, and have some options?"

For Muqaribu, food trucks also have the potential to impact the dietary choices of schoolchildren: "Try to imagine a reality where kids in the city get out of school, step out and see this mobile truck and it’s actually selling them food and it’s healthy. Now they’re training themselves and developing their palate for food with nutritional value. Now you’re training kids, a whole generation of kids growing up with a mature understanding of food; they can’t just eat a burger anymore. Now their palates are evolving. Now student government wants to see it on their menu ... maybe they get a better-trained food staff ... " This may all sound like unchecked idealism, but if it weren't for the efforts of idealists in this city there would be no urban farming, and there would be no Slows. Think about that. "There's an endless stream of impacts that mobile dining will have on the city of Detroit and none are negative – it's not going to kill other businesses.We want to evolve out of the BBQ grille on the corner next to a car wash."

Koth is also passionate about businesses supporting each other and their community. From her property in North Corktown where the FlaminGO! is stationed when it isn't GOing, Koth partners up with Brother Nature Produce (a few lots down) for fresh greens with more natural flavor and spice than you could possibly imagine if you've only ever bought lettuce from the grocery store. She gets more produce from Hope Takes Root, another farm one street over. She feeds the people at Spaulding Court, just behind her, as well as Hostel Detroit, a few lots down in the opposite direction of Brother Nature. Owner Rachel Leggs of Rachel's Place, a couple of streets over, is a regular.

"We're using the locals around us," she explains. "It’s a family here. It’s not like, 'Here’s Kristyn who goes to Kroger and buys from them,' I go to Brother Nature to support Greg and Hope Takes Root to promote them, and we all talk about that [to our customers and visitors]. I can’t exist without [Greg], he’s happy to have me - we’re here to help each other."

When the Pink FlaminGO! opens for business this season (check their Facebook page for updates), they'll be serving up the Latino-influenced locally-sourced fresh food that made them a fast hit last year. They'll also be introducing a second truck later in the summer, "Little Pinky," which will serve all-natural fruit juice slushies and cotton candy made with real fruit juice. Since the FlaminGO! launched last year, other high-profile food trucks have appeared - Jacques Tacos, run by a Michelin-ranked chef which mostly serves Royal Oak and Farmington Hills, and Mark's Carts, the newly-opened food truck corral in Ann Arbor - and with a growing population of locals trying to re-shape the laws, it seems imminent that more will follow. Koth is something of a Pied Piper in that way, or as Muqaribu says, "It’s like Annie Oakley decided to put down her gun and pick up a cookbook and a skillet."

But where food trucks were fads in trend-hungry cities like L.A., here they have the potential to be something more. "Anytime something is underground it immediately becomes overground," says Muqaribu. "Once the potential for profit becomes recognized - becomes exploited - once that happens it loses its novelty value. This has far more implications to it; it's adding something to accelerate society - mobile food and underground food movements in general."