Food Trucks Arrive with a Roar on Traverse City’s Culinary Scene

Gibbeyville, home of fragrant (and mostly fried) festival food.

Gibbeyville, home of fragrant (and mostly fried) festival food.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I’VE MOVED!

Dear friends and readers,

“Loving Traverse City” now has a new address. (It’s a lot easier to remember, too)  You can reach it easily by going to http://blog.traversecity.com/. Or just follow this link.

Thanks!

Mike

Ah, Cherry Festival Week!

I love all its sights and sounds – the concerts, the fireworks, the parades with their marching bands and floats, the shrieks from the midway, the shouts of the vendors. Dogs launching themselves into the air. Kids planting their little faces into plates of cherry pie.

But mostly I love the smells of festival food. Elephant ears, brats with onions and peppers, smoked turkey legs, funnel cakes, and deep-fried foods of all kinds. Can’t eat it much these days, but at least I can sniff it on the wind in all its artery-clogging deliciousness.

Local restaurants serve up specialties at the festival food court.

Local restaurants serve up specialties at the festival food court.

Every festival requires food – especially the kind you can walk around with. And now it looks as though we’ll be able to enjoy portable food all the time — not just during festivals. (Healthier food, too!)

By now everybody knows that TC has also been attracting attention as one of America’s most unique culinary destinations, thanks to fans like celebrity chef Mario Batali, who helped it get named one of the country’s Top Five Foodie Towns by Bon Appetit. But for all its restaurants, wine bars and brewpubs, our town has lacked one key ingredient of a vibrant urban food scene: good, cheap street food.

Until now.

After months of heated debate, local officials agreed this spring to make it easier and less expensive for mobile food vendors to operate in the city. Almost immediately, a half-dozen food truck operators announced that they were setting up shop in Traverse City’s shady downtown district — and a pair of transplanted New York restaurateurs has even opened a bar whose parking lot serves as a base for the trucks and their customers.

Food trucks at lunchtime on State Street, near the post office.

Food trucks at lunchtime on State Street, near the post office.

The community’s first food truck, Roaming Harvest, is operated by Simon Joesph, a passionate advocate for locally-grown cuisine and street food. Like a farm-to-table restaurant, its menu changes daily and features local breads, meats, dairy, fruits, vegetables and jams. Buoyed by the city’s new acceptance of what he calls “mobile restaurants,” Simon has bought a second vehicle, named Little Yella, that will offer lighter items — simple sandwiches, salads and curries — than its older brother.

Other pioneer food trucks include King Wubbz Pita Dubz, the brainchild of local foodie Brian Welburn and Curbie, a 1946 Ford drafted into service in 2012 by Sam Porter, organizer of the Traverse City Microbrew & Music Festival and several other food-themed events. (The brightly painted truck is operated by a staff of student interns, serving locally made sodas, ice cream and dishes from whitefish tacos to paella, at special events and downtown festivals.)

947311_631669290194980_760954942_nThose early arrivals operated in uncertain waters, never sure if they were about to be regulated or taxed out of business, until city officials hammered out an agreement this spring that gave them more permanent status. The new regulations established regular hours of operation, delineated zones where the trucks can operate, and reduced permit fees from $100 a day to as little as $725 annually.

The new policy wasn’t embraced by everyone in the city’s culinary establishment. Owners of some downtown restaurants complained that the mobile eateries had an unfair competitive advantage, since they were exempt from high property taxes and could simply shut down when cold weather thins out the pool of customers.

But even before the policy was hammered out, Gary and Allison Jonas – who created the popular Brooklyn eateries Sycamore and The Farm on Adderly before moving to Traverse City, announced that they were turning a former party store into The Little Fleet, a full-service bar whose food service is being largely provided by the food trucks they’ve invited to open up shop in their parking lot.

Summer afternoon at the Little Fleet on Front Street.

Summer afternoon at the Little Fleet on Front Street.

The Jonas’s customers will be able to buy meals outside – from trucks or from nearby restaurants – and either bring them indoors to the bar or enjoy them in an outdoor patio. With heat lamps and other amenities, the couple is even hoping to keep the street food scene chugging along through Traverse City’s sometimes harsh winter months.

“We think it’s going to bring a lot of spirit to our city,” they said.

Almost all the new food trucks involved the venture are owned or operated by existing Traverse City restaurateurs. They include:

Pigs Eatin’ Ribs, from chef Adam Kline, who pioneered the street food scene in neighboring Charlevoix. Kline  intends to present a revolving menu centered around favorites like St. Louis spare ribs, pulled pork, brisket and probably a chicken item of some kind.

The Dragon Wagon, an Asian-flavored entry from Dan Marsh, owner of Red Ginger. Marsh’s signature Asian influences at work in dishes like duck confit quesadillas, sushi, bao buns and gourmet “sliders” featuring crab cakes and seared tuna.

Anchor Station from Michael Peterson, owner of Siren Hall and Lulu’s Bistro, which has already made a few festival appearances. The new truck will pair some festival favorites with dishes including blackened fish, burgers, falafel and Dirty Fries (French fries tossed with smoked pork belly, Asiago cheese, scallions and herbs.)

EZ Cheesy, a Jonas-owned truck operated by Kim Ryan, formerly of  The Cooks’ House and the Om Café that will specialize in upscale grilled cheese sandwiches, featuring locally sourced cheese and bread, as well as unique sides and rotating specials.

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About mikelovestc

These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job! I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland. What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
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