Trucks, Drinks and Deliveries: Three trends shaping the local food and beverage scene

People have been calling Traverse City a foodie town for years and that buzz isn’t going away. Despite staffing challenges, supply chain hurdles, and a pandemic that hit restaurants particularly hard, TC’s food and beverage scene isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. In 2022 alone, a slew of new establishments have opened their doors in and around Traverse City – from Modern Bird to North Bar to The Burrow.

While things aren’t decelerating, though, they are constantly evolving. Here are three defining trends currently shaking up the food and beverage scene in northern Michigan – and what they might mean for the future of this thriving business sector.

1. Food trucks are everywhere

2022 marks nine years since Gary and Allison Jonas transformed a liquor store called Jack’s Market into The Little Fleet, still one of the most bustling hangout spots in Traverse City. At the time, food trucks were a rarity in the area, in part because of burdensome regulations within the City of Traverse City itself.

Back in 2013, the first food truck on the Little Fleet lot was the Jonases’ own 1972 Fleetwing trailer, which they converted into a grilled cheese truck called EZ Cheezy. In 2015, Gary told the Detroit Free Press that he brought EZ Cheezy to The Little Fleet almost as a bet-hedge, fearing that he wouldn’t be able to attract any other food trucks to his ahead-of-its-time vision. As the Free Press article noted, though, The Little Fleet ended up with a full lot of five trucks in the summer of 2013, and soon had a double-digit waiting list.

Per the Free Press, there were 16 food truck licenses in Traverse City in 2015, up from just 11 in 2013. That year also marked the passage of a new food truck ordinance, which eased some of the city’s tougher regulations – such as a $100-per-day permit fee, reduced to a more manageable annual rate – to allow for freer food truck activity.

Fast-forward to 2022 and food trucks are one of the core culinary staples of northern Michigan – and not just inside the lot that makes up The Little Fleet. According to City Clerk Benjamin Marentette, 23 food truck permits have been issued in the City of Traverse City this year alone – a 109% increase since 2013, and a 43.75% growth since 2015.

The Back Lot, Charlevoix

Food trucks have become common fixtures outside of town, too, often in the parking lots of other businesses. This summer alone you’ll find food trucks outside of local bars, breweries, cideries, marinas, and even car washes. Establishments without kitchen facilities or food service licenses have been able to add another element to their businesses by having permanent or long-running food truck engagements on property.

Townline Ciderworks in Williamsburg, for instance, has a summer-long engagement with the Sabores Y Calores food truck, which specializes in “authentic Mexican and fusion.” At the Green Mitt car wash in East Bay Charter Township, the Mac’s Shack food truck has been a common fixture this summer, serving up “tacos, burgers, and more.” The DAM Shop at Elk Rapids Marina even has its own food truck, fittingly dubbed “The DAM Food Truck.”

And the list goes on: You might spot food trucks this summer at the Short’s Pull Barn in Elk Rapids, at the Mitten Brewing Company in Northport, or at the Polish Art Center in Cedar. At Twin Birch Golf Course in Kalkaska, food trucks have been a way to fill the food service gap during the past two summers while a brand-new clubhouse and restaurant has been under construction. Meanwhile, Side Traxx in downtown Traverse City – a bar that has never had a food service component – has now added a food truck called Off The Traxx Street Food to serve brats, hot dogs, smash burgers, and fried appetizers late into the night.

It’s not just standalone food trucks, either. Northern Michigan now has several food truck lots, with several towns getting their own versions of The Little Fleet. In 2018, restaurateur David Meikle launched The Back Lot in Petoskey, turning an empty alleyway space into a space for six food trucks. Like The Little Fleet, The Back Lot also features an indoor, year-round, full-service bar. In 2021, Meikle opened a second Back Lot in Charlevoix, using the same bar-and-trucks template; that location hosts five food trucks. A third Back Lot location is in the works in Marquette.

There is also a new miniature Little Fleet blooming in Glen Arbor, where Katy and Matt Wiesen, co-owners of the Crystal River Outfitters Recreational District, recently opened a new food truck next to the Riverfront Deli space. The couple are in the process of renovating the Riverfront Deli, which they recently purchased, but have said that they will continue to host food trucks even after the deli reopens.

2. Non-alcoholic beverages are becoming commonplace

While the oft-repeated narrative was that people were drinking more excessively during the pandemic, the numbers prove that COVID-19 also sparked a massive uptick in the popularity of non-alcoholic (NA) beverages. On a national scale, Nielsen statistics show NA sales topping $331 million between October 2020 and October 2021, a huge 33.2% increase from where they were at the beginning of the pandemic.

