Catering to the public

August 19, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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The humble sandwich trucks that open for business in factory parking lots every lunch hour have some upscale cousins in the other parts of town, thanks largely to Internet communications. The new breed of food trucks are expanding the parameters of dining out.

“The food truck business has been around for years and years,” said Steve Loftis, owner of Harbor Restaurants in Grand Haven and chairman of the board of the Michigan Restaurant Association. He is referring to the small trucks still seen at plants and business areas where they offer sandwiches, soups and beverages to workers who don’t have the opportunity to get to a restaurant on their lunch hour.

The newer version, said Loftis, are the food trucks, sometimes referred to as gourmet trucks, which are popping up all over the country to sell hot food at public events, or at business/group gatherings. Kim Rangel of Experience Grand Rapids said she is aware of at least four such mobile businesses here: The Silver Spork, Gnarley Varley’s Righteous Cuisine, What The Truck and Standard Pizza Co.

According to Loftis, the recent rise of the upscale food trucks has been, at least in part, “propelled by the information technology world.” With Twitter, Facebook and similar social networking websites, the mobile chef “can tell you that within 20 minutes they will be in a certain location, and 100 people show up, waiting for the gourmet wagon.”

The bad economy also has played a role in the rise of the food truck industry, according to Loftis. Individuals who have lost employment after years on the job and decide to reinvent themselves often focus on starting a small business of their own, where they can be their own boss and spend their days doing something they really like to do — such as cooking gourmet food.

Then there is the new breed of entrepreneurs.

“You see the young entrepreneur popping up,” he said, with the idea that “I’m going to create a roving gourmet truck and we’re going to make it work.”

Which is exactly the story behind The Silver Spork.

In its previous life, The Silver Spork was a 24-foot, 1997 Salvation Army mobile field kitchen used to provide hot food at disaster sites. Then Molly Clauhs bought it on eBay last winter and brought it to West Michigan from Jackson, Miss., for the launch of her mobile food business.

As noted at silversporkgr.com, “We’re a new Food Truck in West Michigan serving up fresh, bistro food based on what our farmer and producer friends are selling. We’re a restaurant on wheels with a mission. We love catering almost as much as our organic garden.”

Clauhs, a Pennsylvania native, graduated last year from Cornell University with a business degree focused on the hospitality industry. Although she said she has no formal culinary training, she does love to cook, and her mother owns a cooking school in Pennsylvania. Clauhs also worked for a time at a cooking school in Ireland that had its own farm.

When her boyfriend’s employer transferred him to West Michigan, she decided to come with him. He helped her drive her food truck to Michigan and is helping her with the business, as well. Clauhs also has an uncle in Rockford who has helped her market her business using his artistic ability.

Clauhs has had a couple of other small businesses. She has taught cooking classes for children, and, while still in high school, started a service called Parties Maid Easy. She and a friend were the “maids” who would help an avid chef put on a home dinner party by setting up, serving and cleaning up.

Recently, The Silver Spork served food at an outdoor luncheon put on by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce for the Center for Community Leadership, according to Clauhs, who lives in Rockford. She said she hopes to find more work catering corporate events.

“I think the Silver Spork is a cool option for work lunches,” she said, “a switch from the normal Jimmy Johns catering or whatever the office usually does.”

Most days, The Silver Spork can be found at one of the several farmers markets in the Greater Grand Rapids region. In fact, her business is largely supplied directly by local farms.

“I’ve been basing my menu on what I can buy locally. Local food tastes so much better,” she said.

Because the typical food truck scenario does not include tables and chairs, Clauhs said she makes foods that are easy to eat standing up. Some of her customers, however, prefer to take their purchases back to work or home.

One of The Silver Spork’s popular items is the Mitten bagel sandwich featuring local smoked whitefish with cream cheese, tomato, watercress, red onion and capers for $6. The mitten/Michigan-shaped bagels are supplied by Herman’s Boy in Rockford. Another Spork favorite is the lamb slider, a mini-burger made with ground lamb supplied by S&S Lamb in McBain.

Matt Varley, a saucier at the J.W. Marriott kitchen in downtown Grand Rapids, launched Gnarly Varley’s Righteous Cuisine in May with an old potato chip truck he fitted out as a mobile kitchen. He takes the food truck out in his free time or during vacation days, and recently sold his Sonoran Dogs and other types of gourmet Mexican food at the Coast Guard Festival in Grand Haven. He also has catered the Waterfront Film Festival in Saugatuck, as well as graduation parties. When the Business Journal spoke with him, he was planning for the Cow Pie Blues Festival in Caledonia.

He describes his customer demographic as “adventurous people who want to try something different.” But it can’t be too high priced, he added.

Varley said he sometimes parks his truck near popular bars just before closing time to catch the late-night crowds. Loyal customers tweet him to find out where he is going to be and he also uses Facebook, which he said is a better communication medium because he can have a dialogue with customers.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Varley, summing up his mobile food business — and sometimes it can be very challenging work.

Food trucks are generally subject to all the rules, regulations and permit processes of street vendors and food service businesses combined, with some communities being more friendly than others. Health inspections and fire marshal inspections are routine.

Vendors who show up at an event without permits or contracts with the event management are known as “gate crashers” and can be subject to arrest, he said, so he always has all his permits and approvals in order.

Doing business in some communities is more expensive and difficult. In some Grand Rapids neighborhoods where roving vendors are allowed, for instance, they must keep moving, stopping only for a few minutes at a time for customers to purchase food. That may work for ice cream vendors, said Varley, but not for gourmet food trucks.

Food trucks also generally have to rent space to work at events such as the Coast Guard Festival or events in downtown Grand Rapids.

“It’s hard to start off (in a food truck business) and pay $2,000 for an event,” said Varley.

Competition can be stiff, too; many food vendors work the same events year after year, said Varley.

Food trucks are a national phenomenon that seems to have started on the coasts, according to Loftis, but has definitely found its way to Michigan. There were several gourmet food trucks at the Coast Guard Festival, he said.

“I think it’s been accelerated, in the public mind, as a viable means of dining,” said Loftis.

In some large American cities, including Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul, food trucks are prevalent and incur the wrath of some restaurateurs who don’t want them competing across the street. Some city councils have been faced with demands to further restrict the new “gypsy” competition, but Loftis said he isn’t aware of that being the case in Michigan.

“Some of that is understandable,” said Loftis, for a bricks-and-mortar restaurant that has a lot of time and money invested, but he adds he would rather have the free market system sort it out.

“It gets to be a challenge at times, when there is just too much (competition),” he said, “but then again, it shouldn’t be regulated by anything other than the free market, in my opinion.”

Local governments that regulate food service should strive to find “balance and fairness in the process,” he said, but shouldn’t be involved in deciding who can be in business and who can’t. “It’s really no different than someone deciding to open up a new restaurant two blocks away from me,” he said, adding that “good competitors are good for businesses” because they force an existing business to improve to remain competitive.

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