Jun. 20, 2012 - Issue #870: Food Trucks
Keep on truckin’
Food trucks revitalize street dining
In fact, the fleet of food trucks that have popped up all over the city are the exact opposite. Many of the trucks are run by professionally trained chefs who serve up gourmet offerings far from stereotypical greasy street fare. From Liege waffles to globally inspired sandwiches and a multitude of sweet and savoury options in between, Edmonton's food trucks have raised the bar for culinary creativity.
Food trucks offer a much more affordable option for many entrepreneurs than setting up shop in a standard brick-and-mortar establishment, and a quick option for lunchtime diners who don't have the time to sit in a restaurant, but who also don't want to sacrifice quality. Truck owners believe restaurants and their businesses can co-exist because people dine at each for different purposes, and if there's more businesses popping up, rather than seeing them as competition, they should be welcomed into the fold.
"It's exciting; the more the merrier," says Kara Fenske, co-owner of Drift, which serves gourmet sandwiches with cultural flair and which hit the street at the end of July 2011. The truck sets up shop on 108 Street and Jasper Avenue. If anything changes, it's broadcast via Twitter. "If we can get more out there, then it just brings awareness for us and the other businesses."
Nevin Fenske, Drift's other owner and red seal chef, notes that the culinary scene in Edmonton has evolved in the past couple of years, whether it be food trucks or restaurants, and he believes the addition of new business benefits all Edmontonians, regardless of what form it happens to come in.
"I don't care if another restaurant opens across the street or if another food truck opens across the street. If it's good food, we need it," says Saylish Haas, one of the owners of the Act food truck, which opened this May and frequents Churchill Square. The truck is run by the the Next Act Pub.
"I think they kind of compliment each other," adds Mike Scorgie of Nomad Kitchen, which joined the fray last July. "I don't foresee too many problems as long as everyone's doing different foods and aren't in the same area."
Aside from adding a gourmet spin on mobile dining that's got foodies in gastronomic ecstasy, food trucks have revived a social aspect to city streets. Trucks have gained a loyal following of regulars, and owners have noticed a growing sense of camaraderie in the scene, not just between fellow truck owners, but also amongst their patrons.
"At a restaurant, they sit you down at a table and you talk to the people you're with, whereas at a food truck, everybody starts talking to each other, which is kind of fun," Haas notes.
"I get in trouble because I talk too much," Nevin says with a laugh. During his time as a restaurant chef, he was confined to a kitchen in the back, whereas now, he's able to interact with his customers.
Running your own business offers a certain sense of freedom, but don't be fooled: a food-truck owner's day does not start when their serving window opens around 11:30 am, and certainly doesn't end when they pull away after the lunch hour, generally around 2 pm.
For the Act, prep begins at the pub around 7 am, the Fenskes begin prepping Drift around 8 am and Scorgie takes shifts with his sous chef Allan Suddaby, which means either 6 am or 9 am. For trucks operating outside of an already established pub or restaurant, the day's prep takes place in a commissary kitchen that's rented out. The Act rolls back to the pub and finishes up around 3 pm, while the other two often find themselves working until 8 pm or later.
"Twelve hours would be a short day," Nevin says.
"Our job is fun, even though it's a lot of work," Kara adds. "After being in the restaurants for many bazillion years, it's nice to do it this way.It's a lot more relaxed."
Aside from the notion that a food truck means short work days, there's also the misconception that all the money made is pocketed by business owners.
"Lots of people think you make a ton of money, but it's still a labour of love. We do it because we're passionate about food," says Scorgie, who is a graduate of the NAIT culinary program. Operating a food truck, like any business, is not a cheap endeavour. From stocking food, to gas, to permits, to parking, to city vending fees, it all adds up. Scorgie says renting a parking meter from the city each month is approximately $700 alone. Luckily, he, like the owners of Drift and the Act, are new to the game and haven't had to deal with truck maintenance fees yet, knock on wood.
With fees running high for parking, business owners, including the Fenskes and Haas, believe it would be beneficial to have more flexibility with locations. Haas says this could be done with a roaming tax for food truck-approved locations that trucks could frequent without having to pay double for operating in two locations.
"I whole heartedly believe that downtown doesn't want to see us every single day five days a week," she adds. "If there were two days a week assigned for us and then we went somewhere else and then somewhere else, it just creates a bit more energy and a bit more buzz."
Getting a food truck up and running is no easy task either. There aren't exactly dealerships for the behemoths, and Drift and the Act headed east to Pizza Trucks of Canada in Winnipeg to have their trucks custom made, while Scorgie found the body on Kijiji and outfitted the rest himself, with the exception of the gas work.
Next comes getting the necessary paper work in place with the city, which can't be done until business owners actually have a truck in their possession. Prior to serving the public on city property, food-truck owners must have a health permit, a Travelling and Temporary Sales license, insurance and a development permit if the vendor is storing the vehicle at their home. New businesses are also required to submit a business plan with their application, which Scott Mackie, manager of current planning with the City of Edmonton says is to better understand what will be sold and how it will be done.
"I think it's important, for example, to minimize conflicts between businesses, so we don't want to create a situation where we have a vending truck in direct competition with a permanent business," he continues. "So we don't want them parking in front of them, for example, and obscuring the view of them."
Food trucks are regulated by the city under the Street Vending Program, which encompasses carts and other types of vendors as well. The program was introduced nearly 30 years ago and has been revised very little over its lifespan. The rapid growth of the food-truck industry in the city has shown the need for revision to manage different types of street vending.
Mackie says after this year's vending season, which typically wraps up in early fall, the committee will enter discussions for improving the program in preparation for next year.
"We're going to basically look for those stakeholders, sort of the public stakeholders, to provide us with input and suggest what needs to be altered or amended," he notes, adding there have not been a great deal of conflicts aside from the one between Drift and Grandma Lee's, where the restaurant felt the truck's proximity was hurting business. Currently, there is not a formal process or bylaws in place for handling these types of conflicts. Instead, they are regulated using a set of guidelines that are interpreted based on what is reasonable and fair in each case.
Kara says the program's off to a positive start, but there does need to be some tweaking in terms of communication between city departments, as well as conflict management.
"If the City of Edmonton doesn't get their stuff in order right away, all there is is going to be more food trucks, not only this year, but there's going to be triple out next year, so there's going to be a lot more collision and conflict between the restaurants and food trucks and it's going to start looking bad for everybody," she adds.
The areas of the program that could be taken into consideration for next season, according to Mackie, are whether or not it is too open or too restrictive, which could mean amending guidelines to make it easier for new companies to open. He would like to see the city demonstrate that it is open to this type of business model and believes food trucks contribute to the vibrancy of the city, in addition to playing a beneficial role in tourism.
Update: Following the conflict with Grandma Lee's, Drift made an appeal to Edmonton city council and has been officially granted permission to continue parking at its location on 108th St and 100th Ave. Councillor Don Iveson recently asked city council to review food truck policies, which will take place this fall in preparation for next year's season.
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