By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS, firstname.lastname@example.org
TRAVERSE CITY — Its slogan may be "locally focused street food," but don't confuse Roaming Harvest with a street-corner hot dog cart or taco stand.
The Traverse City business is actually a mobile restaurant complete with commercial kitchen, including running water, a commercial cookline and two refrigerators. And, like a growing number of area restaurants, it's devoted to foods grown, raised or otherwise produced by local businesses and sustainable farms.
"We're focused locally first, sustainably second, and organically third," said Simon Joseph, owner of Roaming Harvest with his wife, Traverse City native and CPA Rebecca Brown. "We believe there's a lot of benefits beyond health and enjoyment. It's important to support the local economy."
The grab-and-go restaurant, a 24-foot step van formerly owned by a Grand Rapids uniform service, opened July 14. It has been serving different parts of the Grand Traverse area since. Already it has two fixed locations — Wednesdays at 415 S. Elmwood, across from Munson Medical Center, and Fridays at 444 E. Eighth, next to Twin Bay Glass.
Joseph said the couple hope to have different fixed locations four days a week, with a fifth day open for roaming to events like the Traverse City Microbrew & Music Festival Aug. 24 and 25.
The restaurant on wheels is the latest on the area's local food-movement and small farm-community front. But it's a model that has been around in bigger cities for a while.
"It's similar to what you'd find on the West Coast, in Portland, L.A., Texas," said Joseph, who serves as both driver and head chef. "It's fairly new for the Midwest."
Menus are designed around what's in season in northern Michigan, from fruits to vegetables. Favorites include pulled-pork tacos served with coleslaw made with cabbage from Sun Ra Farm; truck-made sweet Italian sausage, onions and peppers on a Bay Bread bun served with Great Lakes Potato Chips; and "BBHT" or bacon from Louie's Meats on a Biga bagel, with heirloom tomatoes from Grow Benzie and a cilantro lime aoli.
Other dishes: Vibrant Red Chicken Curry with Basmati Rice; Maxbauers Famous Hot Dog with Cherry Relish, Sautéed Onion, Brownwood Kream Mustard; and Heirloom Tomato Salad with Basil, Garlic, Fresh Mozzarella and a Balsamic Reduction.
The truck took months of painstaking renovation, including a paint job in light grey and British racing green, with a harvest gold design. Two 100-pound propane cylinders decorated with local business stickers power the hot water, generator and cookline.
The couple call the truck "Old #12" in recognition of the day they bought it — April 12, 2012 — its place in the uniform service delivery truck fleet — #12 — and the name of Roaming Harvest's signature condiment sauce, a form of chimichurri with parsley and cilantro instead of basil.
"It has a little bit of zip instead of being sweet," said Joseph, an Onekama native and one-time builder whose restaurant career includes everything from dishwashing to bartending. "We put that in just about everything."
With meals priced at about $6 for breakfast and $8 for lunch, Joseph said the restaurant is trying to position itself in the fast food market, only with food the couple call "healthy by extension" served in "appropriate" portions.
"We're not trying to win you over with size, but with quality," he said. "You feel like you get what you pay for. I want you to take that first bite and say, 'I can't believe I got this from that truck.'"
Roaming Harvest's offerings are a convenient treat from the area's fast foods, said Amy Rickert, a massage therapist and receptionist at Van Skyhock Family Chiropractic, whose staff often picks up lunch from the truck on Wednesdays.
"They're very friendly, down-to-earth people, and their food — you can tell they put a lot of time into it," Rickert said. "I like that they come up with new foods to try, with local produce. I like to eat healthy if I can. I feel like I'm getting good food when I eat there, like I'm getting nutritious foods."
Scott Morey, assistant director of technology for Traverse Area District Library, tried the traveling restaurant for the first time last week after reading on Facebook that it would be in the library's neighborhood.
"We wanted to give them a try. We like local, organic foods," said Morey, who traditionally buys Friday lunch for his team. "Everyone loved it. We want to do it again. I think that one of the reasons is the variety, the different stuff. I've never seen a burrito like that before. And the freshness. With his stuff, you can really tell it came off the vine not too long ago."
Joseph said the couple's goal is to be open year-round with food customers can feel good about buying and eating.
"If we can't get it locally, in the state or in the region, we try to source responsibly," he said, adding that even the truck — a 1999 Grumman Olson — was built in Sturgis on a Chevy chassis.
Customers can keep up with Roaming Harvest's daily menus and locations on Facebook and Twitter. Or they can sign up to receive emails by going to www.roamingharvest.com.
"I always say it's worth checking before you jump in your car," Joseph said.
This recipe for Gallo Pinto or rice and beans, is a Roaming Harvest favorite and a traditional breakfast dish instead of potatoes in Costa Rica, Joseph said.
Gallo Pinto (Rice and Beans)
Makes 10 servings
½ large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 c. cooked long-grain white rice, cold
2 c. cooked black beans, drained
1 t. cumin
1 t. ground coriander
½ t. ground ginger
¼ c. Lizano salsa (available at TC Latino)
2 T. olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil until soft. Add beans and stir over medium heat. Stir in rice. Add spices and salsa. Heat through and season to taste. Serve with breakfast instead of potatoes.