The no-alcohol or low-alcohol trend is clearly impacting Traverse City and northern Michigan. Not too long ago, it wasn’t unheard of for the only NA options on the drink menu at a restaurant or bar to be water or soft drinks. Look at the drink list at a growing number of local establishments, though, and you’ll see a changing of the tides.

Trattoria Stella has had a zero-proof cocktail menu for years, including an NA version of a Moscow Mule, an elevated take on the Shirley Temple, and more – as well as a shifting rotation of seasonal options. Rare Bird Brewpub has an entire NA section on its drink menu, including five NA beer options. And Right Brain Brewery has dabbled in brewing zero-percent alcohol beers and currently has nine beers on its tap list that are under 5% alcohol by volume (ABV).

If there’s an up north trailblazer in the NA space, though, it’s Audacia Elixirs, a new startup with the ambitious goal “to elevate and expand the bar from the doldrums of mocktails to the sophistication and beauty of elixir cocktails and spirits.”

Launched in 2021, Audacia Elixirs is the brainchild of bartender and mixologist Roman Albaugh, “regenerative chef” Loghan Call, and herbalist/nutritionist Naomi Call, who also happens to be Logan’s mother. Together, the three are working to craft unique farm-to-glass elixirs that can add complexity, richness of flavor, and natural ingredients to the NA cocktail experience.

Why does an elevated NA beverage experience matter? A common assumption is that someone not interested in drinking a beer or a glass of wine could just opt for a glass of water. But for Call, part of being a chef is thinking not just about the food side of a meal, but also the beverage pairings. Add the social pressure that often exist around drinking in restaurants, bars, or at social functions, and the Audacia Elixirs team saw a clear need to introduce something brand-new to the local market that could offer some flavor complexity without a single drop of alcohol.

“As a chef, when I would do a dinner, sometimes we’d be serving a seven-course meal, and those seven courses would typically be paired with wine or some form of alcohol,” Call explained. “That really opened my eyes to the level of alcohol consumption. And it was disappointing for me as a chef, because I witnessed a lot of people not fully appreciating the food just because of the level of alcohol consumption.”

Those realizations dovetailed with a louder conversation about alcohol over-consumption in northern Michigan, spurred by the efforts of the City of Traverse City, the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA), and the Traverse City Police Department to develop a Healthier Drinking Culture Strategic Plan for the city proper.

Talks between Call and Albaugh, who was regularly witnessing “the pitfalls of over-consumption” in his work as a downtown TC bartender, eventually led the two to link up with Naomi Call and develop the ideas that became Audacia Elixirs. Favorable responses from local bars and restaurants and a victory at a TCNewTech pitch night in December 2021 showed the two that they were on to something.

Call and Albaugh

To start, the Audacia Elixirs team plans to offer three different zero-proof spirts. There’s Albedo, a citrus-based spirit with notes of lemon, grapefruit, fenugreek, juniper and fennel. There’s Radici, which gets its earthy flavor profile from dandelion, chicory, astragalus and burdock roots – plus touches of cacao, French oak and cinnamon. And there’s Baca, a floral spirit derived from hibiscus, rose, linden and schisandra berry.

Longer term, Call expects Audacia will aim for six types of spirits total, which would be available both as standalone elixirs and in pre-batched cocktails. Those products will be sold on a retail basis through the Audacia website, but the main goal is to establish partnerships that get the elixirs on the drink menus at local bars and restaurants.

This year, Albaugh has been perfecting the elixirs and getting feedback from patrons at The Cook’s House (where he bartends) and Brew (where he serves as a consultant). While Audacia spirits are on the menus at those establishments, though, they’ve yet to make a wider impact on the local food and beverage scene.

According to Call, that slow rollout isn’t a reflection of lack of demand.

“Pretty much everybody we talked to within the industry here was at least somewhat interested in what we had to offer, and we’ve had a lot of folks reaching out to us asking when our products will be available,” he said.

But all that interest meant a need to scale up operations quickly, with the TCNewTech win in particular kicking buzz into high gear.

“We realized we had to scale pretty rapidly, and be in a place where we could have decent production numbers to start,” Call added. “We initially set about attempting to get all our systems and our production in place by the busy season this year. That was our very ambitious goal.”

Lining up investors, navigating supply chain challenges, and building a production strategy that would allow for the brewing of the elixirs at scale all proved to be lengthy processes, and ultimately made a summer 2022 launch impossible. But Call is confident that Audacia Elixirs will be hitting the market full force sooner rather than later. Right now, the business partners are pointing toward the summer 2023 tourism season as the company’s new launch date.

“There are just some parts of this business, and some parts of bringing a beverage to the marketplace that you really can’t rush, no matter how much you want to,” Call laughed. “But it’s been a fun journey. Obviously, this region is really known for and highlighted for the different kinds of craft alcohol scenes. And being able to bring something to market that would help cultivate a drinking scene where everybody is welcome and feels good, that’s something that we’re really excited about.”

