It’s 9 o’clock on a breezy October night in Bronson Park, and with every 20 steps visitors take as they stroll through the park, their nostrils fill with a new, delicious scent.
In the bandshell, the Break 30 Band plays a cover of 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” while the crowd of families and groups of friends buzzes with debate over which of the 11-plus food vendors participating in tonight’s food truck rally they’ll try.
Will it be shrimp gumbo from PJW Creole Cuisine? Or brisket from Lazy Man BBQ? Maybe Blue Plate’s signature cheesecake on a stick?
Small lanterns sit on picnic tables so diners can see the food they’re eating, but most patrons choose to stand, talk or listen to the music as they eat.
But the stars of the show are the food trucks themselves. Whether at the nighttime food truck rallies held five times a year in downtown Kalamazoo or during lunchtime every Friday at Bronson Park during the summer, people turn out in droves to partake of the unique tastes available from these mobile eateries.
This is Lucile Hernandez’s second time at a food truck rally, and she says she comes for the varied foods the trucks bring. Tonight she dines on spaghetti and meatballs from Blue Plate while enjoying the company of her family.
Some of the trucks, like The Organic Gypsy, Blue Plate and Gorilla Gourmet, provide constantly changing seasonal menus with such items as Gorilla’s soup made from roasted potato-cauliflower with jalapeño and celery and The Organic Gypsy’s harvest bowls with chickpeas or chicken, feta and tzatziki sauce. Others, like the Lazy Man BBQ and Coffee Rescue, have found a niche and (mostly) stick to it.
In fact, the food trucks have been such a draw that the city of Kalamazoo has made them the focus of two series of events: its summertime Lunchtime Live events at Bronson Park on Fridays and its nighttime food truck rallies, which take place from 9 p.m.–midnight at Bronson Park or on Church Street five times a year between spring and fall.
“These kinds of events are important in regard to making a town great,” says Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell, while attending the October food truck rally and eating “something his personal trainer would not be happy about.”
“I like trying a lot of stuff, and the point of the food truck scene is to really experiment and try different tastes and sometimes different cultural foods,” Hopewell says.
Deborah Droppers, executive director of the Kalamazoo Experiential Learning Center, says there’s something about the “cool foodie experience” that appeals to all types of people. Her organization helps organize the rallies, which began in 2016.
“I’ve been running events since 1993 in downtown Kalamazoo,” she says, “and this is one of the most diverse audiences that I’ve ever experienced.” The rally attendees, she says, range from college students about to go bar hopping to people just getting off second shift to families who have just seen a show.
First food truck here
Food trucks, long a staple in larger cities, are a relatively new addition to the greater Kalamazoo area’s dining palate.
That food trucks exist at all in the area can be credited to Neil Corwin, owner of Gorilla Gourmet, who set out in 2009 to change not only local dining options, but city ordinances as well.
After spending years as a pastry chef elsewhere, Corwin, who moved to Kalamazoo at the age of 4, came back to his hometown to open his own business. He was inspired by the food trucks he had experienced in Los Angeles, where he lived before his family moved to Kalamazoo.
Getting the truck was the first hurdle. After plans with a company to build one fell through, Corwin decided to build his own with help from his uncle, Markley Noel.
“It was a very different hat for me to wear than the chef hat,” Corwin says. “As a chef, no one ever asks you to think about the plumbing or what sort of flooring materials are going to be best suited to your needs.”
It took three months of working 60 hours a week to complete the truck, Corwin says, and all of the work, except for the electrical setup, was completed by him and his uncle.
“In retrospect, I think that was one of the most enriching parts of the process,” Corwin says.
But there was still another obstacle: Food trucks weren’t allowed to operate on the streets of Kalamazoo. Before he could serve his grab-and-go “pedestrian-friendly” eats like Thai-inspired tacos, Corwin had to find a place to operate his food truck. He leased a small parking lot at 415 Oakland Drive, parked the truck and served food there. But he was determined that his enterprise would soon be mobile.
He worked for three years with the city’s Department of Community Planning and Development to try to get ordinances passed to allow food trucks to operate on Kalamazoo streets. In 2013, those efforts paid off. The city approved the operation of food trucks as long as the vendors provide notice to the city and pay the fees for the metered parking spaces they occupy.
“Not only did I open the door, but I also welcomed everybody with a welcome mat,” Corwin says. “The conversation was: ‘We need to have some solidarity for us to be able to move forward.’ Working together was definitely important and still is.”
In Kalamazoo, most food truck operators believe that sense of togetherness is more important here than it would be in larger markets, where most food trucks can just park by a sidewalk and be successful on their own. Here, most food truck owners operate at events like food truck rallies or where there are other activities, like live music, to draw a crowd.
