Vehicle City Tacos: Reinventing Flint’s Food Culture Two Tortillas at a Time
Over the past two years, a food truck has changed the way Flint residents look at one of the most commonplace food items in the American diet -- the taco. We spoke to Vehicle City Tacos owner, Danny Moilanen, about how his truck became the most beloved vehicle in the Vehicle City.
What was your inspiration for opening a taco truck like this in Flint?
I used to live in Austin, Texas, where there's a very diverse street food and culinary scene in general. I thought if I ever returned to Flint, and had the capital, it would make sense to open a food truck in Flint because of the growing college town presence. Even still there are very few late night dining options downtown, and that's the sort of thing you see in bigger cities with an active nightlife. Tacos were a natural choice, since not many restaurants around here make tacos the way you can find them in the American Southwest or Mexico.
What is different about a Vehicle City Taco?
We take the traditional approach to tacos, using the elements of traditional Mexican street food such as soft corn tortillas, fresh limes, cilantro, pico de gallo, etc. but add our own Tex-Mex/fusion spin on our food. We think of proteins/meats that aren't traditionally in Mexican street tacos, and prepare them in a way that pleasantly surprises people because the flavor combinations work. We make everything from scratch and do a whole lot more than just the usual lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes in a taco with ground beef. In fact, this trips people up sometimes when they just want a "normal" taco like they can find at any number of Mexican restaurants in the area. I often tell folks, "We don't sell taco likes that" and it confuses a lot of people, but it goes to show you how little diversity we've had in the Flint culinary scene until recent years.
Have you ever come up with any flavor combos that you thought would work, but really didn’t?
We used to offer a breakfast taco anytime we were open, and given the extreme popularity of breakfast tacos in Austin (it's seriously a way of life there) I thought they would work well. Some people were big fans and would order them whenever they could, but overall they didn't sell as well as we had hoped.
How difficult was it to secure financing to get started?
My first step in financing came from a grant issued through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. I applied on a whim, with former business partner's help, and they awarded us $10,000 in matching funds, I just needed to find the rest of the funds to purchase the truck to receive the cash disbursement. I borrowed money and was able to get the rest financed without too much difficulty, and we were rolling!
What are some of the challenges of not having a storefront?
Mechanical breakdowns are a reality with any mobile food business, we've experienced multiple breakdowns this last month alone, and each time it prevents us from opening. In addition, our sales numbers are 100% dependent on the weather complying. This creates a real challenge for us because other than regular maintenance or checking a weather report, there isn't much control we have over these challenges. In addition, we have very limited space inside of our truck for cold/dry storage like a traditional restaurant does, which limits how big of a menu we can offer and how much volume of food we can potentially sell. Selling out is a reality for food trucks, and not everyone around here seems to understand that sometimes. It gets frustrating sometimes when customers who don't seem to understand the mobile food business get salty because we sell out of food, we aren't open because the truck breaks down, we're serving at a private party, or whatever other reason. Having a storefront is ideal in that you have more room to operate out of, and you don't have to deal with any of the above challenges, they just cost a lot more money to open one versus a food truck.
Future plans, plans for expansion, things you’re excited for?
We were just selected to participate in a Food Truck War at Cedar Point later this summer, and we're incredibly excited about the opportunity to take our operation down to Sandusky! In addition, we're starting plans with a local developer to work on our brick and mortar storefront. Since opening, we've been working out the Flint Food Works incubator kitchen at the Flint Farmers' Market, and for the last year we've been operating at capacity there in regard to cold/dry storage; so the storefront is the logical next step in our business model, so we can expand our sales volume dramatically.
We'll have more details about this once we make a little more progress in that regard. In terms of the next six months, we're planning on closing the truck down for the winter season, like most food trucks do in northern states. We tried staying open through last winter, but business was entirely too slow, and I lost nearly $10,000 in that time. It was rough on all of us who are a part of VCT, and we knew we couldn't do it again. We do have some secret plans and a new venture in the works though for winter months, so my team doesn't have to worry about employment during that time. We're really excited about our winter plans and new venture, knowing that no one else makes this sort of food in the Flint area and that it's a chance to try something new. One things for sure, given how well we've done the last few years, Vehicle City Tacos will be back in the spring, hopefully in a brick and mortar space by the end of next year, and hopefully open for many more years to come!
What advice would you give to people looking to start a business in Flint?
Always maintain a positive attitude, engage in ethical and business practices, and don't burn any bridges. This is a small town and word spreads quickly. You're only as strong as your reputation that precedes you.
Interview conducted/written by Tree Riddle
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