By Michael Martinez | TheDetroitNews.com
Dearborn — One night each month, the streets of downtown Dearborn come alive with the one-of-a-kind tastes and the flavors of gourmet street food.
The sizzle of hot dogs and smell of tacos pervade a stretch of West Village Road, where eight restaurants on wheels — and a live band — set up shop for a few hours to introduce their Mexican, Middle Eastern and American cuisine to a couple thousand customers. It’s a scene more common on a street corner of New York or Los Angeles than in suburban Detroit.
“When we come to town, people are curious about it and they come and check us out,” said William Anatra, as he served $2 hot dogs from a baby blue 1965 Volkswagen pickup dubbed Franks Anatra. “We’re like a circus.”
His mobile eatery is among a growing number of food trucks canvassing Metro Detroit. Food truck rallies similar to Dearborn’s have popped up in Royal Oak, Ferndale and Detroit’s Eastern Market and New Center.
Not too long ago, less than a handful of mobile restaurants were operating in the region; now more than a dozen food trucks are offering inexpensive gourmet grub and the number is expected to grow, observers say.
“At first I thought it was a fad but it seems to have staying power,” said Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst with The NPD Group, a New York-based market research company. “It’s still pretty small in Michigan but it hasn’t gone away. You hear more and more about it growing.”
Cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Miami have had thriving food truck cultures for years, but Michigan is still new to the game. The state’s cold winters could have deterred potential vendors in the past, but popular shows like Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race have made the idea more mainstream.
Anatra, known to customers as Bill “The Hot Dog Guy,” said Michigan’s struggling economy has also helped the trend.
“You have thousands of people graduating from good culinary schools and if they can’t find jobs, they still want to express themselves,” he said. “People are learning to follow their dream a little bit and not stand in line and plop mashed potatoes on a plate.”
The growing popularity prompted Jim Mastrangel, owner of Jacques’ Tacos, to organize the first food truck rally in Royal Oak last fall. Such rallies, he said, are vital to the industry’s success.
“We believe the more opportunity people get to experience what a true food truck is, the bigger it’s going to get,” he said.
Dan Gearig is doing his part to grow the business. The 36-year-old Holly native, along with his wife, Lindsay, partnered with El Guapo Grill in December and revamped its menu. The couple opened a second truck, The Mac Shack, in May.
“We believe this isn’t a trend or a fad, and it’s not going to go away,” Gearig said. “I think Detroit is in the middle of a reawakening in a lot of different ways. There’s so many great things going on in restaurants and food.”
Not everyone is receptive to mobile restaurants, however.
There’s some tension between food trucks and traditional, brick-and-mortar restaurants, which contend the mobile operations steal customers and aren’t encumbered by property and other taxes. The issue came to a head earlier this year in Chicago, as the city hammered out regulations agreeable to both food trucks and traditional restaurants.
“Some food establishments are afraid to exist side by side with street vendors out of fear of taking away business,” Gearig said. “I think that people need to see street food is a real craft. We’re here to add to Detroit, not to vampire it.”
In Michigan, food trucks must be licensed, pay various fees and pass health inspections to operate.
Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market, said at least one restaurant was concerned about food trucks in the neighborhood, but he said it was an easy decision for the market to host mobile restaurants.
“We want to celebrate creativity in the local food system,” he said. “Food trucks are a good step in the right direction.”
Dearborn businesses had minimal complaints about the latest rally outside their doors.
“It exposed us to a lot of people,” said Ross Varacalli, owner of The Well, a bar in the same courtyard as the rally. “We don’t serve food. It was a great bonus for us.”
Varacalli said business was up roughly 50 percent from a typical Friday night.
The vendors are getting plenty of support from each other, too.
“We’re a really tight-knit community,” said Scott Moloney, owner of Treat Dreams ice cream truck. “There’s a kind of kinship you see because we’re all used to the same challenges.”
Even with the support, Anatra said it takes a special kind of person to own a food truck.
“Each one of us almost has a gypsy or carny mentality; there’s part of our personality that’s not mainstream,” he said. “We’re driving a vehicle that we cook off of. A flat tire will take you out for the day. There’s a certain personality that thrives on that kind of dynamic, on that risk.”