3. Food delivery is gaining popularity among locals and tourists alike

NA beverages weren’t the only niche to get a COVID-era bump. Food delivery services have gained a lot of ground during the pandemic, too, with apps like DoorDash, Postmates, Grubhub, Instacart, UberEats, and Shipt becoming household names. According to McKinsey & Company, the global food delivery market is worth $150 billion and has tripled in size since 2017. However, just because a trend is blowing up in other parts of the country has never been any guarantee that it would take root in Traverse City. Ride sharing, for instance, is just beginning to gain ground in Traverse City, and even then, only at certain times of year.

There are signs of life in the local food delivery market, though. Check DoorDash for Traverse City, for example, and you will see a healthy number of local restaurants on the service – and not just fast food establishments, as used to be the case. From Slabtown Burgers to Thai Café to The Omelette Shoppe to Millie & Pepper, you can now get food delivered to your door from many of Traverse City’s favorite restaurants.

The clearest sign of growth in the local food delivery market, though, comes in the form of Stocked, a grocery delivery service launched here, based here, and focused exclusively on the northwest Michigan region.

Established in February 2021 by college-roommates-turned-business-partners Zachary Hite and Broc Crandall, Stocked offers grocery delivery services within a 25-mile radius of Traverse City. Crandall got the idea for the business in 2019 while on a ski trip with friends in Colorado.

Crandall

After spending half a day running errands and stocking the vacation rental with groceries and other supplies, Crandall came up with the concept for Stocked. Essentially, the business started with this question: What if instead of spending your precious vacation time getting situated, your rental was already stocked with everything you needed when you got there?

According to Hite, Stocked has quickly found its footing within the local market. A solid first year has given way to a superb second one, with the company on track to more than double its year-one numbers by the end of 2022.

“Our rate of growth right now is 2.5x, from where we were last year to this year,” Hite explained. “We’ve already beat our revenue from last year and we’re in July.”

In addition to a 259% overall rate of revenue growth, Stocked has tracked year-to-date gains in spend per customer (up 20% from last year), number of total orders (up 254%), and number of number customers finding the platform for the first time (up 168%).

Those numbers are getting some extra rocket fuel from a red-hot summer tourism season. When the TCBN touched based with Stocked in early July, in the midst of the National Cherry Festival, Hite noted that June had been the company’s best month yet – and that July was already on track to beat it by 35-40%. Crandall, who handles all the grocery store runs and deliveries, has consistently been handling 5-8 deliveries per day during this busy summer season.

While summer is big for Stocked, though, Hite is quick to note that the business is not just geared toward tourists that want to stock up their Airbnbs for a bachelorette party or a family reunion. Some 70% of Stocked business at this time of year does indeed come from out-of-towners on vacation.

On a total year-round basis, though, the numbers might surprise people.

“If you break it down for the full year, it’s about 60% local and 40% vacation,” Hite said.

That’s thanks to a surprisingly strong base of local grocery delivery business in the off-season – especially in the wintertime – plus a growing business-to-business service section, which Hite noted might involve “doing runs for a major baking wholesale company or working with the Great Lakes Chocolate Company.”

One area where Stocked isn’t doing business, at least not yet? The restaurant delivery sector. While on-demand delivery is where apps like DoorDash and GrubHub have made their name, Crandall sees it as a risky place to lay a claim – especially for a small business that, despite strong growth, still only counts its two founders as employees.

“On-demand delivery is a really tough model, especially with profit margins and scalability,” Crandall explained. “So we want to stay away from that for the most part. We are in talks right now with businesses like Folgarelli’s and Burritt’s Market, and that might bring some deli stuff to our offerings. But we’re not really too keen on doing an on-demand delivery model where someone can order food from anywhere and then wants their food in 30 minutes.”

Crandall and Hite also say they haven’t figured out yet how they want to go about scaling their business to the next level. Most food delivery services of their ilk end up following an Uber-like model, which crowdsources the labor to anyone with a car and the right mobile app. Even as they eye inevitable growth, the Stocked guys want to make sure they do it right.

“The people who are taking orders and making deliveries, we’d want them to show up in a Stocked van as a Stocked employee,” Hite said. “That’s important to us.”

The pair’s business plan is a little older style than what the gig economy looks like these days, said Crandall of the vision he and Hite share for Stocked’s future.

“But it really affects your brain when someone shows up in a rusted-out Toyota Corolla delivering your groceries, or when someone smoked a cigarette in the car,” he said. “So, we’re kind of just being protective of our brand.”

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