With coronavirus vaccines rolling out and the weather finally warming up and staying comfortable, it looks like it might finally be a good time to enjoy some fresh air and some good food in Lansing. For those who are starved to eat a meal that they didn’t cook themselves but are too nervous to sit in a potentially overcrowded dining hall, food trucks offer a delicious happy medium. Michigan’s long and hellish winter months coupled with pandemic shutdowns can make it easy to forget about our valiant fleet of mobile restaurateurs, but simply survey the town and you’ll see they haven’t gone anywhere.
“COVID-19 inspired me to start my business”
One of the newcomers to Lansing’s world of food trucks is Smoke and Soul, a barbecue joint that opened in spring 2020 and focuses on classic soul food such as brisket, ribs, macaroni and cheese and collard greens. Occasionally, Smoke and Soul will even serve up smoked duck and salmon — rarities you won’t find in too many restaurants across Lansing. Owner and head chef Glenn Hughes, who goes by Chef Glenn, was a former traveling salesman who found himself out of a job during the initial impact of the coronavirus.
He sold televisions door-to-door, and decided that a global pandemic was a poor environment to be meeting dozens of people face to face on a daily basis. Knowing he would have to find a new line of work that was more suitable, Hughes decided the proper avenue was to open up a food truck.
“Five years ago by a twist of fate, I got into satellite television sales. I was a door-to-door contractor and here comes COVID. No longer was it safe for me to be going into people’s houses,” Hughes said. “All of the restaurants were closing and I said, ‘Hey, this might be an opportunity to get back into the local food scene.’”
Opening up a food truck over a brick-and-mortar restaurant had distinct advantages for Hughes. Primarily, he wouldn’t have to suffer from indoor-dining closures as food trucks operate entirely outdoors and customers are only required to pickup their food from a window. While many restaurants across town would have to completely alter their business model to provide curbside pickup options, food trucks were ready to take that on from the get-go. Not to mention, opening up a food truck is considerably cheaper than purchasing or leasing an entire building and constructing a kitchen and designing a suitable dining area.
“Being outside was certainly a good option,” Hughes said. “Honestly, the money wasn’t there for a brick-and-mortar, so it was like, ‘Well, let’s do this.’”
Since getting the ball rolling with Smoke and Soul, Hughes has picked up a steady stream of regulars that have become enamored with his freshly smoked meat and hearty comfort food dishes. Hughes said his original vision with Smoke Soul was to corner the market on down south smoked dishes that remind diners of their favorite home cooked meals.
Hughes’ menu is inspired by his childhood, and days he spent with his grandmother learning how to perfect her old family recipes. His grandmother was born in Mississippi, so Smoke and Soul has a distinct southern tinge in its flavors.
“My grandmother was born in Mississippi, so I grew up as a kid in Detroit eating Mississippi food, and that inspires the side dishes that I carry today,” Hughes said.
Hughes takes the pandemic seriously, keeping a box of masks standby for customers that show up without one. While the service industry has been plagued with incidents of unruly customers refusing to wear masks, or rudely grandstanding when asked to put one on, Hughes said he hasn’t dealt with any customers causing him grief. In fact, the diners have been his favorite part of operating a food truck.
“Everyone has been really cool. I haven’t had a single bad incident. It’s been really positive; this community has been really good to me,” Hughes said. “It’s a hard grind, but it’s paying off in spades.”
Switching things up to meet a changing market
Bangos has worked its way up the ladder since hitting the street in 2019 and is now a go-to brunch and dinner spot for many Lansing foodies. Its pastel blue truck with floral print trim is instantly recognizable and photos of its well-stacked sandwiches and muffins often generate buzz on local social media groups.
The past year and the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic have caused some shakeups for co-owners Aharon Hebert and Will Green. Bangos’ initial strategy was to stay parked downtown and cater to the leagues of hungry office workers that would pour out of the Capitol every day during the lunchtime rush. When working from home became the new routine for office workers, Bangos had to settle on a new business scheme.
“We weren’t making enough to justify being downtown anymore,” Hebert said. “We started opening at night and got busier for weekend brunch, and it made up for that loss.”
Being open for nighttime hours meant incorporating an entirely new menu. While first building its name on breakfast and brunch fare, Bangos now offers burgers, chicken sandwiches, vegan Coney dogs and, of course, French fries. But evening patrons can still get their hands on bagel sandwiches with eggs, sausage and maple syrup.
