The Modern Drive-Through: Food Trucks
October 1, 2013
Photos: Kirsten Berlie: Ze Bite
When Stephen Wiese opened La Brasserie Street in spring 2011, he felt like he'd struck gold. Pedestrians,thrilled to see something more than hot dogs, flooded his downtown cart,as well as the 17 others that opened through that fall. They lined up-lined up!-to pay $6.25 for Brass Chicken, the beer-marinated sandwich smothered in crispy onions and gravy that was his chief offering.
Wiese sometimes served 300 lunches over four hours; at that rate, he figured, even with ongoing staff and food costs, plus over $15,000 for the cart and various licences, he'd do better on the sidewalk than in his regular Davie Street restaurant, La Brasserie.
He and brother Michael applied for and scored a second spot; they developed visions of expanding several more times, starting a commissary, growing into catering.
But 18 months later, the Wieses shut both carts. They won't be back anytime soon. "It's not cool anymore," says Wiese. "There's just no money in it. It's a total waste of time."He's not the only refugee. Jennifer Willoughby and Dana Whaley ran their successful Off the Wagon taco truck, then two trucks under that name in 2012.They also shut down last year, exhausted by the work and by shifting city and health rules. They now run a dog-hiking business. Derek and Michael Ip operated PanDa Fresh Bakery-croissants stuffed with everything from ice cream to macaroni and cheese-out of a yellow school bus on Pacific Boulevard.
They abandoned it after one season, killed by a bad location and, again, the rules. To pay off the startup loan, they're working other jobs. Also gone: Ragazzi Pizza, Slinger's, Bun Me, Num Num, Nu Greek Street. Those who remain are cautious.Re-Up BBQ, which expanded to two trucks, has pulled back.
Sarb Mund at Soho Road Naan Kebab won three spots in the last couple of years, but he's also sticking to one. Mund, who says his accountant training is the best skill he brought to the business, wants to get his first operation on solid footing before taking another run at expansion.
It was a blow when his neighbour at Granville and Georgia, La Brasserie, quit. "It hurts when somebody in the industry drops out," he says.We're so close."Three years after street food was unleashed on the city, its image glows bright.
This spring Travel + Escape magazine named Vancouver one of the top five "trailer food" cities in North America. We've built a reputation as a city that doesn't just have a lot of food trucks; those trucks produce restaurant-quality meals with dishes (halibut cheek curry, anyone?) that are a far cry from the fried-meat sticks seen elsewhere.
And yes, a dozen or so operators are making money, having navigated the complications of licensing and economics and location. But many are struggling to figure out the trick in this costly city with few sweet spots. Their options, seemingly: adjust to a life of marginal returns or just give up.
Carts didn't start as a trendy concept for people bored with sit-down restaurants, food courts, cafeterias, and hot-dog stands. They're almost as old as cities themselves. "Historically, very few people cooked at home," says Lenore Newman, a Canada Research Chair in food security and the environment at the University of the Fraser Valley.
"People in places like ancient Rome would have a little apartment, no kitchen, and they'd run down and eat meals in the street. They still eat like that in China." A paper on the new food cart movement, cowritten with UVic prof Katherine Burnett, notes that Mexico City, at 318,000 vendors, has the greatest density of street-food sellers in the world. (That compares to 136 licences here, though the Street Food Vancouver app, which tracks most of our carts, lists at most 65 open on any given weekday.)
With the advent of the automobile, on-the-hoof dining shifted in North America. Roadways, until then shared by pedestrians, hawkers, vendors, food cart cooks, and more, became the domain of cars. Food went indoors: to supermarkets, roadside diners, and restaurants. It took until the 2000s, with the car-and the image of car-oriented suburbs-in decline for cities to turn back to pedestrians who craved that takeout-window experience.
Lunch trucks did persist across the decades, visiting sites far from food (construction zones, factories, film locations). In 1970s Los Angeles, where the horse-drawn tamale wagon had been a feature in the late 1800s, Hispanic neighbourhoods spun out an early version, called the lonchera, which served a rotating menu of Mexican staples in areas that restaurateurs declined to service.
