The day begins with a 6 a.m. wake-up call. He’s out the door within an hour to make his daily rounds: coffee, bank, shopping, and make sure the propane tanks are filled. It’s 9 a.m. and he’s back on site with only an hour or two to prep the day’s food and open for business.
The truck opens and Corwin begins cooking no later than 11 a.m.
This one-man-operation known as Gorilla Gourmet cooks for Kalamazoo patrons until 9 p.m., with only a short afternoon break. After 9 p.m., it’s time to clean-up and close the truck. Every day. Six days a week. And Saturdays, when the day begins even earlier with the truck opening by 7 a.m. at the Kalamazoo’s Downtown Farmer’s Market.
There is no place else Noel Corwin said he would rather be.
Corwin, the 36-year-old owner and operator of the Gorilla Gourmet food truck, has become a regular fixture in downtown Kalamazoo.
Born in Los Angeles, Calif., Corwin still proudly refers to Kalamazoo as his hometown. So when he finally decided to open up a food truck, he said Kalamazoo was an easy decision. Although food trucks had already proven successful in much larger markets such as New York and California, Noel Corwin’s Gorilla Gourmet would be a K-Zoo first.
At age 19, Corwin set out for California in search of something. He admittedly says he doesn’t know exactly what he was searching for, but he made the journey anyway. He ended up in Santa Barbara, Calif.
During his time out West, Corwin eventually found what he was searching for, and it was cooking. Corwin said that he doesn’t feel like he chose cooking, but rather, cooking chose him.
Corwin’s beginnings in the culinary world began with a journey to the West Coast. He received a degree in Restaurant/Culinary Management from Santa Barbara City College, worked under various chefs in the industry for a couple years, and then decided to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Graystone, Calif. where he would study to become a pastry chef.
After the Great Recession hit and the first to go in the corporate culinary world were the pastry chefs, Corwin decided he was past the point of sending out resumes only to work under various executive chefs for an hourly wage.
He simply had larger ambitions.
Corwin eventually returned to Kalamazoo, designed Gorilla Gourmet in May of 2010, and built the truck in July that same year.
“It’s just very gratifying; it allowed me a creative outlet and a way to express myself,” Corwin said during an interview outside Gorilla Gourmet’s home-base location on the downtown end of Oakland Avenue.
“It’s [cooking] a very gratifying and powerful medium to work in,” Corwin said. (Noel Corwin on his cooking passion)
Corwin said he bought the truck in Battle Creek, Mich. He said it was formerly a shag-carpet-lined box truck used to transport motorcycles from Texas and back. Corwin said that he and his uncle soon transformed it, remodeling the truck themselves with the only outside help coming from a subcontracted electrician. Corwin said he bought everything used from auctions, resupply stores and local restaurants.
So why did he decide to take on the task of being Kalamazoo’s first food truck?
Well, Corwin said a lot had to do with family.
“It’s part of the success of the business; I have a lot of support in a lot of different ways,” Corwin said. “My uncle helped me build my truck, he’s here and if I wasn’t here it wouldn’t have happened.” Why Noel Corwin chose Kalamazoo for Gorilla Gourmet
Corwin said that a lot of his decision to locate Gorilla Gourmet in Kalamazoo also had to do with seeing what was happening in Kalamazoo in terms of food. Corwin explained that the demand and what the consumer wants, in terms of food, has changed a lot since he was a kid growing up in Kalamazoo.
“Why wouldn’t this concept work here?” Corwin asked himself. “I know it’s been successful other places, what’s to stop it, the cold?”
Corwin said he recognizes Michiganders’ tolerance to cold and the simple fact that if the product is good, then consumers will follow.
“If the product is good, first and foremost, they’ll [consumers] seek you out. I mean I’m lucky, I had customers all winter long last year, I operated all winter-long right here.”
Operating a food truck through the winter is only a small portion of Noel Corwin’s commitment to Kalamazoo. Corwin also helped head the movement that lead Kalamazoo to pass a new ordinance allowing food trucks to operate in Downtown Kalamazoo, provided they are at least 150 feet from established restaurants.
Corwin explained that his involvement in the new ordinance dates back two years. Since then he has consistently been involved with the city and providing Gorilla Gourmet as a model for the city to consider.
Back in July of 2010, Corwin and Gorilla Gourmet worked their first event in Kalamazoo, the Taste of Kalamazoo. He said he met Kalamazoo City Mayor Bobby Hopewell, who became an instant fan. He also received warm reviews from the Kalamazoo Gazette’s then food critic, Bill Wood. He said he was featured on the Gazette’s front page the very next day.
Flash forward back to August of 2012. The City recognizes what Corwin already knows: food trucks are very effective in place making, and data suggests and supports the idea that food trucks increase pedestrian traffic in certain areas. The new food truck ordinance passed on Aug. 20, 2012 and was effective by Aug. 30.
“It’s an investment in Kalamazoo,” Corwin said.
Within three weeks of passing the ordinance, Gorilla Gourmet is joined by two more food trucks: Coffee Rescue and Organic Gypsy, company that is welcomed by Corwin.
In fact, the name itself, “Gorilla Gourmet” is in support of what Corwin described as the “Guerilla restaurant movement.”
Back when Corwin lived in the Bay Area he was a part of a collection of Chefs and food trucks that would come together and “rock industrial spaces,” as Corwin puts it. The time of the event would be known, but the location would remain a secret until the day of the event. Any given event would rally upwards of 20 or more food trucks.
Corwin said he is a committed member of what he referred to as “the Gorilla Army,” a collection of Corwin’s friends involved in this niche of the culinary world. The only assistance Corwin said he ever receives in terms of operating Gorilla Gourmet comes from friends within this Gorilla Army.
Corwin said that other than the gratification of knowing you independently built something that you are truly passionate about, when it comes to the advantages of owning a food truck, “there are none,” he said. But as James Dean himself once said, “The gratification comes in the doing, not in the results.”