By Chris Wendel
The city of Traverse City has some decisions to make regarding mobile food businesses (both food trucks and food carts). At first blush it’s easy to assume that mobile food entrepreneurs negatively impact established restaurants, but there are plenty of local factors for endorsing, not banning this type of business development.
Business Breeds Business: Cluster growth in the food and agricultural businesses is well documented in northwestern lower Michigan. Back in the 1970’s it didn’t take long for people to realize that two wineries on the Old Mission Peninsula or in Leelanau County were a good thing, but adding more wineries didn’t mean failure for those that were first established. Instead, additional wineries made both Old Mission and Leelanau renown for their wine, attracting customers from downstate, across the U.S., and now internationally. This non-protective attitude provided our area with a fortunate example of “business breeding business”.
What would have happened if Traverse City had called it good with two microbreweries several years ago? We could have missed out on what is now a burgeoning sector that includes not just retail and restaurant development, but also local agricultural suppliers that grow and provide hops, and soon will supply us with barley and malt. Instead of the pie being divided into smaller pieces, the microbrew phenomenon in the Grand Traverse region attracts people from far outside of the area, creating a larger market of potential customers that at first didn’t exist.
Short changing the emerging mobile food movement right now would mean eliminating a sector that holds the same promise as the local wine and microbrew movements had in their infancy.
- A customer may need to buy something on-the-fly and not have an hour to sit down at a restaurant for lunch or dinner.
- There’s an opportunity to locate food truck and cart businesses in areas that might be lacking food options but still have a critical mass of working people or residents (think Lay Park west of Hagerty Insurance with its 500+ employees).
- It’s not only people walking around downtown that are mobile food vendor customers. There’s another potential market with virtual and home based workers in nearby residential areas away from restaurant competition.
Business Incubation: From a small business development perspective, mobile food businesses are the perfect start-up incubator compared to the traditional restaurant model that is simply cost prohibitive for many entrepreneurs. It makes sense for someone considering any kind of business to limit start-up costs and test a concept without putting his or her life savings on the line (or home up for collateral).
We’re a Foodie Town, Right?: With Traverse City consistently topping the lists of Foodie Towns in America, it’s only right to have the process and structure in place to encourage mobile food commerce rather than keeping food entrepreneurs outside of downtown, or banning them altogether (creating an economic opportunity for another forward thinking community).
NMC Connection: It would make sense to integrate the mobile food model into the curriculum of the NMC Culinary Arts Program, combining small business training with the existing food related courses.
Restaurant Participation: It’s wise to have parameters that encourage established restaurants to have mobile food businesses of their own. Also, why not have a restaurant owner or chef mentor an ambitious employee to get them started with their own food establishment (again, without the major upfront costs)? This mentor-to-owner relationship could be the perfect feeder system for future “bricks and mortar” restaurant location openings.
So maybe it’s time to stop being so paranoid and realize that mobile food trucks and food carts can be a positive influence for job growth, helping more people make a living, and not necessarily limit the avocation of others.