Lansing, MI: Varied Dishes on Food Trucks can Literally Provide a Movable Feast

A customer orders at Trailer Park'd, a mobile restaurant in Lansing owned by Jesse Hahn. It opened this spring. TRICIA BOBEDA/Lansing State Journal

by Tricia Bobeda | LSJ.com

A customer orders at Trailer Park'd, a mobile restaurant in Lansing owned by Jesse Hahn. It opened this spring. TRICIA BOBEDA/Lansing State Journal

Nina Santucci and Anthony Maiale are taking working in close quarters to a new level.

The East Lansing couple and owners of the Purple Carrot Food Truck have been dating for six years and worked together in restaurants most of that time. Now, they are running a mobile restaurant, working side by side from a truck.

Jesse Hahn has taken a similar road. After working for others, he decided cooking food his way worked best from a trailer pulled by his truck. Trailer Park’d was born.

Low startup costs

Santucci, Maiale and Hahn are among the newest entrepreneurs to try food service with a twist – on wheels. With low startup costs and unique menus, they hope to make a go of it in the crowded food business. But they face a few challenges, including finding the best places to park for the day without violating municipal ordinances.

“We’re paying our bills and making payroll and figuring it all out,” Hahn said. “It’s a work in progress. If it was easy everybody would do it.”

Before moving to Michigan, Santucci was a general manager and he was the chef of a Philadelphia restaurant.

“We were there 70 hours a week but there were days when I wouldn’t see him all day because we were in completely different parts of the restaurant,” Santucci said. “Now, I’m a foot apart from him.”

“And she’s in my kitchen,” Maiale said.

Cake pops from The Purple Carrot in East Lansing. TRICIA BOBEDA/Lansing State Journal

The East Lansing couple opened its mobile restaurant in May, inspired by the popularity of food trucks in such cities as Austin, Texas.

“I had lived in Austin and they have a ton of food trucks there,” Santucci said. “It’s such a fun idea. It’s so cool to be able to go up to a truck and get some gourmet fare that’s cheap and casual.”

The couple hope to eventually park the truck and open a restaurant in a more permanent location in the Lansing area. And they are not alone. Several Lansing-area ventures have taken area streets.

Nina Santucci and Anthony Maiale of The Purple Carrot Food Truck in East Lansing. / TRICIA BOBEDA/Lansing State Journal

Other choices

For Hahn, cooking from a trailer came after years of working in kitchens of larger restaurants around the state, Hahn was ready to start cooking his way.

That meant opening a mobile restaurant this spring, working out of a kitchen set up in a trailer pulled by his truck. Hence the name for his venture: Trailer Park’d.

“We’re trying to help move the food scene forward,” Hahn said.

Lansing has a few other seasonal food carts and trucks in recent years, including the popular El Oasis truck on Michigan Avenue, which serves Mexican food. The owner of El Oasis could not be reached for comment.

Buying local

The new mobile restaurants buy many of their ingredients from local farmers and artisans.

Hahn’s menu features breads from Stone Circle Bakehouse in East Lansing, meat from Clear Creek Farms in Eaton Rapids, produce from Owosso Organics and cheese from Calder Dairy in Carleton.

Stone Circle Bakehouse owner Kevin Cosgrove usually stocks his artisan breads in independent grocers such as Foods for Living and Horrocks and sells them at farmers markets. He said he’s gaining new customers thanks to Trailer Park’d using his breads for their sandwiches.

“It’s win-win,” Cosgrove said. “I get a little added volume and a lot of added exposure.”

The Purple Carrot has partnered with Ten Hens farm in Bath, Chapman Farms in Eagle and Roma Bakery in Lansing.

The menus change almost daily based on what’s fresh and in season.

“We take a minimalist approach to things and let the ingredients speak for themselves,” Hahn said.

High-volume foot traffic areas are ideal for food trucks, but so far Lansing and East Lansing development offices haven’t issued permits to allow them in downtown shopping districts.

Instead, Trailer Park’d and the Purple Carrot have found friendly businesses with parking lot space and gotten permits approved to set up there.

Trailer Park’d sometimes calls the car wash on the corner of Cedar and Liberty streets home. The Purple Carrot can often be found at the Hannah Center at 4660 Hagadorn Road. Both park at local farm markets.

East Lansing planning and zoning administrator Darcy Schmitt said the city is working on an ordinance to accommodate food trucks in more locations. City officials are updating language for concessionaire’s licensing. Then, the East Lansing City Council will have to approve the new ordinance.

“We don’t want to discourage people from going through the process because our language is confusing,” Schmitt said. “We’re trying to streamline the process.”

Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said food trucks and trailers can get transient merchant permits and need to get each location approved before serving food. They cannot be within 300 feet of a permanent business that deals in the same goods. That means a food truck selling tacos couldn’t get a permit to open next door to a Mexican restaurant.

Hahn is disappointed that he hasn’t been able to get a permit to set up in downtown Lansing yet.

“Right now we’re just trying to keep day-to-day operations going,” Hahn said. “Our business model changed quite a bit (since) we’re not located where we were planning on being.

‘There’s less risk’

Much of the appeal for business owners is the low overhead cost.

The Purple Carrot crew found a food truck on Craigslist for about $10,000 and put in about another $6,000 to get it ready for business.

“Anything that you can create in a commercial kitchen you can make in a food truck,” Santucci said. “Because it’s on a small scale, there’s less risk involved.”

Hahn said it costs him about $20 a day in gas to power his generator and $90 a week in propane to fuel the kitchen. He bought his trailer from a caterer in Grand Rapids and outfitted it with the help of family and friends, putting his startup costs at about $45,000.

The Purple Carrot and Trailer Park’d said it’s taking some convincing to make customers comfortable with the idea of food from a mobile kitchen.

Hahn hopes the menu speaks for itself.

“They see that we’re serious about what we’re doing and not a roach coach, we’re not just slinging hash,” Hahn said. “We’re serious about food and barely sleep because of it.”

Even though startup costs are less, mobile restaurants are affected more by weather than a traditional storefront.

“If it’s too hot, we’re dead, if it’s raining, we’re dead,” Hahn said. “You have to catch those perfect days or you have to have really, really good food to get those people to come regardless.”

The restaurants’ locations vary and they use social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter to publicize where they are on a daily basis. “It’s pretty cool how quickly word travels on the Internet and the added bonus is it’s at no cost to us,” Santucci said.

New mobile eats

• What: The Purple Carrot
• On the Web: www.thepurplecarrottruck.com
• On Twitter: @eatpurple carrot
• Phone: 488-5868
• On the menu: Hearty burgers ($7.50), pork sandwiches on corn bread ($7.50), chorizo tacos ($3.99), salad ($7.50) with crispy pork belly and a fried egg on top ($7.50)

• What: Trailer Park’d
• On the Web: www.trailerparked.com
• On Twitter: @TrailerParkd
• Phone: 303-4445
• On the menu: Vietnamese-spiced sandwiches ($7) and a bold beet borscht ($4). Their signature dessert is a bundle of bite-sized carrot cake pops dipped in purple icing ($1)

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