“We’re all friends. We all get along,” says Lazy Man BBQ’s Brad Gillaspie Jr. “If somebody forgets something and we have it, we’ll lend it to them. We’re not close, but if you need something we’ll help you. We don’t want to see anybody fail.”
As different as the fare they serve, food truck operators in Kalamazoo also have varying backgrounds and business models. Lazy Man BBQ serves smoked brisket and pulled pork seasoned with a unique homemade blend of spices and served as a sandwich or taco.
“We found that if you keep it simple and do the best that you can with what you’re doing, people will come back and buy more,” Gillaspie says. “We’ve done chicken, but people don’t want that when they come to the barbecue truck. They want pulled pork and they want brisket.”
Lazy Man BBQ has been operational since 2015 but is far from the only barbecue food truck in town. Old Moose BBQ’s Chris Slocum has served brisket and pork from his truck for two years and says his menu used to include sloppy joes and chicken, but he found customers didn’t want items they could easily make at home.
“The average person is not going to spend 14 to 18 hours smoking brisket,” Slocum says. “In the world we live in, they want it quick and they want it now.”
A former restaurateur, Slocum says he started his food truck to be his own boss and spend more time with his kids. Now he has a small staff, and some employees can be at one event on the truck while others cater at another event. For the 2018 season, Old Moose BBQ’s truck won’t even be in Kalamazoo; it’ll be on the road traveling to various festivals and events across the United States. Slocum says, though, that he does plan to open a new truck in Kalamazoo in the near future.
“The Kalamazoo food truck scene is growing a lot, even from when I got into it,” he says. “We’re here to stay, and there are more (food trucks) that are opening up.”
Chester Emmons, who operates a truck called Motormouth, says that food truck fare is some of the freshest cooked food available and he believes that’s what keeps customers coming back.
“Most of it (the food preparation and cooking) is done the night before or that morning,” Emmons says. “And it’s pretty much tossed the next day because we might not have any other events for three or four days.”
Tents, trailers and trucks
Not every food “truck” is a truck. Some of the vendors at the food truck rallies or Lunchtime Live events operate from trailers, tents or even a sidewalk cart.
Toby Taverna, of Smoked Down BBQ, sells his food out of a small, red New York City- style food cart resembling a streetside hot dog stand, which he says makes him unique among the barbecue vendors in Kalamazoo.
“I thought this would be a lot easier to take with me places and get into certain areas instead of having a big truck that costs $60,000 to $70,000,” Taverna says. “A lot of people will come up to us and say, ‘Oh, it’s hot dogs,’ and I’m like, ‘No, it’s barbecue. I’ve got beef brisket, ribs and pork,’ and they’re taken aback and kind of surprised.”
Coffee Rescue has also employed creativity in its style of food truck. While the business serves what owner Jamie Brock says “you’d get at your regular coffee shop,” it serves it from a van fashioned to resemble an ambulance.
Similarly, there’s Dotty, a rehabbed 1965 camper turned into an “artisan” coffee bar by owner Bridgett Blough. It has custom wooden countertops and windows.
“I wanted someone to walk up to Dotty and just be enamored by the beauty of the actual trailer,” Blough says.
Creativity is also found in the food served. Blough’s other food truck, The Organic Gypsy, serves seasonal, locally sourced, organic meals that she says constantly change. Her most popular offering is a zucchini-noodle dish with coconut-peanut sauce, cilantro, smoked onions and peanuts.
“People love it because it’s really light and fresh and healthy,” she says. “It’s just something different and a little bit special that they don’t make at home.”
And it’s pretty hard to ignore Blue Plate’s “cheesecake on a stick.”
“The cheesecake on a stick is the most awesome thing to happen to the dessert and food truck world,” boasts Blue Plate’s owner, Emilio Dacoba. “I think people that buy a cheesecake on a stick think it’s an ice cream bar because it’s dipped in chocolate, but when you bite into it, it’s just that creamy, dense cheesecake with graham cracker crust.”
Most food truck vendors agree that being unique is key to success, since food truck customers are not the usual diners.
“I think the customer is different than the kind of customer you’d find at a brick and mortar restaurant or cafe,” Coffee Rescue’s Brock says. “Those people are usually interested in hanging out, but a food truck customer is someone who is on the go, who likes to explore the town and what it has to offer a little bit more.”
Dacoba, who has spent much of his life in the restaurant business, at his family’s eateries Mangia Mangia and La Cantina, believes that his food truck also gives him a unique opportunity as a chef.
“My favorite part,” he says, “is being able to see the smile and joy on someone’s face as they bite into that cheesecake on a stick and being able to be a part of them coming out and having a good time at the event that they’re at.”