Grand Rapids, MI: Rick DeVos Joins Debate Over Allowing Food Trucks in Grand Rapids

By Matt Vande Bunte |

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – A zoning amendment to allow food trucks in parts of Grand Rapids, with some regulations, could come up for a City Commission vote next week. When it does, it will come with the endorsement of Rick DeVos.

DeVos spoke this week at a hearing on the amendment, which would permit food trucks and other kinds of concession stands such as wagons and trailers to operate on private property in mixed-use commercial zoning districts.

Some in the food industry have balked at the idea, saying less-costly food trucks would have an unfair advantage over brick-and-mortar restaurants with much higher overhead.

DeVos criticized that logic, calling food trucks “experimental kitchens” and saying that a meal served from a vehicle is not even “remotely comparable” to dining in a sit-down restaurant: “Isn’t it unfair competition to be able to offer diners warmth and shelter” on snowy or rainy nights, he countered.

“It’s called free enterprise and we should be embracing it no matter who is on the receiving end of its disruption,” said DeVos, founder of ArtPrize. “The more we build the experience of downtown Grand Rapids as a great place to spend time, the more everyone doing business in downtown Grand Rapids will benefit.

“Let’s get out of the way … and celebrate greater food choice in Grand Rapids.”

The proposed food-truck amendment permits only stationary uses on private property. Existing city rules on transient merchants and downtown vending still would apply to mobile food trucks, said Suzanne Schulz, the city’s planning director.

Jeffrey Lobdell, president of Restaurant Partners, Inc. - photo File

Under the proposal, a vacant lot that gets a city permit could host multiple food trucks for up to 200 days per year. Hours of operation could go no later than 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday or 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, unless Grand Rapids Planning Commission approves a different schedule.

DeVos said that “as proposed the proposal probably does not go far enough” in accommodating food trucks. Here are what some other stakeholders had to say at this week’s hearing:

  • W. Jeffrey Lobdell, president of Restaurant Partners Inc.initially opposed food trucks in Grand Rapids and now has changed his mind. Still, he’s leery of giving the city Planning Commission the ability to permit later operating hours.

    “I don’t know why you would allow any wiggle room for later hours and you should also include a start time of how early they could be allowed to open,” Lobdell wrote to the commission.

  • Paul Lee, owner of The Winchester restaurant and “What the Truck” food truck, wants the city to permit operating times into the early morning hours.

    “Around every corner it seems like we’re finding more obstacles,” he said.

    Dennis Moosbrugger, Arena District president and co-owner of Bar Divani - photo File
  • Dennis Moosbrugger, president of the Arena District and co-owner of Bar Divani, said food trucks won’t compete with permanent restaurants because they offer “a one-stop shop for a particular item” rather than full-service menus like many brick-and-mortar establishments.

      • “Anything that enhances downtown, the vibrancy and livability of it, benefits everybody including the brick-and-mortar folks,” he said.

      • Patty Konwinski, co-owner of The Dog Pit, thinks food trucks could compete directly with her restaurant on Monroe Center, the way some hot dog carts already do.

    “We’re not opposed to mobile vendors. We just don’t feel that the time is right in downtown Grand Rapids right now,” she said. “One empty storefront is one too many. It’s still a fragile business environment and there are some restaurants that are just teetering on the edge. I need to protect my business.”

      • Molly Clauhs, owner of The Silver Spork food truck, said food trucks are not “vultures” that “want to skim the cream from the top” of the restaurant industry. Instead, they are laboratories for bringing “something really fresh and creative to our city,” she said.

        “It’s about providing alternatives to the food that we have that’s currently quick and easy,” Clauhs said. “Michigan loves the hot dog, but I think we need something more. Food trucks are providing something different and something fun.”

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    • Kevin Bart, a former Mr. Fables employee who plans to operate a food truck for church and non-profit fundraisers, wants Grand Rapids to allow food trucks in more than just mixed-use commercial zoning districts.

      “That was a great burger (at the former Mr. Fables) and I want to bring it back,” he said.