Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Grand Rapids food truck controversy

Food trucks are coming to Downtown this summer and will be offering their food experiences at Wege Plaza, adjacent to Rosa Parks Circle. The city approved the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s request for a permit to allow food trucks outside their premises, and the trucks have already been serving food there since the end of April.

Food truck cuisine has been somewhat scarce in Grand Rapids, despite all the growth, change, and new social opportunities downtown. Many restaurateurs vigorously opposed the Planning Commission’s approval of food trucks back in 2012. They felt that food trucks had the unfair advantage of significantly lowered overhead costs and would take business away from brick-and-mortar restaurants downtown. The city temporarily sided with restaurant owners, ruling that food trucks could operate only when parked on private property. This had a dampening effect on food truck initiative as it severely limited the scope of where they might operate.

Others, including Rick DeVos, argued that food trucks and restaurants are the apples and oranges of dine-out eating, not truly comparable, and that greater competition will result in better food choices for Grand Rapidians overall. The food truck experience, at least at present, is more serendipitous, dependent on good weather and the right timing, and the menu is limited. You like what they are serving or you don’t. Some GR food trucks don’t even have websites, just social media platforms on Facebook or Twitter.

Food enthusiasts have been waiting impatiently for food truck options partly because the entrepreneurs who take on the food truck challenge tend to offer a varied menu with an emphasis on local and sustainably grown ingredients. A glance at A Moveable Feast’s menu reveals items like the Crispy Quinoa Burger and Southwestern Fish Tacos made from these ingredients: Lake Michigan whitefish, cilantro-lime red cabbage slaw, flour tortilla, and chipotle aioli. The food is vegetarian-friendly with a number of soups and sides suitable for any palette. The people of Grand Rapids were enthused enough about this possibility to fund A Moveable Feast’s start-up costs through Kickstarter this spring.

Another option is What the Truck, an offshoot of The Winchester restaurant, with the mission of “bringing better street food to Grand Rapids, Michigan.” Focusing on burritos and tacos instead of sandwiches, What the Truck is also at the GRAM this summer as well as elsewhere around the city including at the Fulton Farmer’s Market, dishing out a unique menu highlighting meat and produce from the area. They have a breakfast and a lunch menu.

While restaurants and food trucks will compete with each other, it doesn’t have to be a lose-lose situation. Pat Flynn, owner of Foodtruckr, a food truck industy resource website says, “As a small business owner myself, I appreciate the struggles of my fellow entrepreneurs in all industries, online and offline. The restaurant industry is particularly challenging. As a former architect whose number one desire was to design restaurants, I know first hand just how strenuous this business can be. I root for restaurant owners and their businesses. I also root for food truck owners. Food truck owners share the same passion and determination as restaurant owners. And I've come to admire the resilience and creativity that food truck owners possess in this competitive and innovative marketplace. I believe that type of healthy competition is good for everyone. And I believe that like-minded entrepreneurs should band together, especially when they devote themselves to the happiness of a common customer base. In the end, delighting customers with scrumptious meals is what matters. Restaurants and food trucks both have valuable roles to play. I believe in abundance, not scarcity. I believe that the world is a better place with both restaurants and food trucks. My stomach seems to agree with me!”

This summer we will see whether food trucks are a significant challenger to brick-and-mortar restaurants in Grand Rapids and whether vigorous competition inspires improvement in our local food scene.