Residents of Ann Arbor’s Old West Side neighborhood say that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, their neighborhoods were tight-knit, characterized by neighbors laughing at each other on the streets and patios. But the pandemic lockdowns have put all this on hold. On a hot summer day in 2020, Nadine Hubbs, professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan, was staying at her Old West Side home. Suddenly, Hubbs heard the sound of mariachi music streaming through his open window, prompting him to explore what was to become one of the new attractions of the historic neighborhood, the local food trucks.
“I knew it was mariachi music because I studied Mexican-American country bands,” Hubbs said. “I came here and saw the (food) truck. Then John Carson, my neighbor in the (UM) Department of History, was walking with food in his hand. I must have been sitting on my patio and asked what had happened and they explained it to me and then John gave me the email so I could join their email group.
Hubbs had stumbled upon one of the trucks in his neighborhood’s “food truck series”; where local vendors prepared different food options in the back of their trucks along Murray Avenue to serve the residents. The event was originally organized by Art & Design professor Rebekah Modrak and real estate broker Marygrace Liparoto. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Modrak said he was inspired to start the food truck series after witnessing the hardships many local food businesses face during the pandemic.
“My husband and I used to love going to Ray’s Red Hots,” Modrak said. “We went to buy hot dogs during the pandemic and they told us they were really struggling. They said they had a food truck and could go to the neighborhoods, so we invited them to come to Murray Avenue on Tuesday to sell hot dogs. It was very successful. Everyone went out because we were all in our homes and we were so excited that something was happening on the street.
Modrak said the list of food trucks arriving in the neighborhood has now expanded to include 14 different vendors, including cuisines such as Latin American, Asian and Soul food. Modrak said the trucks rotate through the year, even in winter, with a different truck coming into the neighborhood every Tuesday. Modrak said they are also working to increase vegetarian options.
“We tend to have more trucks with vegetarian options, so they’re a bit like healthier food,” Modrak said. “There’s an all-vegan comfort food truck coming in now… Honestly, it’s gotten to a point where we have more trucks than we can handle.”
Vendors that frequent the neighborhood include El Mariachi Loco, a local food truck that sells traditional Mexican fare, often accompanied by live mariachi music. The owner of the truck, Gabriel Hernandez Maya, lives in Ann Arbor and has worked in the food industry for over 26 years. Hernandez Maya is a regular at both Murray Avenue and the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market in Kerrytown.
“It was fun doing business (on Murray Avenue),” said Hernandez Maya. “Sometimes in the summer they invite mariachi bands to play music. You know, Mexican food plus Mexican music.
Liparoto told The Daily that Hernandez Maya’s dedication to serving the neighborhood is an example of the relationship residents have built with Ann Arbor food vendors over the years. He said residents know they can always count on El Mariachi Loco to provide them with a warm taco, even on a cold winter’s night.
“There was a time in the winter when we had a power outage one night,” Liparoto said. “It might not even be Tuesday. I called (Hernandez Maya) and he came so everyone could eat on their doorstep.
Hubbs said that although Murray Street is more than 10 blocks from Main Campus, UM students occasionally hike to visit food trucks. He said that he enjoyed the intercultural relations he established with the students through different cuisine options thanks to the food trucks.
“I just remembered that Fork In Nigeria came last year,” Liparoto said. “I remember this very well because I met so many people, especially (UM) graduate students from nearby countries in West Africa who shared what they thought was the same or different as me. Many students knew each other and it really became a socializing activity.”
Weekly food truck events also provided student entrepreneurs such as Rackham student Mary Garza an opportunity to showcase their creativity and share their culture. Garza is the founder of the pop-up bakery Mi ReinA2 Patisserie, named in honor of his Mexican-born grandparents: his grandfather referred to his grandmother as “mi reina” or “my queen”.
“I was perfecting the pumpkin empanada, my grandfather’s favorite sweet bread,” Garza said. “Whenever I sit down with something sweet and a hot drink, I like to think of my grandfather. During my time here (at University) I felt like I was losing touch with my culture when (my grandparents) passed away. I take that back to my work, to what my thesis focuses on, and to this work.
Garza said managing his bakery connects him with the wider Ann Arbor community and has received support from fellow bakers to help him overcome the legal hurdles of operating a home-based kitchen. Garza said the restrictions come from the Michigan Cottage Food Act, which restricts food items that can be sold in home-based kitchens. Garza said he has received offers from other bakers to share space in commercial kitchens, which will allow him to expand his operation.
“Most of the bakers in town work in communal kitchens,” Garza said. “I’ve had offers to share kitchens or prepare for other events. I don’t feel like a threat to starters and, you know, everyone in the area has their own niche. And so[Ann Arbor]seems like a pretty supportive environment.”
According to a schedule of upcoming food truck options obtained by The Daily, organizers have already scheduled vendor rosters through March. Students and residents can browse Ann Arbor street food at the intersection of Murray Street and Liberty Street every Tuesday from 5 pm to 7:30 pm.