In 2008, a more upscale, hipsterized version appeared: the Kogi BBQ truck, serving Asian-Mexican fusion fare. Further north, Portland, imbued with a libertarian spirit that had always fostered a small-business climate, had 175 carts operating as early as 2001.
In Vancouver, Coun. Heather Deal read an article in the New York Times in late 2008 about efforts to bring healthier food to the streets. She pitched the idea to the new council. Everyone was onboard but busy with the Olympic Village financial disaster, a recession and construction-industry slowdown, the Games themselves, and bike lanes.
Deal's idea stalled until temporary food operations in Yaletown and elsewhere during the Olympics suggested we were ready to cook and eat on the street. A couple of staff keeners (Wendy Mendes in social planning, Alan Rockett in engineering) helped drive the idea. "Alan championed for carts in a department that saw them as a space issue. We needed a champion," Deal says, "and it was him."
Despite political and bureaucratic goodwill, the program hit bumps. In its first year, 2010, there was a cattle call. More than 400 hopefuls put in 815 applications. Council and staff, overwhelmed, chose 17 by lottery. No one looked to see who had a business plan.
Two months later, only a few had managed to open. Some never did, instead leasing out their spots to applicants who'd been unsuccessful-like Jason Apple, who'd paid over $100,000 to create his Roaming Dragon truck, and Willoughby and Whaley, who'd spent $50,000 for Off the Wagon.
Subsequent rounds have added 15 spots a year (along with a few extras from dropouts). A panel of taste testers was added in 2012, then abandoned (too complicated). Nutritional quality became part of the rating system. Applicants had to submit a business plan.
Deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston, who oversees the food cart file, says he believes changes in the next year or two will improve the program, preventing pre-2011 licence holders from simply renting out their spots. (Some reportedly get as much as $18,000 a year.) The city will establish minimum days an operator has to be open.
He's also looking at limiting the number of licences an operator can hold and is pondering what to do about chain restaurants. An application from White Spot set off "a number of questions for us about the intent of the program," he says. White Spot got a mobile licence, and Vij's (which some see as another big-foot business horning in) got a permanent spot.
So did The Reef (locations on Main and Commercial), and La Taqueria, now with three brick-and-mortar spots in the city. What's the rule going to be? Multinational-even national-chains, no, says Johnston. But those that are sort of local? Maybe. "If Milestones, one of those companies that does have a local story, applied, it would be considered higher than a McDonald's or a Taco Bell."
Staff are also looking at how to encourage the pods that have been so successful in Portland. This summer's effort near the Queen Elizabeth Theatre floundered, and so far, there appears to be no talk of the kinds of locations that have worked so well outside Portland's downtown: parking lots in neighbourhoods that are the equivalent of Fraser and 49th or Hastings and Nanaimo.
In Oregon, such far-flung destinations have brought new life to areas that are emerging but not yet expensive or so loaded with restaurants that the pods are unwelcome competition.
(That's the sticking point in Toronto, where critics say until recently a board stacked with restaurant operators resulted in a system so rule-bound that it killed off any chance of success.)
Here, the obligation to move the daytime location of all trucks and carts, as well as to store carts and food in particular ways at night, has been onerous.
In freewheeling Portland, operators benefit hugely from being able to leave their 700 carts in place on private parking lots, with water and power hookups. (They're not food carts, operators here say with envy. They're food shacks.) In fact, as long as they comply with basic health regulations and don't burn the city down, they're left alone-with free electricity, to boot.
In Vancouver, La Brasserie's Stephen Wiese says that he was taking everything out of his carts each night to clean in his restaurant, and storing his carts in his apartment parking spot.
But Vancouver Coastal Health insisted he rent a storage spot for the carts, as others without restaurant facilities were required to do. "That was a deal killer for us." He'd banked on high volume, low labour costs, and low overhead, but storage lifted fixed expenses by $2,400 a month at the same time that new carts were eating into his volume.
