CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story identified the owner of Daddy's Little Grill as Kevin Conroy. His name is Kevin Cronin.
Not too long ago, food trucks were simply regarded as mobile chow stations. They were relegated to the parking lots of factories and strip malls or crammed between the elephant ear cart and fresh-squeezed lemonade stand at town fairs. But over the last decade, a shift in public perception — fueled in part by reality TV and the hit 2014 dramedy, “Chef” — has given food trucks new prominence on the culinary scene.
Two new food trucks recently rolled into Metro Lansing, joining a rich tradition that includes the Purple Carrot (which spun off into Red Haven), Good Truckin’ Food (which spawned Good Truckin’ Diner) and the Capital City Food Court, home of Detroit Frankie’s Wood-Fired Pizza. One of the new food trucks became the first of its kind in Michigan, while the other spurred a shuffle of high-profile local chefs.
Kevin Cronin bought the truck that became Daddy’s Little Grill in 2014, but spent almost a year getting it in shape and tinkering his menu before he opened.
“I took some time to get everything exactly where I wanted it, including getting the vinyl wrap and some of the equipment,” Cronin said. “There wasn’t much of a sense of urgency for me at first. But things changed for me, and in September I decided it was time to get out and do this. I wanted to strike while iron was hot.”
The thing that changed was his tenure as executive chef of Dusty’s Cellar in Okemos. He is proud of his work at Dusty’s and of the restaurant’s strong tradition, but there was something missing.
“As much as I loved Dusty’s, my job involved overseeing operations, not cooking,” Cronin said. “I missed getting to cook the food that I wanted to and having direct contact with people. The thought of (going into business for myself) really started to appeal to me.”
Cronin said the truck’s theme is “global street food,” culled from a lifetime of world travels. Menu items feature influences from the Caribbean, Hawaii, Europe and the American South. He uses primarily locally sourced ingredients, including meat and cheese from the MSU Dairy, fish from two local trout farms and produce from farms in mid-Michigan, Grand Rapids and Jackson.
Daddy’s Little Grill can be found behind Sparrow Hospital, 1215 E. Michigan Ave., near downtown Lansing, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on weekends. Cronin is also working to secure permits to set up at Wheat Jewelers in Okemos on weekdays. Look for updates on Daddy's Little Grill's Facebook page.
Meanwhile, James Sumpter took over as executive chef at Dusty’s in November following Cronin’s departure. Sumpter is a former executive chef of Tannin, the scratch Italian restaurant in Okemos, but had been working at a bistro in Kalamazoo when word came down that there was an opening at Dusty’s.
“I wasn’t even looking for a job — I was happy where I was,” Sumpter said. “But the reputation at Dusty’s is stellar, and I just had to throw my hat in the ring. I’m exactly where I need to be.”
Sumpter describes his style as “borderless,” combining international influences to create new fusions of flavor. He said Dusty’s has always supported Michigan farms, and he intends to maintain that by utilizing vendors like Spartan Country Meats in Webberville and Diemer’s Winter Gardens in Holland. The brunch menu at Dusty’s recently underwent a big change, under the eye of Sumpter’s new sous chef, Elizabeth Hughes.
“It’s been really great seeing her develop this,” Sumpter says. “She came up with a duck and waffle dish that’s really different. We weren’t sure at first what the reaction would be, but it’s been selling like crazy. This isn’t about change just for the sake of change — it’s about reinvigorating what Dusty’s was meant to be.”
Not fast food, Furious
And then last week, the newest local food truck officially propped up its awning for business: Fresh & Furious. Notably, its affiliation with the Capital Area Career Center makes it the first food truck in Michigan — and possibly the country — operated by high school students.
The Capital Area Career Center provides career and technical courses for upperclassmen at 11 Ingham County high schools. Chef Corbett Day oversees the operation, which gives students valuable work experience in project planning, customer service and inventory management. Fresh & Furious is available for community and corporate events and is parked near the Capital Area Career Center, 611 Hagadorn Road, Mason, on Tuesdays and Thursdays during school hours.
Better is bigger
The Better Health Store across from Frandor Shopping Center celebrated its grand reopening last week after a massive interior remodeling. Work included new flooring, an expanded retail space, upgraded coolers and a bigger café and dining area. There’s also a new fresh fish and meat counter serving grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and wild-caught salmon.
“It’s been 15 years and (our building) needed a refresh,” said owner Tedd Handelsman. “We’ve been getting so many requests for some of these items that it only made sense.”
Better Health Store 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday 305 N. Clippert St., Lansing (517) 332-6892, thebetterhealthstore.com