METRO DETROIT — If there’s one thing metro Detroiters know, it’s good food. And one thing a true local foodie will likely tell you is that the area’s best cuisine isn’t always found in fancy restaurants – sometimes, it’s right on the street.
Food trucks have been all the rage in southeast Michigan since around 2011, when local eateries jumped on the national street food movement. Restaurants began to take their best flavors to areas like downtown Detroit, Royal Oak, Ferndale, Dearborn and other places in a kitchen-equipped vehicle, and customers quickly discovered that the trucks were serving up more than just a quick lunch or greasy after-hours snack.
The trucks can either be found on their own or in packs called food truck rallies, which draw customers in droves to try a variety of mobile foods from easy-to-carry hamburgers and hot dogs to more gourmet options like Mexican fusion, soul food and more.
If you ask food truck owner Jim Combs, he’ll tell you he considers his food to be part of the gourmet fleet. Combs’ Rollin Stone Wood Fired Pizza truck is in its third season this year, and business is booming.
“It’s excellent; we’re doing really well. We hit the market at the right time with new things happening in Detroit and new companies and people wanting to do food truck rallies in metro Detroit. Every day, you get a new lead or a new call from someone who wants you,” said Combs, of Howell.
Combs, who used to make a living selling gymnasium flooring and indoor tracks, was hit hard by the recession a few years ago. He grew up working in his parents’ market and deli combo, and he decided to return to food to make ends meet. The move proved to be more lucrative than he expected.
Rollin Stone Wood Fired Pizza is just as it sounds, he says: a traditional brick pizza oven with made-to-order pizzas, tossed and fired on the spot. The whole setup is housed in a trailer that Combs spent years researching to build.
“It’s kind of like a show, because we actually stretch the dough on site and pop it in the oven; it cooks in less than two minutes. We can do 100, hundred-plus pizzas in an hour,” he said.
Business is so good, in fact, Combs said his company is looking to acquire another mobile pizza oven. While his team is always busy with rallies and corporate lunchtime events, there’s a new area he’d like to explore — private events.
“Once people see the concept, they just want you at their party. We get a lot of requests — we’ve done three weddings and have a couple on the books for (the) late-night snack — and they’re so easy to do and they pay well. But we need to build a second unit this winter because we’re turning down so many private parties. I turned down 20 graduation parties this season because we were already booked.”
Scott Maloney, owner of Ferndale’s Treat Dreams ice cream, has the same issue. Business with private events is doing so well, that even when truck-rally season is through come fall, there’s still business to be had and he’s looking to get his hands on another truck.
“So many times, we’ve got a truck already committed to something, and we have to go to another event and set up a tent and cooler. People settle for the tent, but they really want the truck, so we’re actively looking for a second truck,” said Maloney.
Maloney first introduced his ice cream truck in late 2012, serving up some of his shop’s unique favorites like honey lavender ice cream, salted caramel ice cream sandwiches, brownies and more. Even though the rallies still go on throughout the summer, Maloney said they don’t draw the thousands upon thousands of hungry guests that they did just a couple of years ago. The trend might have died out, but he’s hardly taking his truck out of commission.
“We’ve seen ebbs and flows (with rallies). I would say they’re still popular, but they reached their zenith back in 2012. I think part of it was weather last year, and part of it was that the novelty wore off,” said Maloney. “But the weddings, mitzvahs, that kind of thing is the growth curve in having a food truck.”
An added bonus, Maloney explained, are that private events are a cost savings to the customer, as well as the vendor.
“Rallies are a lot of guess work as far as prep. You don’t know how many people will show up. But a private event, you’re just feeding 250 people or whatever. It’s a set number,” he said.
With that, Maloney and Combs are gearing up to finish out the rest of the regular food truck season at festivals and other events around town with fellow trucks like Concrete Cuisine, Chicken Coupe Chicken N’ Waffles, El Guapo and others. To see where trucks are going to be and when, you can head to their respective websites or visit the website for the Michigan Mobile Food Vendor’s Association at www.mmfva.org.
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