Southwest Detroit is arguably the food truck capital of the city.
It’s a robust ecosystem, nurtured by a mostly Latino immigrant street food vendor community that has flourished over the past decade or so, despite what some would call antiquated policies that regulate these businesses.
In the mood for a tostada loaded high with citrusy ceviche? Hit up El Imperio Taco Stand, across the street from Huntington Bank on West Vernor Highway. Looking for a freshly made elote slathered in mayo, parmesan cheese and chile? A few blocks west of the seafood truck, you’ll find Elotes Phoenix. Starving for a plate of tacos? Well, there’s no shortage of tacos, quesadillas, tortas and other Mexican delicacies — all available in one of nearly two dozen mobile loncherias throughout the neighborhood.
Food trucks are a booming business. The U.S. Census has sales from food trucks increasing 79% between 2012 and 2017 — raking in $1.2 billion nationwide in that last year.
But as mobile food establishments have exploded in popularity, cities across the country including Detroit, have struggled to update their regulations. Rules aimed at ensuring public health have historically served as roadblocks for food vendors — particularly those from immigrant or Black or brown backgrounds — from operating.
Come April 30, a newly revamped food truck ordinance will take effect in Detroit in an attempt to make it easier for food truck operators to earn a living in more parts of the city, not just the food truck bubble that exists in Southwest Detroit — where vendors avoid the need for permits by commonly parking on privately owned lots where diners can reliably find them. Under the retooled policy, street vendors will be allowed to park on metered and unmetered public parking spots outside of what are called central business and cultural vending areas without the need to apply for a special permit.
Former Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López began pushing for changes in the city’s food truck policy not long after she took office in the city’s sixth district in 2013.
I spoke with Castañeda-Lopez in November when the new ordinance passed in the City Council. Having grown up in Southwest Detroit, she said she knows most of the food truck vendors. As she and her staff began to formulate what a new ordinance would look like, she said she reached out to owners to hear their concerns.
“Some of the concerns from community members were like, ‘hey, why are there only some trucks in that neighborhood? Like, why can’t there be food trucks over here?’” Castañeda-Lopez said at the time. “Other folks who operate the food trucks themselves, were like, ‘hey, we don’t even know what we did and we got a ticket for XYZ and it’s just not clear.’ Or, like, ‘we would love to operate in this space but you have to pull a special permit and it’s really expensive and if we only make $100 in profit, and the permit costs $50 then that’s 50% of our profit before we’re able to participate.’”
Within a year or two in office, Castañeda-Lopez organized a working group with several city departments to find out what the issues were.
“Those conversations turned out to be incredibly contentious,” said Castañeda-Lopez. “There’s a lot of confusion, even on the city level given that there’s no legislation or a clear process. We heard from the building department who had concerns, and then the police department and all their concerns were really around like, ‘this is confusing, it’s not a clear process, people aren’t operating it all the same way.’”
To be clear, owning a food truck under any circumstance can be hard work. Trucks often lack electricity, running hot water, and are typically not equipped with Wi-Fi (making credit card transactions difficult). The hours are long, and there are usually not many people, if anyone at all, who can relieve workers if they need a break. Bathrooms aren’t always available nearby, and operators are vulnerable to robberies or other raucous activities outside their vehicles.
Nancy Diaz-Lopez and her husband, Ramon “Wicho” Diaz, have been running El Parian, a fleet of Mexican food trucks, for more than a decade. She said on top of those kinds of concerns, mobile food establishments are also required — under the Michigan Food Law of 2000 — to provide proof that they have access to a licensed commissary kitchen that can support its needs like providing adequate food storage space, reliable water supply and the ability to accommodate food preparation.
One way to avoid getting ticketed for illegal parking, operating without the proper permit, or without a verified commissary kitchen, is to pay for access, a practice that Diaz-Lopez said is a common practice among Southwest Detroit food trucks. She pays between $500 and $1,000 a month per location to park each of the four trucks her company runs. Before her family bought the property that would eventually become their first physical dining space, La Palapa del Parian, Diaz-Lopez said she also paid about $100 a week to another restaurant to serve as the designated commissary kitchen for her family’s two food trucks at the time. There, she used their kitchen to prep veggies, make salsa and store and season their meat. Now her team uses the kitchen at La Palapa as a central base for all of the food truck preparations.
When Diaz-Lopez and her husband took over her father’s food truck business during the height of the recession in 2008, the city’s taco truck scene was still very much in its infancy. She said she routinely dealt with complaints from nearby restaurant owners who accused her business of stealing their customers. Even though they were able to secure a spot on a private lot, she said city officials and police didn’t quite know what to make of it.
A lot has changed since those early years, especially since the onset of the pandemic, when we’ve seen an influx of new food trucks infiltrating the neighborhood and other parts of the city.
The updated ordinance attempts to catch the city up to a rapidly evolving industry. The new law gives operators more ability to choose where to do business but prohibits them from operating within 200 feet of a business that sells the same products or a sports venue without written consent, or within 200 feet of a school. The ordinance puts a curfew in place for trucks between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. but how that might affect mobile food businesses that already operate on private property isn’t yet clear. The commissary kitchen requirement still stands.
Longtime operators like Diaz-Lopez say there’s reason to be hopeful for the future of food trucks.
“I think things are getting better compared to previous years,” Diaz-Lopez said. “I think there’s less of a challenge. I know it’s going to get better.”
Serena Maria Daniels is the chingona-in-chief at Tostada Magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.