'Mark's Carts' to expand downtown Ann Arbor's outdoor dining scene
Janet Miller | For AnnArbor.com
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 AnnArbor.com.