Thursday, October 03, 2013

Parked curbside, trucks offer food served quickly, not fast food

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Southwest Michigan's Second Wave Media
October 3, 2013


Food trucks have been legal for a year now in the Kalamazoo area and the vehicles are developing a following around town. Zinta Aistars talks to those who have been bringing food to the people.

Out on the street, outside in the farmers markets, alongside parks, with no restaurant in sight, the smells of fresh food cooking waft through the air and tantalize. Tomatoes gently roast, bacon sizzles, fresh mozzarella melts and oozes, forming tiny cheesy bubbles. Mushrooms swim in warm butter. Meats simmer and spices pepper the air, stirring appetites. 

In August 2012, the Kalamazoo City Commission passed an ordinance that allows food truck vendors to do business in Kalamazoo, selling food from their trucks, equipped with kitchens, as long as they are parked no less than 150 feet from a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The ordinance passed unanimously, and in the year since, food trucks and mobile food units have appeared throughout Kalamazoo, doing a brisk and delicious business. 

"The ordinance hadn’t been changed in some 50 years," says Noel Corwin, chef and owner of Gorilla Gourmet, operating out of a white truck decorated with the in-your-face immense likeness of a gorilla. "I started my business about three-and-a-half years ago, at the farmers market and catering, but about two-and-a-half years ago, I started having a conversation with Kalamazoo mayor Bobby Hopewell about the food truck ordinance."

The Kalamazoo City Commission and the mayor expressed concerns about keeping a fair proximity to restaurants, Corwin says, and they wanted to know about cleanliness in a mobile kitchen. Corwin got involved in expanded conversations with the local health department to address and put to rest those concerns. Mobile food units undergo rigorous health inspections, just like any restaurant would. 

"We had to dispel many myths," says Corwin. "People thought of food trucks as carnie food or festival food. They expected hot dogs and burgers, but we offer restaurant-quality food, something different and fresh. Over this year, public perception is changing."

Corwin, like many of the local food truck and mobile food unit owners, is a trained chef with many years of experience. Since the food ordinance has allowed food to be sold on the street, business has flourished. 

Says Corwin: "Food trucks have limited space, so food is a constantly circulating, always fresh inventory, so in fact it is often fresher than what you might find in a brick-and-mortar kitchen."

That freshness doesn’t just apply to food. It can apply to coffee, too. Coffee Rescue delivers fair trade, locally micro-roasted beans in a converted ambulance that delivers to your place of business whenever you have a coffee emergency.

"The first year for Coffee Rescue was full of exciting challenges, the whirlwind of the public spotlight, and the support of a great community," says Jamie Brock, manager. "Food trucks have been so well received by the people and the city of Kalamazoo. It's exhilarating to know that Coffee Rescue is a pioneering member of that." 

Smoothie Operator began as an idea around the kitchen table, laden with farm-fresh food, at a Berrien Springs farm, says Zuzu Bartlett. Along with Lev Pasikhov and Matteo Fabro, Bartlett owns the food truck born of that dinner conversation. Smoothie Operator delivers smoothies made from all-organic, all-locally sourced fruits and vegetables.

"Everything changed with the new ordinance," says Bartlett. "We would probably have been forced to go somewhere like Chicago. The process would have been so much less enjoyable in a huge city, because part of what we love about Kalamazoo is the amount of support we've gotten from those we've met through building the truck and our customers, even the mayor."

Bridgett Blough, owner of Organic Gypsy, moved from Benton Harbor to Kalamazoo because of the new ordinance. She sells what she calls S.O.U.L. food: seasonal, organic, unrefined, local.

"The new ordinance has been a catalyst," Blough says. "I didn’t realize the impact it would have on me and on my business, but I feel like the city has really stood behind it. Now I have a year-round business. What the food trucks are doing benefits the greater good."

No one would agree more about the quality of food on the street than Terry Baker, owner of Pizza Vera.  Unlike the food trucks, his mobile wood-fired brick oven, transported in a trailer, does not ...


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