He estimates an operator could potentially see $40,000 a year in profit (see below)-a marginal existence for the risk. Which leads to a system where two kinds of businesses can survive: the big, savvy, well-capitalized, multi-level types who expand into other niches, and those content to eke out a bare living, intoxicated by the thrill of running their own show.
At the commissary kitchen on Industrial Ave. shared by several cart operators, the mood is relentlessly cheerful. Inside the warehouse space, Ana Manzano of Guanaco is patting pupusa dough while Blanca Flores (a family friend and nurse who uses her holidays to help out) brings in the truck to be loaded. In the parking lot, Jermaine Oregas from JJ's Trucketeria and Zack Wong from Le Tigre are taking a break.
Oregas is excited about the possibilities. "There's a big buzz about food carts now. We're third in North America!" Oregas and his brother Jordan, who owns JJ's, both worked for over a decade in food operations like Section 3 and Hy's. This is their Filipino-fusion cart's first season.
"It's no joke-it's hard work," says Oregas, who's been at work since 7 and has had more than a few days where he's cut up 300 pounds of pork before his four-hour serving stint over lunch. With his shaved-on-the-side flattop and rosary tattoo, he looks barely into his 20s but is 33. "But I love that you get to interact close with the customers. I get a little giddy when people take pictures of the food."
The next couple of years will decide whether little guys like Oregas and Manzano stand a chance. Their messianic enthusiasm will help-as will limiting the amount of time they actually spend on the street.
That's what the experienced operators are learning. "Our weekends have been filled with catering and festivals," says Andy Fielding from Kaboom Box. Fielding is president of the StreetFood Vancouver Society and a success story. "As winter comes this year, we're going to start pushing a lot of delivery downtown. You can't only go downtown and expect to make a living anymore.
I think many more will shut down this winter." Even during the summer, it's clear that operators are gravitating to the places that generate maximum crowds-and that's not necessarily downtown.
On a pleasant Sunday in August, even at the epicentre of food cart success-Robson Street between the art gallery and the courthouse-the space has been abandoned to the lowest-level operators (a couple of hot-dog carts, shawarma carts, and a juice truck) except for Feastro parked on Howe. Granville, too, has been ceded, except for Kaboom Box truck servicing a Car2Go demo.
Weekend tourists, as it turns out, don't generate enough food-buying volume. So in spite of the international media hype, tourists hoping for a food cart experience downtown on the weekend will be disappointed.
It's the desk-shackled office workers who make the carts profitable. The trucks scatter on the weekends to where they can find crowds: farmers markets, night markets in North Van and Richmond, the New West food truck gatherings that started this summer and-looking like a colourful refugee camp-the Vancouver festival that operates behind a chainlink fence on a swath of vacant industrial land next to the Olympic Village.This Sunday, about 20 trucks are in operation, along with a random selection of vendors (records, soap, vintage Ts).
Among them, the operator who tops the success stories: Jason Apple of Roaming Dragon, who today is standing outside the Vij's truck, jollying the long lineup by letting people know his truck has just been named to enRoute magazine's shortlist of top restaurants in Canada and that they can help by voting for him-an act that will also earn them a free drink. Apple, a onetime software developer and born hustler who sold his first outdoor food when he was 14 (peanuts and Cracker Jack outside Seattle's sports arena), is moving in all directions.
He partnered with two Vancouver restaurant legends-Vij's and White Spot-to create their food carts. He's expanded to four trucks, two of which are used for anything from corporations doing cross-Canada promotions to backup catering support.
He's analyzed the fine details of street-food operation. His original truck location at Robson and Burrard? Seems good to the amateur, but, unlike that hot spot by the VAG a block away, it's in the shade most of the lunch hour, has no place to sit, and is at an intersection where people are walking quickly from A to B, not slowing down. There has to be volume. "To get 300 for a lunch downtown, you need thousands coming by.
You've got to hunt for these high-volume events." As bleak as the setting for the food truck festival is, it has created the necessary traffic, along with a crowd amenable to the theatrical production of food-things that Apple and other cart operators need to survive as they work to create an indelible food experience in a few minutes. After all, these are still restaurants, albeit instant ones. "We have the blink of an eye to get people. We have to wow them."