Food trucks date to at least the 1800s, when chuck wagons provided nourishment for cowboys on long cattle drives.
More recently, they took the form of mobile canteens that sold pre-wrapped sandwiches to factory workers on their lunch breaks.
Today, they’ve become vehicles with funky names like Green Zebra and Concrete Cuisine that serve gourmet fare on street corners, art fairs and corporate events.
And Michigan economic developers want more of them dotting the state.
The Michigan Economic Development Corp. recently handed out $77,775 in grants to aid the startup or expansion of eight food truck operations. Those businesses will supplement the grants with $144,246 of their own capital.
Others who want to enter this fast-growing industry can get advice on starting a food-truck business from Michigan State University Extension.
The MEDC’s Mobile Cuisine Startup Program likely won’t lead to much job growth or provide more than a tiny boost to the state’s economy.
And there has been some resistance to food trucks by restaurants and local governments.
But the program is designed to promote entrepreneurship and aid in community development.
Grant recipients also are encouraged to work with local businesses and farms in providing “unique food options to patrons in public spaces,” according to the MEDC.
Bridgett Blough won a $10,000 grant to expand her Kalamazoo-based food truck operation called The Organic Gypsy.
Blough, 27, a Michigan native and Kalamazoo College graduate in economics, said the money will help her buy a refrigerated trailer to haul behind her truck and a commercial-grade juicing machine.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to start my own business,” said Blough, who has worked as a personal trainer and health educator. “The more I got involved in health, I found food was an important part of that.”
Blough headed off to Bauman College in California to learn about holistic nutrition and culinary arts.
She then bought a used panel truck online and did all the fabrication and equipment installation herself to turn it into a food truck.
“Once I get an idea in my head, it’s difficult for me to let it go,” Blough told me.
The Organic Gypsy is in its second year of operation, serving menu items such as sea palm fettucini with pumpkin seed pesto and goat cheese sandwiches.
Many of Blough’s ingredients come from certified organic farms in Southwest Michigan.
Blough said she considered setting up her food truck business in California or Chicago, places where the food truck industry is more established.
“I asked myself, ‘Do I do this in California or become a pioneer in the state of Michigan?’ ” she said. “I decided I would rather blaze a trail by myself.”
That’s just the kind of entrepreneurial spirit Michigan economic developers are seeking.