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River City Cup and Cake brings espresso, pastries to Grand Rapids food truck scene

Lorin Tate opened his business four weeks ago and is currently serving customers on the river side of the Welsh Auditorium.
Lorin W. Tate serving customers from the River City Cup and Cake food truck

Lorin W. Tate serving customers from the River City Cup and Cake food truck /Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

Underwriting support from:
Eric Hartfield Jr and Sonia White at the River City Cup and Cake

Eric Hartfield Jr and Sonia White at the River City Cup and Cake /Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

River City Cup and Cake logo

River City Cup and Cake logo /Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

River City Cup and Cake is a new espresso and pastry food truck in Grand Rapids. Lorin W. Tate opened on August 30 and has been busy ever since, serving ArtPrize visitors downtown. Currently he's located on the riverside behind DeVos Convention Center, right across from the bridge from the Gerald R. Ford Museum.

Tate got the idea for the business when he'd spend summers overseas in Italy with his family.

"I was constantly baking for friends in Italy and they loved what I was making. It was just simple things like banana bread, chocolate chip cookies, biscuits and pies- but different from their baked goods," says Tate.

While his then wife developed an overseas study program, it was his job to keep the kids occupied.

"They just wanted to sit on the beach all summer and one day I decided I needed to something to do," he says. "There was an immediate connect between me and Italian food and between Italians and my cooking."

It was 2002 and that summer Tate wrote a business plan for a Parisian style coffee shop while still in Italy.

"The day we landed back in America, I enrolled in pastry school," he says. Tate attended L'Academie de Cuisine in Washington D.C., where he was living at the time.

Tate grew up in the Grand Rapids area, went to Florida State for college, and then moved to Washington D.C. where he worked as a financial planner and then Chief of Staff for Congressman Ray Browne.

"A year after pastry school in Italy, I realized that Italians weren't going to eat my pastries if they didn't have an exceptional cup of espresso to go with it. So I came back and enrolled in the Midwest Barista School here in Holland, Michigan."

Armed with all these skills, Tate was ready to pursue his new business plan when family needs arose. He went through a divorce and then his father had a stroke. Tate came back to Grand Rapids two years ago to be a full time caregiver for his father. Long days and long nights had him looking for a distraction, so he pulled out his cafe business plan again. He figured that it could work here in Grand Rapids as well as D.C., and maybe better since Washington is already inundated with hundreds of food trucks, where Grand Rapids has very few.

"All the planning for this happened in the middle of the night. And then I got Jim Riemenschneider and he drew up all the plans for me, including the list of equipment I would need. And then I couldn't find anyone around here to do the build up for me. No one had done a food truck, construction companies, body shops- no one."

One Sunday sitting in church, Tate very frustrated, googled "concession builders."

"And the answer came, right there in church: Rapsure Construction Trailers. I called him and was told he only does trailer, but he agreed to do it anyway, between his other jobs. Six months later, which was this past June, I drove down to Nappanee, Indiana to pick it up," he says. "Then my father fell critically ill and that occupied all of my intentions."

William Tate, his father, was the co-owner/operator of Madison Food Center for 20 years, the first black-owned supermarket in Grand Rapids. His father passed away four weeks ago.

"He did was he was supposed to do," Tate says, talking about all of the seeds his father had planted, inspiring his community and his son. "I was out there the next Monday with my truck."

Tate started as a one man operation, which he says was difficult, but by week two he felt like he had a routine that was sort of working. 

Tate's cousins Sonia White and Eric Hartfield Jr. are helping him during ArtPrize. White is a chef and manager herself, and Hartfield has worked in his father's restaurants and gone to the culinary school at Grand Rapids Community College.

"Sonia [White] brings a reality check to making this work," Tate says.

River City Cup and Cake has a zero-waste policy, so any leftovers from the day are taken to Mel Trotter Ministries.

"I previously volunteered with the DC Central Kitchen when I lived there," he explains. "So that is very important to me."

When asked where the recipes for his baked goods are from, Tate says he's developed them over time.

"I went to college at Florida State, and in homesickness started recreating family recipes. Cooking in my family is a competitive thing- which I hate- but I loved the food. Later, I had my aunts show me how they did their recipes, so I was able to combine the down home cooking I grew up with and the things I'd learned at pastry school."

"Serving people at ArtPrize has been great. People have been so enthusiastic they've knocked on the truck before we're open. Being a people-pleaser, I've done it a couple times to be nice before we're totally ready for the day," he says. "I'm really grateful to have this spot and opportunity."

To find out where the River City Cup and Cake food truck is going to be daily, follow them on their Facebook page or on Twitter.

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