Photo: Jollof rice and stewed goat shank from Detroit food truck Fork in Nigeria. Courtesy Prej Iroegbu
Hundreds of local restaurants have closed their doors during the pandemic, but a few have found ways to open — and thrive. Thatâ€™s exactly what food truck Jamaica Mi Hungry 313 did in July.
Owners Taniesha and Richard Marzouca first launched and operated a few times before the first Michigan-initiated shutdown in March, but quickly decided to cease operations.
â€œEven though we were allowed to proceed, my wife didnâ€™t think we should continue,â€ Richard told Detour, referring to the state-mandated closure of dine-in restaurants not applying to food trucks and carry-out facilities.
â€œOne of my main concerns was that people werenâ€™t taking [the coronavirus] serious,â€ Taniesha said, noting that she was worried that people would not wear masks when ordering food and put her and her family at risk. After watching the number of COVID-19 cases decrease and people seeming to adhere better to social distancing measures, the Marzoucas decided to re-launch.
They had invested in a customized truck and wanted to service the customers that had become fans of Tanieshaâ€™s authentic Jamaican food, like jerk chicken and oxtail, things she learned to cook growing up at her motherâ€™s side in the kitchen.
â€œI love to cook and what motivated me to [start a food truck] was that he always complimented me,â€ Taniesha said of her husband. She and Richard live on Detroitâ€™s west side, but they are native Jamaicans, having lived in the United States consistently since 2001. They met in Jamaica and moved here after Richardâ€™s whole-sale grocery business shuttered.
â€œMy wife is an excellent, excellent cook,â€ he said. â€œI mentioned to her one time, â€˜Why donâ€™t you cook for other people?â€™ And thatâ€™s what she did.â€
After being a stay-at-home mom for years, Taniesha says she started cooking meals for family and friends in 2018. They soon began looking for a food truck to serve more customers, and Richard said after a few missteps, they were licensed early this year to cook and sell from their truck.
Food trucks, which have often relied on large events and festivals to find customers, have faced declining sales and been forced to change how they operate. Jamaica Mi Hungry 313 launched without the safety net of events, but instead draws loyal diners back to the same spot again and again. Other eateries have used a similar model, like the Frita Batidos truck that pops up daily in Midtown and a new wave of restaurants offering walk-up window service.
â€œWe have done extremely well,â€ said Richard, estimating they serve 150 to 200 customers when they open each Monday and Friday. â€œWe see repeat customers. Thanks to social media we have been talked about.â€
The Marzoucas tout Jamaica Mi Hungry as â€œhome of the jerk chickenâ€ because of Tanieshaâ€™s special blend of spices that makes that classic rubbed grilled chicken their best seller. She wonâ€™t even share the blend with Richard, who does all the grilling, including their Jamaican-style ribs whose barbecue sauce also features a secret seasoning.
While they previously parked on a city-owned lot, the Marzoucas recently purchased a building at 8910 Wyoming just north of Joy Road where they now operate the truck. They eventually plan to open a Jamaican restaurant in the new building. In addition to food truck sales, they cater and book events.
Though food trucks are set up to fulfill a unique pandemic appetite — restaurant-quality food, without the health concerns of restaurant dining — there has been no influx of food truck businesses, said Vickie Winn, a spokesperson for the Detroit Health Department, the department that issues mobile food licenses.
â€œIn comparison to last year, licensing is down,â€ Winn said. â€œFolks are pretty nervous about investing. There is no increase.â€
Even still, Prej Iroegbu, owner of Fork in Nigeria, launched his food truck in May.
â€œWe started when a lot of restaurants were shutting down. With COVID, it was a good idea to do it on a truck. People are really getting out now so food trucks are doing well,â€ Iroegbu said.
About 100 customers come in-person to the truck, stationed on Livernois between Outer Drive and Eight Mile. Fork in Nigeria also gets about 30 percent of its customers from a delivery service and about 30 percent off the Internet, with an average sale about $25.
Iroegbu said he is doing so well that he could make Fork in Nigeria his full-time job, leaving his customer service manager job at an automotive company a few weeks after launch. In the fall, he plans to begin operating another truck on Detroitâ€™s east side and is looking to franchise his operation.
â€œMe trying to do the food the right way was a gamble and expensive,â€ Iroegbu said of his authentic Nigerian food that he learned to cook as one of seven children of Nigerian yam farmers. â€œWhen I came [to the United States], I wanted to bring that cuisine [because] we didnâ€™t really have a Nigerian-based restaurant here.â€
Though his truckâ€™s construction was completed in November, he said it took four months to get licensed, citing challenges with the Oakland County Health Department trying to find the proper way to license his truck â€œbecause they had never done this food.â€ He also had trouble getting Nigerian spices as the pandemic ceased shipments from Nigeria.
In spite of these challenges, Iroegbu said sales began strong.
â€œThe very first weekend, we had lines, 20,000 views on Facebook. It has been really, really amazing.â€
Jamaica Mi Hungry 313 is located at 8910 Wyoming, Detroit, MI 48204.
Hours of operation, Monday and Friday, 1-6 p.m.
Specialties: Jerk chicken, Jamaican home-style chicken (fried chicken), ribs and natural juices, including soursop juice
Jamaicamihungry313.com / Facebook
Fork in Nigeria is located at 19910 Livernois, Detroit, MI 48221.
Hours of operation: Monday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Specialties: Stewed oxtail, braised goat shank and Zobo Drink (hibiscus iced tea with ginger, pineapple, clove and cinnamon)
Forkinnigeria.com / Instagram