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The Pink FlaminGO! is Detroit’s hit-and-run restaurant on wheels. It serves fresh, organic food, cooked right wherever the Airstream Land Yacht is parked. And it’s a toss-up which draws more attention, the flavorful fare or the gleaming silver bullet of a trailer.
“So far the response has been amazing,” says Kristyn Koth, 45, of Detroit, who cooked up the idea for the meandering meal wagon. “People walk up and say, ‘Oh my God, what year is this?’ Or, ‘I want it; can I buy it off of you?'”
Koth has worked with metal all her adult life, as a student at college for Creative Studies and in her work, welding side by side with partner Taru Lahti in their Detroit fabrication and design business, Parallel Studio, and with their mentor Billy Cusmano of Starlite Restaurant Equipment, making commercial kitchen equipment.
So it’s no surprise she would be attracted to the sleek steel of a 1956 Airstream or that, about a year and a half ago, when an artist friend decided to sell his, she felt compelled to snap it up and begin work on her dream of creating a mobile restaurant.
Then she and a group of nine other North Corktown neighbors got involved in the restoration of the abandoned, century-old Spaulding Court row houses. The Friends of Spaulding Court offered the project’s courtyard as a temporary campground to some of the more adventurous visitors to the U.S. Social Forum that met in Detroit in June, installing toilets and a shower for the campers. But where would all these folks eat?
Koth speeded up the process of outfitting the Airstream and brought The Pink FlaminGO! to the rescue, feeding 100-plus campers each day for a week.
After the Social Forum, Koth continued to park the Airstream at Spaulding Court at least two days a week to feed restoration workers and call attention to the project.
Then she began haunting the Recyle Here! recycling center on Holden near West Grand Boulevard on public drop-off days and got a great response. Soon a body shop on Michigan Avenue near Trumbull asked her to park nearby one day a week for its employees. In between she drove her mobile kitchen to other spots she felt a connection to, like Green Garage in Midtown.
It occurred to her that many bars might want to serve food to keep patrons sober enough to drive home safely, so she started midnight forays on the saloon circuit.
It was all a little confusing for customers hoping to become regulars, Koth says. “This guy would call my cell phone and go, ‘Where are you today? I just have to have some of your tacos.'” She launched a Facebook page and sent out Twitter feeds announcing where The Pink FlaminGO! would be parked each day.
This ran under the radar until someone a city health department official paid Koth a visit and informed her the city of Detroit doesn’t have a licensing ordinance that covers a business that prepares food on-site. Under current law, mobile food vendors must prepare their food at a stationary, licensed commissary kitchen. Then they can transport the precooked food, keeping it warm in steam trays.
“So you could have something prepared at 7 a.m. and not eat it until four in the afternoon,” Koth says.
Koth’s concept is different. She prefers to bring fresh food, uncooked and refrigerated, to her customers and cook it to order on the spot. So she and close friend David Malik Muqaribu founded F.L.O.C.K., Friends for Lucrative Opportunities in City Kitchens. They hope other area chefs who want to prepare food on-site will join them in lobbying the Detroit City Council to create a license that covers such operations.
Koth is committed to serving fresh, organic food and gets her produce from North Corktown gardens. Her salad greens are grown and harvested a block from Spaulding Court at Brother Nature. Her vegetables come from the Hope Takes Root and Spirit Farm.
“I’m trying to serve food that is healthy, fast and inexpensive,” Koth says. “Nothing is processed.” Her menu changes according to what’s in season. One day it’s zucchini flower quesadillas, another it might be black bean burgers, tilapia tacos or Thai curry.
“People tell me all the time that they can tell immediately it comes right from a garden rather than from a processed environment,” Koth says.
At a recent Home Slice benefit at Eastern Market for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, April Woodard of Hamtramck was savoring Koth’s Brazilian dishes. “I like that it’s very flavorful and it’s organic,” she said. “It gives the community healthy, delicious, organic food.”
“Our food runs around $3 for pretty much every entrée,” Koth says, though some specialty items might go for $5 or $7.
“We’re not really out there trying to get rich,” Koth says. “It’s really all about just being able to get people good food. It’s a love — a passion and a love.”
The love shows when friends chip in to help in the kitchen on wheels. “If we have a night where we’re cutting our costs so close, we’re just covering our food costs, they don’t even ask for any money,” says Koth. “It’s really about everyone enjoying themselves around the whole thing.”
One person who seems always to be at her side is Muqaribu, 33, another Corktowner who works out the logistics of getting the Airstream where it needs to go and handles public relations.
The day they were working the MOCAD benefit, Koth’s truck broke down. Muqaribu recruited the owner of a pickup off the street to tow the trailer to Eastern Market. They arrived an hour late, but through it all Koth displayed her usual calm. “I don’t know how we’re getting there,” she said into her cell phone, “but I know we will. Malik tells me he’s got it handled.” And he did.
Mobile food services like Koth’s have been sanctioned in other cities such as Chicago and Portland, Ore. “I’d like to bring it to Detroit,” Koth says, “and change the way food is brought to people — in a unique setting.”
The concept is a little ahead of its time for Detroit, just as the Airstream was once on the cutting edge of industrial design — and that’s what she likes about both.