Mobile food carts are the ronin of the dining world: Rootless, solitary creatures, easily transportable to “hot” locations, good at getting a job done and then disappearing when the mission’s complete. Each has a dedicated discipline (tacos, hot dogs, skewered kebabs) and uses that specialty to fill a particular need in society. Occasion ally they must set aside their differences and band together to keep the peace — a hungry crowd is a dangerous crowd.
These group occasions are usually limited to major outdoor events where graband-go noshing is de rigueur, but once the festival is gone, so goes the solidarity. In some bigger cities, though, food cart communes are a staple of the seasonal food scene. Columbus has a kicking collection of eight food trucks called Columbus Commons; a little closer to home, Mark’s Carts in Ann Arbor has eight rotating vendors. In Lansing, food trucks are scattered haphazardly around the city grid. Entrepreneur/pizza slinger Frank Tignanelli hopes to unite them under his grand vision: A dedicated Lansing food court.
“Lansing needs a place where people can just drive up, grab something to eat and go,” Tignanelli said. “Obviously if they have a choice of several (types of food), all the better. It’s a simple concept. And this is the perfect spot for one.”
Tignanelli is the owner/operator of Detroit Frankie’s Wood Fired Brick Oven, a food cart he opened earlier this month in the parking lot of the former Nationwide Gold & Silver Exchange on the corner of Oakland Avenue and Cedar Street. Tignanelli owned and operated a pizzeria with his friend in Northern Michigan from 1979 to 1989 before transitioning into the food distribution business. His forte: Pizza ingredients.
“I got to know all the best cheeses, sauces and dough mixtures working as a distributor for 13 years,” Tignanelli said. “So I know what to buy.”
He opened an Italian restaurant in Petoskey, but after three years he returned to distribution. And then last year he bought his mobile wood-fired pizza oven and started catering and setting up at farmers markets. His oven is a Forno Bravo brick oven that’s easily transportable.
“Just throw in some wood and it’s ready to go,” he said. “I deal with thin crust pizza because it’s faster to cook. It’s healthier too — not a lot of oil. You can drive right up and get a hot piece of pizza in three minutes.”
Detroit Frankie’s is across the street from a Rally’s and kitty-corner from an A&W. He said the competition has kept business steady, and that’s where the idea for the food court came to him.
“People are in a hurry, but they want to know what they’re eating is real food,” he said. “That’s the (attraction of) food carts. They’re fast, inexpensive and you get something made to order with fresh ingredients. You can’t get that with fast food.”
Gary Ganakas co-owns the 2.4-acre property south of Oakland between Cedar and Larch Street where Tignanelli is set up. The Nationwide Gold & Silver Exchange closed the week Detroit Frankie’s opened and sits vacant. Before that it was home to Auggie’s Chicken, and before that it was an Arby’s. He said he’d like to sell the land to a builder who could turn it into a mixed-use development space, but he’s curious to see where this food court concept goes.
“I think that’s a very cool idea,” Ganakas said. “Lansing needs something that makes them laugh. It would be great if we could create something fun that was still able to thrive. There’s so much traffic there: 12,000-15,000 cars pass by every day on each of those three streets (and it’s) only 500 feet off the Lansing River Trail. If we had a food court, we could sell ice cream there too, maybe do something like a beer garden. That would be really nice.”
He said he’s not sure what licenses he’d need to proceed; Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said he’s not sure either; nothing like this has been attempted in Lansing before.
“That approval would be processed though me,” Swope said. “The city regulates businesses in non-permanent locations. We’d have to go through all the approvals, separate license for each vendor. Beyond that, I’m not sure what departments need so sign off.”
Mark’s Carts in Ann Arbor utilizes a common commissary for the eight vendors, something Ganakas said is possible for the former gold exchange, which still has a kitchen area, including walkin coolers. Mark’s Carts founder Mark Hodesh said his experiment has worked out in multiple ways.
“It’s increased foot traffic exponentially here,” Hodesh said. “It’s also given some aspiring restaurant owners the confidence and the skills they needed to start brick-and-mortar restaurants. I’ve had two carts go on to open restaurants. It’s also spawned new business in the area including a beer garden. I’d call it highly successful.”
Tignanelli, however, has no desire to go back into the restaurant business.
“I’m living the dream now,” he said. “I can do catering events, I can do festivals, I can go anywhere I want. But if I can get this food court started, that would be the best. I can’t believe nobody’s thought of it before.”
Detroit Frankie’s Wood Fired Brick
Oven 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday- Friday 500 E. Oakland Ave., Lansing (517) 449-2130, detroitfrankie.com