Monthly Archives: August 2009

Street Carts of Grand Rapids-The Impossible Dream

There are certainly many “quality-of-life” pet projects being promoted, nurtured, pursued, debated and in some cases, being implemented around west Michigan:

However, not a lot of discussion about creating a food vending,  street cart culture.  Maybe with good reason?
  • The weather. Can you imagine the cold and lonely days and nights in winter?  So, maybe they are seasonal…or so good that folks will hire as caterers.
  • The logistics. The red tape is not too bad.  I was able to get basic operational answers in a few e-mails from the city offices.  The health department will need a little love too, but if you are in the food business, and can keep things clean and sanitary, it’s not too bad.  Just need a certified kitchen.  Maybe a shared kitchen incubator?
  • The economics. Is there a high enough density of  people living and working in Grand Rapids to make these carts viable?  A little business planning and research would help here.  Can’t say yes or no.  (I know, if this was an opportunity, someone would be all over it all ready, right?)
  • The taste buds. Hot dog carts are around.  A few stray vendors on Monroe Mall.  But do Grand Rapidian’s have the palate to support food carts that feature unique, ethnic foods?
But as I look at my Don Quixote carving every day on my desk, I wonder if someday, carne asada, Korean BBQ, pommes frites with tarragon-anchovy mayonnaise and Bosnian pitas will find a home here.
From the September issue of Bon Appetit: Enjoy

The Art of the Street Cart

Portland, Oregon, is leading a delicious dining revolution. And it’s not taking place at restaurants—small trucks and mobile carts are serving a range of diverse, inventive, and budget-friendly food. Join us as we visit the carts and meet the cooks who are creating a new curbside cuisine.

September 2009

The Art of the Street Cart

Click through the slideshow to get the recipes >
Lately, the offerings of the humble food cart have been elevated from pedestrian fare to destination dining. Sure, it’s fast food, but without the corporate bondage and universal homogeneity. Ethnic ingredients, handcrafted dishes, locally sourced fruits and vegetables—today’s carts serve the best from around the world and around the corner, made right before your eyes.
The epicenter of this new foodquake is in downtown Portland, Oregon. Clustered in parking lots and on grassy embankments, mobile carts—like Monika and Karel Vitek’s Tábor street cart (above)—feature more than a dozen cuisines cooked to order in tiny interiors. These micro-enterprises are sprouting up like Monopoly houses—a recent survey counted about 170—amid a bustling restaurant and food artisan landscape. And the city makes it relatively easy to set one up: In addition to food safety requirements, rules for these carts specify that they be on private property, have wheels that are not removed, and be no longer than 16 feet.
The success of these meals on wheels is, of course, dependent on a population that will frequent them, and the people of Portland enthusiastically do just that. Huge boosters of locally sourced products and all things alternative, they’ll sooner scarf down a vegan burrito than a fast-food burger. Some carts, including several of Portland’s best, listed here, feature covered patios and tables, so customers don’t have to enjoy that Bohemian goulash or basil-gingersnap ice cream in the rain.

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Monroe North’s untapped potential to produce leading edge medical and technology startups

Grand Rapids’ Monroe North is positioned to be THE hotbed of leading-edge technology startups –so why isn’t it the nucleus of incubator development?

The SmartZone on the west end of the Medical Mile stretches north of Michigan Street a few blocks. Within it and adjacent to it sit vacant buildings where researchers and technology gurus could be changing the world, creating jobs, drawing employees to the neighborhood to work and live, and investing millions in VC dollars.

The stage is set, the curtain is ready to open, but the show is far from ready.

The Planning Commission recently approved an Area Specific Plan — a three-year-long project launched and guided by the Downtown Development Authority — outlining the vision for pedestrian and transit access to and from the Medical Mile and to and from downtown, and a vision for public access to the river. The ASP also incorporates a vision for pedestrian access to nearby Belknap Lookout — where thousands of furniture craftsmen lived when the furniture factories buzzed with activity. Those workers, including my great-grandfather Henry Hoenicke who was a brass polisher and lived on Shirley St. NE, traversed the hill to and from work every day. The steep dilapidated stairway is still there near Division and Newberry (??), covered with brush.  That daily trek to and from med-bio and technology startups is totally feasible if access was available, making living in Belknap a prime residential option.

Admittedly, I haven’t done the research to find out if there are buildings designated as brownfields in addition to the upcoming Imperial Metals rehabilitation, but if there are it would be a tremendous boon to the district to get them cleaned up and rehabbed. If I had the money myself, this is one area I’d be watching very closely for economic development and I’d be rallying the city to open the area to the rest of the downtown and the hill.

But longtimers in the business district — Jack Buchanan who renovated the Brass Works Building and is tackling the Imperial Metals rehab, and Jim Zawacki, owner of Grand Rapids Spring and Stamping — don’t hold out much hope of attracting technology startups to the SmartZone — it’s been in existence for years and no one’s jumping on it. Zawacki’s take is that building owners don’t want to develop the incubators. Buchanan says a core issue is employee parking — there isn’t any. Perhaps the lack of interest is because of the parking issue — which is a definite problem and one not easily fixed.

Developing parking is nuts-o in the finance department. Suzanne Schulz of the city planning department told me recently that each space in a city ramp costs $20,000; a surface parking space costs $7,000. As I said, nuts-o.

With Boardwalk, Monroe Terrace, Landmark Lofts and Newberry Place, housing has  boomed and people are living in delightful urban neighborhoods close to the , downtown and parks. Icon on Bond sits empty — how sad for the neighborhood and the city. But there are galleries and pubs/eateries making a go of it — so I think the district is primed for technology startups to set up shop.

The way I see it, if developers don’t build some high-tech incubators in Monroe North soon, the window of opportunity will close.


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