After visiting his daughter in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mark Hodesh was inspired by two food carts he saw stationed at a flea market and decided to bring the concept to downtown Ann Arbor. Shortly after his visit he opened Mark’s Cart’s, a food cart emporium with eight vendors and seating for 40 located behind Downtown Home and Garden, which Hodesh owns.
Monday marked the 2013 season opening of the food cart emporium. Now in its third year of operation, Mark’s Carts will remain open until Oct. 31 before closing for the winter.
Hodesh said the cart community is an opportunity to add another dimension to his “hundred-year-old” garden store and “activate the whole neighborhood.” This year, diners will also be able to stroll next door to Bill’s Beer Garden, where Hodesh is a part owner, to pair their meal with a drink.
“The carts were an outreach to the new dynamic downtown, which is entertainment and eating,” Hodesh said. “The next thing is the beer garden, which is doing very well now. So those two business plus our store are working in concert to make an active block for a wide range of people.”
All carts prepare their ingredients in a kitchen that Hodesh provides next door to Downtown Home and Garden. Hodesh said carts are expressing interest in joining the venture as it gains popularity and recognition in the downtown community.
“People are excited for it to open,” Hodesh said. “They can’t wait to get out of the little restaurant booth they’ve been sitting in all winter, and they’re anxious to go so we’re optimistic.”
Diners can visit veteran carts like A2 Pizza Pi for fresh wood-fired pizza, student-owned The Beet Box for a healthy “California-inspired” experience, Cheese Dream for artisan grilled cheeses, Darcy’s Cart for a “local and eclectic flavor,” Hut-K for Indian cuisine or San Street for traditional Asian street market food.
The owner of the new Mexican cuisine cart, El Manantial, grew up serving food at his mother’s restaurant 200 miles south of Mexico City. Also new this year is Satchel’s BBQ, which has a restaurant on Washtenaw Avenue and adds a southern barbecue flavor to the mix.
Hodesh said his enterprise “is a good incubator” for entrepreneurs seeking to enter the food industry without the risk of opening a permanent restaurant. Former Mark’s Carts contributors Eat and The Lunchroom have since evolved from cart to full restaurant.
Mark’s Carts also provides an opportunity for restaurants to broaden their customer base beyond the confines of their restaurant locations. Though Hut-K and Satchel’s BBQ have permanent locations a few miles from downtown, the food cart atmosphere allows them to attract new customers who may return to the full location in the future.
“Washington Street was really kind of quiet,” Hodesh said. “But when the carts came, it activated the street and started to build community. People would just come by to visit and participate in the social aspect of it.”
Mark’s Cart’s will also be a part of the FestiFools activities on Sunday. Festifools is a giant puppet parade put on by the University’s Lloyd Hall Scholars Program.
Ji Hye Kim, a chef and manager at San Street, has participated in Mark’s Carts since its inception three years ago. She said vendors will be creating special dishes and decorating their carts for FoolMoon, a night festival before Festifools on Friday.
“We’re putting up lights and handmade signs and trying to have more fun than we normally do, which is a big goal because we do have a lot of fun anyway.”
LSA senior Alex Perlman, co-owner of The Beet Box, said FestiFools complements the environment of Mark’s Carts, and was optimistic about his business during this year’s season.
“We feel that we are intimately connected with the FestiFools parade, and we’re just one stop throughout the whole event, so we’re trying to emulate the same energy they have going on in their festivities,” Perlman said.
Hodesh said events allow the carts to interact with the community while the sponsors benefit from the “built-in audience.”
“We are definitely feeding off the community, and the community is feeding off us,” Hodesh said.
Kim said she hopes to grow her business within the next year into a “full-service, casual Asian Eatery,” just as Eat and The Lunchroom have grown beyond their carts.
“I see Mark’s Carts as a community of entrepreneurs and a hotbed for venturing out to strike on your own for bigger and better things,” Kim said.
Kim added that guests view Mark’s Carts as a cohesive community rather than eight individual businesses competing with each other. The carts have a symbiotic relationship and engage in “friendly competition.”
“We kind of sink and swim as a team.”
—Follow Danielle Stoppelmann on Twitter at @dstoppelmann.
Correction appended:A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Mark’s Carts owner Mark Hodesh.