Students enjoying a summer stroll through downtown Ann Arbor may have noticed the aroma of fresh fruit juice smoothies and tofu sandwiches wafting from a newly opened vegan food cart on West Washington Street.
The Lunch Room — located in the new outdoor food court called Mark’s Carts — opened last Monday and is among numerous venders selling food ranging from authentic Asian street food to Mexican delicacies.
Joel Panozzo, co-owner of The Lunch Room, said the cart was inspired by the personal tastes and vegan lifestyle of both him and his business partner, Phillis Engelbert.
“We’re both vegans, and our cart is specifically vegan food only,” he said. “We’ve been doing these private dinners and lunches that we started in October, and so we just wanted to serve more vegan food to our friends and other people.”
Panozzo said he and Engelbert built the cart on their own “from the ground up” after securing a spot in the outdoor food court and that they are looking forward to serving both vegans and non-vegans alike with the hope of changing common misconceptions about vegan food.
“We’re excited to serve not just vegans, and to serve meat-eaters and everyone in-between and to show people that they can eat vegan and it can be satisfying, fulfilling, inexpensive and communally healthy,” Panozzo said.
Panozzo said that while he and Engelbert are “excited to have a fun summer outside,” they hope that their cart may lead to potential business opportunities in the future since they were both working office jobs before in order to meet their financial needs.
“We will probably do catering in the off season, and who knows, maybe a restaurant down the road, but we’re definitely going to enjoy the cart and flexibility that it gives us at this point and time,” Panozzo said.
Besides his own personal ventures, Panozzo said he is looking forward to seeing how the food carts will transform the Ann Arbor food scene, since Mark’s Carts offers an array of dining options and innovative ways of serving that customers may not necessarily find in “a big brick and mortar restaurant.”
Emma Machcinski, a senior at Community High School, said she likes the idea of The Lunch Room because it has widespread appeal.
“I think that it’s really great because I’m a vegan, and it’s just really great to see foods that are vegan,” Machcinski said. “And also they’re not necessarily just catering to super hippie-like people … they’re trying to appeal to everybody, and get the word out about veganism without hitting you over the head with it.”
Mark Hodesh, owner of Mark’s Carts, said he chose The Lunch Room from a wide variety of applicants — specifically 35 carts applied for 7 spots — because of its solid vision and structure.
Hodesh added that The Lunch Room had a strong presence on its first day and including carts similar to theirs will help Ann Arbor transition to a new era of community dining.
“I’ve been in the neighborhood 35 or 40 years, working and running businesses and it was very important to me to have a gentle transition to the residential Westside to downtown,” he said.
“These food carts are kind of a low density development — for people to flow, walk by, and enjoy them.”
Mark’s Carts officially opened on May 9 and is open daily from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., though each individual cart has flexibility in choosing their own hours of operations, according to Hodesh.
Hodesh added that he was inspired by the Brooklyn Flea Market in New York while developing the food court, which was established on a vacant piece of land he acquired near an empty building he owned on West Washington Street.
University alum Anna Foster said she likes the concept of the outdoor carts and hopes they will become more viable.
“I think Ann Arbor needs more street food, that the mainstream businesses are too afraid of street foods, and that this (is) a good step forward in having a facility for them — and then hopefully they will actually be on the street,” Foster said.
Foster added that the food courts also have the potential to positively impact the health of Ann Arbor citizens.
“I think that Ann Arbor is a very pedestrian-friendly city, and we don’t really take advantage of it all of the time,” she said. “Things like food carts get people out of their offices, walking to get food, and generally it’s not fried and it’s not processed as much, it’s made by people.”