Food Cart Vendors Hope They Can Sizzle in Detroit

Pam Guenzel, 66, of Ann Arbor gets two vegan Caesar salads at the Lunch Room food cart, one of seven food carts operating at Mark's Carts, an open-air lot in Ann Arbor that opened last month. / June 7 photo by PATRICIA BECK/Detroit Free Press


Pam Guenzel, 66, of Ann Arbor gets two vegan Caesar salads at the Lunch Room food cart, one of seven food carts operating at Mark's Carts, an open-air lot in Ann Arbor that opened last month. / June 7 photo by PATRICIA BECK/Detroit Free Press

Think of Mark’s Carts in downtown Ann Arbor as a blend of international smorgasbord and American picnic — a place where you can taste everything from Asian steamed buns and breakfast burritos to vegan stew and Spanish paella.

Opened last month by businessman Mark Hodesh, the paved, open-air lot on West Washington is southeast Michigan’s first food cart courtyard — home to seven independently owned carts serving hot food seven days a week.

A cart center is “a fabulous incubator for small business,” Hodesh said. “I think it would be a tremendous … boom to Detroit.”

But Detroit’s proposed zoning ordinances for food trucks and carts take the opposite approach. They’ll be aired in a public hearing Thursday, at which young food entrepreneurs will argue in favor of allowing a lively street food scene.

At Mark’s Carts, some people grab a bite to go, but others stay to mingle. For customers, “it’s about 50% food and 50% social,” Hodesh said. “It’s like a community picnic.”

But for vendors, it’s an opportunity. Having a cart — and a place to park it — can be the first step toward owning a restaurant.

A la cart

Mark Hodesh thought the food carts he saw while visiting his daughter in New York several years ago were intriguing, but he didn’t give them much thought at the time.

The memory came back when he began looking for something to do with a vacant lot he had bought from the City of Ann Arbor behind his Downtown Home & Garden store.

“I had an inkling that food carts might be interesting, and I had the physical pieces” to create a home for them, he said. “I thought it was an entirely unique idea. Then I found out there are food cart courts in places like Portland, Ore., San Francisco, L.A., Austin” and several other cities.

He felt sure the idea would succeed in Ann Arbor, and it appears he was right. His new Mark’s Carts lot on Washington Street has been an attraction from Day 1.

With the carts’ eclectic menus and affordable prices, the courtyard has become a magnet on a side street where nothing was happening before.

And it’s been a breakthrough for the cart operators, many of whom hope to own restaurants one day.

“It’s really a fantastic resource,” said vendor Paul Kessenich, whose Darcy’s Cart is one of the lot’s seven vendors. “Having a place like this removes a lot of restrictions.”

Leasing space at Mark’s Carts gives them access to electricity and water and use of an approved commissary kitchen, which Hodesh installed in a building he owns nearby. Utilities and commissary access are required for Health Department licenses.

Would-be cart operators in Detroit and many of its suburbs have a tougher challenge.

Regulations vary among jurisdictions, but local food entrepreneurs say rules are so restrictive, the businesses are virtually prohibited.

In cities where carts have been allowed, they’ve been credited with adding atmosphere to city sidewalks and neighborhoods, drawing pedestrians onto the streets, attracting tourists and creating spinoff businesses.

But in some cities, including Birmingham, they’ve been opposed by restaurant and food shop owners who fear mobile vendors will take away customers.

Birmingham’s city commission discussed the subject last fall and winter and seemed ready to allow a limited number of vendors to operate at two city parks this summer. But this spring, after a hearing in which several merchants objected, the proposal was tabled.

In Detroit, a Planning Commission public hearing is scheduled for Thursday at Focus: HOPE on a proposed ordinance to establish the city’s first zoning regulations for food trucks and carts on nonresidential private property.

Zoning regulations now are “silent on the subject. It’s not covered,” said city planner Christopher Gulock. “Right now, we really don’t have any regulations on where the trucks can go, so the first step is to allow them on private property under certain restrictions.”

Some food carts and trucks do exist in the city, including at least a dozen taco trucks in southwest Detroit licensed by the Department of Health and Wellness Promotion. “But where they can go is up to debate,” Gulock said. “Whether they’re illegal out there is a gray area, an enforcement issue.”

The new zoning proposals represent “the first step to make it legal,” he said.

But to many young food entrepreneurs in Detroit, the proposals are far from ideal.

Not only do they forbid vendors in the Central Business District and Cultural Center, they prohibit them within 500 feet of a licensed food service establishment, within 200 feet of another mobile vendor, locating in gas station lots and parking lots, and operating after 11 p.m. — a busy time for street food sales.

Jess Daniel, part of a fledgling company called Neighborhood Noodle, last week wrote other entrepreneurs, urging them to attend Thursday’s hearing.

Among almost a dozen provisions she wants the commission to reconsider is the ban on carts in the Central Business and Cultural districts, as well as rules that would keep carts from locating in clusters.

“Creating a destination where people can come for multiple food items is an idea that’s proved successful” in other cities, Daniel wrote.

The food cart issue has drawn the attention of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. (DEGC), which has just begun to study it, spokesman Bob Mossbach said last week. It will monitor the public hearing but hasn’t taken a position, he said.

Mobile food vendors have had “a positive impact in other markets,” he noted. “If it’s something that will bring new business into Detroit, it’s certainly something worth looking at. … But you don’t want to create new business for one group at the expense of another group. What DEGC wants to establish is a bigger pie, not simply re-slice the same pie.”

If mobile food vendors are allowed, said Opus One restaurant CEO Jim Kokas, they should have to pay the same taxes that bricks-and-mortar businesses pay, including personal property taxes and employee taxes on resident and nonresident employees. “If you’re going to be in business, you should have to pay, because every single meal is competition” for other restaurants, he said.

In Ann Arbor, no one opposed the cart court when it went to City Council for approval.

The Main Street Area Association, representing businesses a block from the carts, didn’t discuss or take a position, said executive director Maura Thomson.

“I can’t speak for individual restaurants,” she said, “but my personal opinion is that it just added an element of interest and something different to the area … and it’s appealing to a different clientele” than Main Street’s upscale restaurants.

Hodesh said he never thought the carts would hurt restaurants, because they’re “a different experience. We close on rainy days. We don’t have air-conditioning.” And the lot won’t be open in winter.

Vendor Kessenich said business is good — when the weather cooperates. His breakfast burritos and creative tacos, made with locally sourced ingredients, are popular.

He would like to have a restaurant someday, but the cart is perfect for the moment.

“The best part is that it has given me the opportunity to serve my food to people.”