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Posted on Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 5:55 a.m.

'Mark's Carts' to expand downtown Ann Arbor's outdoor dining scene

By Janet Miller


Downtown Home and Garden Owner Mark Hodesh stands in the area that will be home to Mark's Carts, a collection of 10 outdoor food carts offering a variety of eats, from vegan to Spanish paella and tapas. He plans to open at the end of April.

Janet Miller | For

Mark's Carts, a collection of individually owned and operated outdoor food carts that will occupy courtyard space behind Downtown Home & Garden on South Ashley Street in downtown Ann Arbor, is scheduled to open at the end of April.

Mark Hodesh, owner of Downtown Home & Garden, has signed contracts with six food cart operators, offering a wide mix of food styles, from vegan dishes to headcheese hoagies. He hopes to add four more operators before opening.

Hodesh received 30 applications for food carts, and selected six based on their business plans, experience, willingness to work hard and menu variety. He would like to add vendors of Indian, Thai and Jamaican food, along with wood-fired pizza.

Some of the selected vendors already own food carts used at special events or at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. Some do catering. And some have no experience. Most are local, but Humble Hogs, which will offer headcheese and other mostly beef and pork dishes, is from Austin, Texas.

Planned vendors are: San Street (Asian street food); Debajo del Sol (Spanish paella and tapas); The Lunch Room (vegan entrees, sides and baked goods); eat (locally sourced hearty sandwiches); Darcy's Cart (breakfast burritos and more); and Humble Hogs (hoagies, braise-in-a bun, and other savory and sweet offerings).

Cost for a space at Mark’s Carts, which pays for use of a new commercial kitchen, cart space in the courtyard that fronts Washington Street, as well as utilities, is $7,500 for the season, Hodesh said. Mark’s Carts will be operational from March through November. Carts, which vendors must supply, can cost between $2,500 and $12,000. Some carts will be small, with the vendor serving outside. Others will be more like small trailers, with the vendors serving from inside.

While there will probably be space heaters for the colder months and some shade and light rain protection, Mark’s Carts isn’t an all-weather operation, Hodesh said. During brutally cold or rainy days, there may be little activity, he said.

While cart operators will set their own hours, Mark’s Carts will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, probably from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week, Hodesh said. The carts will occupy 2,700 square feet of space, with seating for diners. The area will also be fenced, lighted and landscaped. Access will be from Washington Street and through Downtown Home and Garden.

Hodesh said he may add more carts as the project progresses.

“I want to see how traffic patterns work and how everything fits in,” he said. “I want to let it grow organically.”

Work on the commercial kitchen, occupying half of the adjacent Union Hall Building, 208 W. Liberty, is expected to be finished early next week. Hodesh said he hopes to eventually lease kitchen space to caterers, existing food operations that need extra space, farmers who want to add value to their produce by making prepared foods, and for cooking classes.

Hodesh hatched the idea for Mark’s Carts while visiting his daughter in New York City, where food carts abound. He hopes the carts become a gathering place for downtown Ann Arbor.

“It will slow people down — they’ll talk to each other while waiting in line, they’ll break bread together,” Hodesh said.

The owner-operators of one cart expressed excitement at the business opportunity.

Friends and neighbors Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo have talked about owning a downtown Ann Arbor cafe, but there were too many hurdles, from high rent to financing to their lack of experience managing a restaurant.

That’s when they started to host "pop-up" restaurants around Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti last fall, serving five-course vegan meals at rotating locations, from the Workantile Exchange to an Ypsilanti tattoo parlor. They call themselves The Lunch Room because of the signature serving trays they use.

They started by emailing event invitations to about 80 people in their social networks, a list that has grown to 400, Panozzo said. So when news of Mark’s Carts became public in January, several people encouraged them to apply.

The Lunch Room will offer breakfast, lunch and dinner on varying days, with meals costing less than $10. Sandwiches, for instance, will run $5 to $6, Panozzo said.

“With food carts, the idea is to have very little overhead so you can pass those savings along to the customer,” Panozzo said.

Menu staples will include fresh summer rolls (rice paper wrapped around rice noodles, tofu and fresh vegetables) and a homemade coconut milk yogurt served with granola.

While Engelbert and Panozzo have worked food service jobs in the past, this will be their first business venture. Both left day jobs in the past year and a half, looking for careers changes.

Mark’s Carts is a safe way to enter the restaurant business, Panozzo said. Overhead is low and they’ll gain needed experience. Hodesh, who used to run the Fleetwood Diner years ago, has been helpful, he said.

And the other food cart owners will offer a community, Panozzo said: “We’re not all necessarily going to be working on the same team, but we’ll all be working for the same goal.”

Janet Miller is a freelance reporter for


Kristin V. V.

Sat, Apr 23, 2011 : 2:55 a.m.

Great idea! I've always thought that food cart vendors were lacking in A2. When I've watched shows like Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and seen him having a blast eating at sweet food carts late at night, it's kind of bummed me out that the Deuce didn't have this culture. These proposed food carts seem to have a great variety, I'm stoked to try the head cheese hoagie by the way, but they should consider expanding their hours. Ann Arbor is a cool town and has a great night life that could only be enhanced by great street food after bars close.


Mon, Apr 4, 2011 : 4:09 p.m.

I love this idea, but does the writer mean "headcheese hoagie," or is that supposed to say "cheese steak hoagie?" A headcheese hoagie would be pretty intense.


Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 10:53 p.m.

Someone commented about rotating the carts on a daily basis. This is a great idea. Then everyone would have the chance to try something different each day, Also, no one cart would dominate a certain location. As for the impact on the established restaurants in downtown Ann Arbor, If they don't have the ability to compete with these roving carts, then they really have some serious problems. Maybe they shouldn't be in business!


Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 8:55 p.m.

Trek: "When you're looking for a $10/20-minute meal in town you basically *have* to head to campus. Hopefully this will draw some of those people towards Main." Seriously?


Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 4:53 p.m.

Just to clarify it is 7500 per season not per month. It's says season right in the article. No reason to bash the reporter. That comes out to 830 per month over 9 months. That includes utilities so it's really a heck of a deal. You also get a kitchen to use. Hard to beat use of prime downtown real estate at that price. Hopefully, everyone is successful and it adds some variety to the downtown cuisine.

Tom Joad

Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 8:39 p.m.

the reporter updated the story after I initially commented. It wasn't meant as a bash, just use appropriate units in your figures when you present them. It' s not our job as reader to guess.


Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 4:35 p.m.

Good way to get around the "Pro-Business" attitude of Ann Arbor city council and residents.

UM owns

Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 3:40 p.m.

The driving force behind food carts (at least in Los Angeles, where they are very popular) is that they serve meals in a different location every day. I feel like that would be better for the individual food cart owners -- first, they would have more exposure to more customers (rather than just those who work/live near South Ashley), and secondly they won't have to compete with each other over the customers (because they'd be spread out across A2 and rotate locations daily). I'd rather have the traveling-food cart system, where they announce on their webpage or twitter their location for the day -- one day a certain cart will be on State St, the next day they'll be stationed at North Campus for lunch and Arborland for dinner, etc.


Mon, Apr 4, 2011 : 4:50 a.m.

Most food carts in Austin work the same corner every day. Shockingly, business is brisk, although being located in Texas, it isn't afflicted with the usual Midwestern sense of negativity.

Marvin Face

Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 5:40 p.m.

Great point. In many cities (Austin, LA, Minneapolis, NY, etc) food trucks are very popular. The only way that business model works for them is that they are very mobile and go to different locations every meal. Like you said, they tweet their next location and get mobbed when they arrive. In Venice, CA a bunch of food trucks congregate near a popular bar once a month for something called First Friday. Not sure the downtown population is there to support this, nor do i think this is a particularly great location. I really hope this works but I'm pretty skeptical.


Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 3 p.m.

After having spent over 41 years in the food service business, I have a few comments on this idea. I really like it. Think that the public will enjoy the opportunity to try different foods with out spending a "Ton" of money going onto many of the down town restaurants. The comment on the rental figure of $90,000 per year for a restaurant is correct on many of them They usual cost in rent is from 7 % to 10% of sales . I have been in business in many areas from Colorado to the east coast and Ann Arbor for some reason is always on the high end for eating out. I love this area but that is just a fact. This should hopefully, bring additional people down town and just relax and walk around and see what is going on, Good idea, In the past, I have been asked to help a few struggling owners in Downtown Ann Arbor, My first advice was to provide to the customers what they might like and enjoy, Too may try to force the public to eat what they want to serve them. Not a real good business plan and a few of them have since gone out of business over the past few years. Those that take care of their customers ( Friends) will be successful!! Good luck Mark, You have a great idea!!

Peter Baker

Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 2:13 p.m.

Love the idea and can't wait for it to open, but I've got to question the use of Mark's name in the possessive in the title. I'd be hesitant to promote my cart when it's going to sound like they're all his.


Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 6:28 p.m.

I agree with that. Why make people explain that you own the cart, not Mark? Maybe he could call it "Mark's Cart Park" or something. If I were a cart owner, I would rather think of it as ONE stop on my rounds. Lunch here one day, North Campus the next, Briarwood parking lot the next, Vet's Park for softball, etc. and tweet my location that morning. I think renting commercial kitchen space is a great idea but how many cooks can fit in there every morning?

Tom Joad

Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 1:26 p.m.

I'm going to assume that the $7500 cost is monthly rent or $90,000 a year or about $250 a day, as the reporter mindlessly left out that crucial detail. Some food cart owners in NYC make over a $1000 a day, but that's NYC. Certainly the number of carts and variety will be great for the customer but the local restaurants and cafes will be hit hard by Mark's Carts, especially from May to November. The owners of the carts will be hard pressed to pay that amount of space rent in continuing week economy.


Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 11:41 p.m.

Sure a sweet spot with junkie processed food. I guess if you like junk feel free, but I think the idea here is to provide good locally produced and sourced food at reasonable price.


Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 6:57 p.m.

The sweet spot for lunch with many "quick bite" diners these days is more like $5, not $10... witness the many local and national restaurants offering fare at that price point - "$5 foot-longs" at Subway, for example, or $5 combo lunchs at many asian places.

Trek Glowacki

Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 3:16 p.m.

The article states the $7,500 is "for the season" (which appears to be 6 or 7 months long). A price including "use of a new commercial kitchen, cart space in the courtyard that fronts Washington Street, as well as utilities" – a major bargain for a restaurant startup. I have serious doubts that a food carts, which cater to those looking for quick food to go, would seriously impact the business of any sit-down restaurants or cafes. They all sell food, sure, but are targeting entirely different consumer needs. When you're looking for a $10/20-minute meal in town you basically *have* to head to campus. Hopefully this will draw some of those people towards Main.


Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 2:46 p.m.

The ones that aren't as good might be hard hit, but more competition sounds pretty good to me as a consumer. I would rather have lots of dining options, some of which do better than others, than one or two that do well because they have no competitors.

Kelly Davenport

Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 1:42 p.m.

Tom, thanks for your question. The $7,500 cost is for seasonal rent (March through November -- though this year's season won't start in March, obviously). I am updating the story to clarify that point.

Jimmy McNulty

Sun, Apr 3, 2011 : 1:02 p.m.

Great business idea! It might be interesting to get a quote or two from restaurants in the surrounding area as to how this venture may impact their lunch business.