Gardner: Let food trucks thrive in Motor City

Kevin Gardner

Could artisanal pita sandwiches and gourmet mac n’ cheese save Detroit? Politicians have tried everything, including stimulus money and “economic opportunity zones,” to boost the city’s economy, but one of the things missing from the Motor City’s revival just may be a thriving food truck community.

Fortunately, that could change soon. The City Council is now working on an ordinance for the end of the year to provide a legal framework under which food trucks can operate.

With the right set of regulations—read: not overbearing—these mobile vendors could become a vital ingredient in the Motor City’s economic recovery.

Food trucks are like other small businesses—they’re run by entrepreneurs eager to share great products with customers. The main difference is that they’re on wheels, giving them the ability to bring the kitchen to wherever hungry customers are.

They’re also easier to get off the ground than a normal restaurant. The Mac Shack, serving that delicious mac n’ cheese, had startup costs of $20,000 for the truck and a website. That’s way less than the $500,000 it takes to start the average restaurant.

But although the costs are typically low, the legal hurdles and regulatory barriers in Detroit are exceptionally high.

Detroit’s regulations prohibited food trucks from operating within three miles of a stadium, required trucks to report to a commissary every 24 hours, and—most absurdly—outlawed the selling of ethnic food, only allowing choices as exciting as hot dogs and coffee.

Since then, Detroit has eased up on the restrictions and food trucks have rolled out, but there is a dangerously uncertain legal environment. A Detroit food cooperative says most food trucks “operate in an ‘informal’ or ‘underground’ economy not by choice, but because policy around the licensing and regulation of food businesses, the long and costly procedure, and the difficulty to access proper information has not yet caught up to the innovation on the ground.”

A crucial detail for mobile businesses is where—and whether—they’re welcome. Right now, Detroit’s food trucks are mostly confined to private events or in public spaces downtown, such as Campus Martius. The food truck locator service Roaming Hunger, which maps dozens of trucks in food-truck-friendly cities on any day, turns up only two or three in Detroit—all clustered downtown.

Detroit desperately needs to spread the economic growth that food trucks bring to the table. We need economic investment and activity in places other than downtown. Food trucks are projected to generate $2.7 billion in revenue by 2017. And given that Millennials love food trucks—nearly half of us have eaten at one—these ventures will make Detroit more exciting for young people.

As the City Council prepares its ordinance, we hope it looks at this as a chance to draft a “Bill of Rights” for food truckers. This is a crucial moment, and we should urge them to allow food trucks to operate freely throughout the Motor City.

Kevin Gardner is the Michigan state director of Generation Opportunity.