My business, my business: Mark’s Carts Roll Out

Next month it’s time to say goodbye to Mark’s Carts, the food-truck court located off Washington Street between Ashley and First — not just for the winter, like most years, but forever. The space is going to be converted to overflow seating for Bill’s Beer Garden and display space for Downtown Home and Garden, to which Mark’s Carts are physically connected. (All three businesses are Mark Hodesh projects; he sold DHG to an employee a few years back to concentrate on the carts and the beer garden, while still maintaining its continuity.)

While many of Mark’s mainstays were dedicated to truck life, several of them grew out of the court and into permanent locations, including eat. (now a Packard Road mainstay), San Street (now Miss Kim in Kerrytown), and The Lunch Room, which has expanded to two Lunch Room locations and the Detroit Street Filling Station. Other local restaurants, like Hut-K Cha’ats and Satchel’s BBQ, used Mark’s to reach into downtown from their permanent locations.

Where will the food trucks park now? Sometimes they pop up around town before football games and other specials (they were an advertised feature at a recent Michigan Soccer event). After the old Pinball Pete’s building burned down, there was a plan at one point to locate trucks in the resulting alley between Middle Earth and University Towers. Before all of these things, though, you know what this town had? Food courts.

Ann Arbor’s longest-running food court, of course, is the basement of the Michigan Union, a popular crash pad for all U-M students, and some of the staff, not that I would know, har-har-har.

The Michigan Union. (C) The Regents of the University of Michigan

The Union is home to a bevy of quick-service (the alternative phrasing for “fast food”) restaurants, including a Wendy’s that has a breakfast menu (but does not sell Kids’ Meals) and the World’s Busiest Subway Restaurant. (Every school of a certain size makes this claim, especially Notre Dame. What do you want, a medal?) It has been this way since at least the 80s.

Upstairs there has been a coffee shop of some sort for at least a generation. A few years ago, Amer’s (of the delis on State Street and Church Street) left in a rush and was quickly replaced with Starbucks; its neighbor on the same floor, the U-Club buffet restaurant, was closed with great fanfare and replaced with an Au Bon Pain. This was a win-win because:

  • the U-Club’s dining room was reserved for patrons and only open during the restaurant’s hours; the new design opened up a lot of flexible study space in a high traffic area
  • The nearest Panera is, like, a block away, and that’s a bit of a hike

(Although this is an Ann Arbor-focused blog, I need to pay tribute to Eastern Michigan University’s well-appointed food courts. When I was a student, lo those many years ago, we had all kinds of options, many of them names you would recognize. U-M can’t keep one afloat, but at EMU we had two Taco Bells — one on the north side of campus near residence halls and the other on the south side of campus near Cross Street — and a “Domino’s Pizzazz” experimental store that sold personal-sized pizzas. Thor may be able to summon lightning from the sky with his mighty hammer, but thanks to the A&W restaurant in Hill Hall, I could use my EMU Dining plan to buy a freshly poured gallon-sized jug of A&W Root Beer whenever I wanted. FROST GIANTS? FROSTY MUGS? I ASK YOU, SON OF ODIN, WHO IS THE TRUE HERO NOW?

Today’s Eagles may be thrilled about their new Chik-Fil-A, but what do they do on Sundays? Probably their laundry, at their parents’ house, same as it ever was.)

Anyway, north of the Union and east of Mark’s Carts, Ann Arbor made a tentative step into downtown indoor retail when Tally Hall opened in the 80s, sort of modeled after a successful indoor mall in Farmington Hills by the same name.

“Tally Hall Food Court, July 23, 1986.” (C) The Ann Arbor News.

Tally Hall never achieved full occupancy, and nearly half the food court’s tenants closed within a year. A name change, to Liberty Square, didn’t help. After the original retailers and the food court closed, the ground floor became a pop-art gallery, and eventually U-M offices; the basement, where the above photo was originally taken thirty one years ago, is today shared by Menlo Innovations and TechArb.

On South University, the Galleria opened a couple of years later, with a food court as well. The basement hosted several quick-service food counters, but the only one I remember was Cretan Cafe, which originally the gyro counter at Arborland when Arborland. This attempt at underground dining also never took off, and the space was eventually hollowed out to fill with arcade machines when Pinball Pete’s consolidated its William St., Packard St., and South University locations in the space.

As mentioned above, Arborland had an often-vibrant food court during its years as an enclosed mall. The only names I remember anymore, though, have pleasing alliteration, like Cretan Cafe and Kruse’s Kreamy Kreations. Am I imagining that there was an Arby’s in there? (I’ll update this when someone tells me in my Facebook comments.)

Briarwood Center Court, undated. (C)VCC Global IP, NO COPYRIGHT INTENDED ALL RIGHTS BELONG TO TEH HOLDER

Finally, Briarwood. Briarwood has always had an interesting lineup of restaurants, including a Farrell’s and a Sanders (and I know it had an Arby’s), but it’s never had a food court. When the fountains were removed in the late ’00s, food stands were introduced into center court to create a food-court vibe, but it never really achieved the density you expect from a Detroit-area food court. Most of the tenants — Starbucks, Mrs. Fields, Wetzel’s Pretzels, Pinkberry, Tatsu Sushi — are more like pick-me-ups or snacks than proper meals (though I did enjoy many one-dollar hot dogs from Fruit Monster Smoothies, when that was a thing).

Friend of the Blog Josh Charson recently posited in my comments that the time was right for a Food Hall in Ann Arbor. After reading this Eater article, I am pleased to report that Josh’s never-wrong streak remains unbroken. Please feel free to comment below, or find me elsewhere online to share your thoughts.

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