MARQUETTE - Mobile food has swept the nation in the last five years, a trend fed by peoples' desire for a manageable business venture in a depressed economy, a growing consumer inclination toward craft foods and small local business, as well as the rise of social media, which makes tracking and interacting with mobile food vendors easy and often fun for customers.
According to Mashable, a website that covers the latest in social media trends, 2008 was the unofficial start of the national food-truck craze, when trucks like New York's Rickshaw Dumpling Bar and Los Angeles' Kogi BBQ started a gourmet food truck media frenzy. From there, laws updating health inspection regulations and zoning laws began to follow, along with hundreds of thousands more cleverly named carts and trucks vending interesting foods across the country.
In Marquette, the beginning of mobile food can be traced back to April 2012 when Tom Curry opened Rollin' Smoke Barbeque out of a trailer. He faced challenges due to city laws that limited mobile vending and ended up doing a lot of traveling around the U.P. in addition to a few Marquette locations like McCarthy's Cove, he said. On May 19, Curry moved into a restaurant at 3125 Wright Street near Range Bank, he said, though he still takes the trailer out to travel on the weekends as well. Border Grill, a hot dog vendor and an ice cream truck are also known to vend intermittently around Marquette.
Owner of Dia de los Tacos Mike Walker and employee Jaquelyn Lambert sell tacos in the Pathways parking lot as they do every Monday. More information on their schedule is posted on their Facebook page. (Journal photo by Mary Wardell)
Kate Pearce, one of two employees for The Treat Trike, rides the bike along Crescent Street in Marquette, selling ice cream treats made mostly by Jilbert’s Dairy. (Journal photo by Mary Wardell)
But Marquette natives Mike and Teri Lynn Walker made a serious splash on the food truck scene last year when they opened Dia de los Tacos in a sky-blue truck with a sugar skull stenciled on the side. In just a year, they've already been voted second best taco truck in the country on the website, Mobile Cuisine, and best taco in Northern Michigan, according to an MLive poll.
Mike Walker attributes this to a community that is "intensely supportive" and "vocal about it."
"Where else could you get people to stand outside when it's 20 below zero to get a taco?" he asked. "I wouldn't have done it, but as long as they were coming, we would do it."
Having maintained a long-range goal of owning a restaurant for at least three years, Walker - formerly a manager at Marquette's now-vacant restaurant and music venue, the Upfront - said they made the leap of faith when he and Teri both lost their jobs around the same time.
"Everybody from the Upfront was applying for the same line cooking job at Perkin's, and I couldn't pay my damn mortgage with that," Walker said. "So I had a little bit of money saved up, I borrowed some from a friend, from family, and it just seemed like all signs were pointing to 'let's do it now.'"
They have six employees, including Jaquelyn Lambert, who's worked in the truck since the beginning. She said customers seem to love the unique, fresh, homemade ingredients.
"We have people that follow us around town, like, every day. They know the schedule," she said. "And people have been doing taco-eating challenges now, so they'll put videos on facebook."
Two more food trucks have rolled into the area this summer as well.
Crazy Ate's is a purple truck opened in Munising June 14 by four residents including mother-daughter duo Jody Irving and Nicole Wihowski. Irving said they locally source as many menu items as possible and cook everything from scratch, down to the corn tortillas for their chicken quesadillas.
They also sell paninis, gelato, strawberry shortcake and other items. They can be found at the park in Munising every day from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
And Senor's, a red taco truck serving the greater Marquette area including Ishpeming, Negaunee, Marquette and K.I. Sawyer is owned by Rick Rhoades and opened on May 5. He also makes his Mexican food from scratch fresh every day using recipes his grandparents, who immigrated from Mexico, passed down to him.
Mobile frozen treats have also found a niche.
Scott and Tina Larson are Marquette-based entrepreneurs who had one business and three children already when Scott had the idea for an ice cream bicycle back in February of this year.
"We thought it would be a fun and relatively simple family business to run," said Tina Larson, who is also a stay-at-home mom. "It has been really cool to see something start and take off...It's gratifying."
The Treat Trike, manned by one of two employees the Larsons have hired, can be found along the bike path beside Lakeshore Boulevard, in neighborhoods, at the skate-park and at the soccer games next to the BMX course, among other places, though they're still nailing down a regular route.
Even though the three-wheeled custom-built red bicycle with mounted cooler weighs less than 100 pounds on its own, loaded with dry ice packs and treats, it's a good thing both employees are mountain bikers in their free time, Larson said.
Employee and NMU student Kate Pearce said she tries to circumnavigate hills, but the challenge of peddling for six hours in one shift is overshadowed by how excited people always are to see her.
"Sometimes I ride my normal bike through town, and I'm like, 'Wait, why isn't everyone smiling and waving at me?'" she said.
Larson said they hope to get a tracking device to use for social media sites, but in the meantime, the Trike's ragtime music alerts customers and alludes to something more classic that has its own appeal.
"We're sort of selling, along with the treats, an experience," she said. "It's this kind of an old-fashioned nostalgic sort of thing, and it's nice obviously that the ice cream comes to you."
Mike Walker said they want to see as much mobile food as possible come to Marquette to expand food options and encourage people to experiment with cuisine.
"In the food truck world, it's people really trying to expand what they've learned in a culinary aspect, and it's a good easy environment to get your feet on the ground, start a business, get something going and potentially roll it into a brick-and-mortar."
The City of Marquette is currently considering a proposal to improve laws and ordinances pertaining to mobile food vending, though that process is still in the works.
For a good online resource to learn about starting your own food truck, trike or other mobile vending operation, visit roaminghunger.com.
To learn about special events catering, locations, schedules and more for Dia de Los Tacos, Senor's, Crazy Ate's, Rollin' Smoke or the Treat Trike, look them up on Facebook using the search engine. Or you can always stroll around town until they come to you.
Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is email@example.com.