While food trucks are obviously outdoors and not nearly as crowded as a busy restaurant, it’s still a requirement for those waiting in line to wear a mask. Hebert said customers sometimes make the misconception that they can be mask-free just because they’re dining at a food truck.
“Dealing with anti-mask people is annoying, but it’s manageable,” Hebert said. “People think because they’re outside they don’t need to wear a mask, but you’re still interacting with us and talking, so we expect you to wear a mask.”
Though the occasional anti-masker will pop up seemingly just to give everyone a hard time, Hebert said the vast majority of Bangos’ guests and regulars have typically been patient and understanding. Food trucks can get just as backed up as restaurants, so Bangos has always requested via social media that its customers call-in ahead of time to avoid a long wait.
“We have a small kitchen and I’m the only cook, so when we get busy the wait can be an hour long. I personally made about 14,000 sandwiches last year and I can’t remember five complaints,” Hebert said. “I had to have screwed up more than that, but our customers are cool.”
Do what you know best
Deanna Ray Brown opened up her food truck Everything is Cheesecake in 2019 with a simple vision in mind: create a joint where people can get ultimate cheesecake creations. Brown noticed there was a distinct lack of restaurants around Lansing where people could get their hands on the classic dessert dish. Over the years, she has become a master in baking cheesecakes, so who could take on the cause better than her?
“Besides brownies, cheesecake is my favorite dessert. I wanted to definitely go with something that I enjoy,” Brown said. “Cheesecake is also one of those desserts you can be very creative with. We tend to get really creative and that makes it so much fun, I love to bake and I love cheesecake. It was a no-brainer.”
While the pandemic has caused the vast majority of restaurants to restructure how they operate, Brown said how Everything is Cheesecake operates has remained relatively unaffected. Her food truck was always geared for people to pick up their cheesecake and go, so when curbside pickup became the norm and small gatherings were prohibited, it was just business as usual for Everything is Cheesecake.
“We’re set up for pickup. A lot of restaurants had to change how they conduct business, but food trucks were already set up in that capacity,” Brown said.
The real challenge presented by the pandemic for Brown and her staff has been the close face-to-face interactions with customers as they come up to the window to grab their order. Despite being permitted to stay open, Everything is Cheesecake spent much of last spring voluntarily shut down as a precaution.
“We thought, for everybody’s safety, it would be better if we closed for a while,” Brown said.
While the past few months have seen more and more people receive the coronavirus vaccination and become more comfortable with heading back out into public, Brown has noticed an uptick in customers. She said business has been decent in the first quarter of 2021.
“Once upon a time it was a whole lot more, but I honestly feel it is going pretty good. You have people that are still skeptical. Me and my family take a lot of stuff to go; we support restaurants but it’s more in the pickup and delivery capacity,” Brown said.
Brown’s main goal for the future of Everything is Cheesecake is to expand deliveries and upgrade from a trailer into a proper truck that she can take to different cities and festivals.
What does it take to operate a food truck?
Though food trucks offer countless varieties of cuisine and come in all different shapes and sizes, there’s a common thread. Owning a food truck is a tough but rewarding gig.
“For anybody that’s thinking about owning a food truck, it’s a lot of fun,” Brown said. “If you’re looking for a job where your day can change consistently, then definitely go for it. But if you’re scared of working hard, running a food truck is not for you.”
Hebert said a food truck shouldn’t be confused for a simpler version of a restaurant. You shouldn’t expect to cut corners when it comes to preparing food just because your business isn’t operating out of a brick-and-mortar space.
“I don’t think you should open a food truck if you wouldn’t open a restaurant. It’s not easier, just different,” Hebert said. “For us, being consistent is best, but you have to be willing to adapt to circumstances and try something different.”
Hughes said he doesn’t regret his decision to get into the food truck industry. If he could go back to the fateful moment when he left being a salesman behind to open up Smoke and Soul, he’d do it over again in a heartbeat.
“Through selling this food, I’ve attracted investors, and I plan on taking things to the next level,” Hughes said.
And if purchasing and operating your very own food truck is a little too ambitious for you just yet, you could always dip your toes into the food industry with other small businesses. Hebert said that’s a great way to see if a food truck might be right for you.
“Start with a food cart if you can’t afford a truck, start a hot sauce business at a commissary kitchen, start whatever you can and build it up,” Hebert said.