Detroit, MI: Dago Joe’s Food Truck Rolls Away with Business from Nearby Checker Bar & Grill

Customers order food from Dago Joe’s food truck, which parks near longtime Detroit eatery the Checker Bar & Grill and competes for the lunch crowd. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

By Neal Rubin | The Detroit News

Customers order food from Dago Joe’s food truck, which parks near longtime Detroit eatery the Checker Bar & Grill and competes for the lunch crowd. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Joe Sciamanna is an engaging and energetic guy who’s brought bright colors and ravioli to a dull gray corner of downtown. His neighbor wants him to get lost.

Ask him why he opened where he did and he spreads his arms and twirls, like Julie Andrews dancing through the verdant hills at the start of “The Sound of Music.” The sightlines, the skyscrapers: “How could I be anywhere else?”

It’s easy, his neighbor says. Just turn the key and go.

Sciamanna, 48, owns a food truck with the somewhat eyebrow-raising name of Dago Joe’s. Two Thursdays ago, he berthed it in the otherwise drab parking lot at Bates and Cadillac Square.

A 10-second walk away, Karen and Kathy Munro run the Checker Bar & Grill. It’s been in the family since 1955 and in that spot for 30 years.

“We get a little bit busier every day,” says Sciamanna, 48, who lives in Macomb Township.

“The first day he showed up, we only had 10 people in here for lunch,” says Karen Munro, 55, who lives in Lafayette Park.

Sciamanna was an unemployed construction worker when he created his truck, which is actually a lime green and purple trailer towed by a yellow Ford van. He says he’s living a dream.

The Munros grew up in the bar, which still has its trademark black and white checkerboard tables with customers’ signatures on the squares. Last year they maybe paid themselves minimum wage.

“We feel we’re going to enhance the area,” Sciamanna says.

“We have to deal with utilities and property taxes and maintain a building, and he shows up for two hours a day,” Munro says. “How is that fair?”

Growing city trend

Regulations and red tape kept food trucks out of Detroit until last year, even as they became as trendy as cupcakes in other cities.

They’re fresh and fun, with catchy names and splashy designs and items you don’t typically find at restaurants where “overhead” doesn’t mean a sunroof. They’re good for a city’s atmosphere and image.

They’re bright new lights, and everyone likes a shiny object — but there’s an unfortunate trade-off if some of the old lights start to dim.

The Munros are competing, not just complaining. Dago Joe’s sells a meatball sandwich for $6.49, so the Checker Bar added one for $2.99. It hasn’t raised prices in three years, and you’ll find turkey and vegetarian burgers on the menu along with the trademark patty custom-ground from select cuts of steak.

The problem is, Munro says, there simply aren’t as many mouths to feed downtown as there used to be, even with the addition of Quicken Loans. Nobody drinks. City workers’ lunch breaks have been cut to 30 minutes, so they’re eating at their desks.

“It’s brutal,” she says. When her dad, Harry, turned 80, they had a sprawling party at the bar. The founder of the feast just turned 90, and this time the party was friends-and-family at somebody’s house. They couldn’t afford to throw the doors open for free.

For his part, Sciamanna tried to be neighborly.

His first day, he stopped by hoping to buy or borrow cash register tape. No sale. Then he offered to pass out Checker Bar fliers at his pickup window.

“We’re paying rent like everyone else around here,” he says, though of course he realizes it’s not the same. He’s too small to be the rising tide that lifts all fish sandwiches, “but we’re hoping we’ll jog some memories about how cool it is down here,” and then everyone will be better off.

No plans to move

Until then, he’ll just keep churning out antipasto, tortellini, minestrone and whatever else he can fit in a confined space along with five scurrying workers in purple T-shirts.

Mobile as he may be, he has no immediate plans to move, and that won’t make his neighbors happy. “But no one,” he points out helpfully, “can eat a meatball sandwich every day.”

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