Food-Truck Mania Hits YYJ

Street-food culture is thriving in Victoria thanks to the good taste and hard work of more than 60 food-truck businesses. But for anyone who thinks running a food truck is easy, think again. Weather, bylaws and logistics present more than their share of challenges for these mobile entrepreneurs.

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Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

At the new Songhees Seafood & Steam truck down at the Victoria Clipper ferry terminal, people are lining up for wild sockeye burgers, bannock and colourful seafood chowder. This latest addition to the city’s growing food-truck scene is a fast-food vendor with a distinctive First Nations feel.

The truck fills a unique niche — it’s the only place to find a real Aboriginal-inspired menu in the city and the only First Nations food truck in Canada — and that’s a recipe for success when you’re serving food on the street.

Street Talk
Food trucks and carts add a festive atmosphere to outdoor events and city street corners, especially in a tourism-focused town like Victoria.

A trend that started as a trickle just five years ago, with 20 city licences issued to mobile vendors, has nearly tripled. Last year, 56 were licensed in Victoria, and by May of 2016, 58 were approved.

There’s no disputing the growing popularity of street food, but municipalities continue to struggle to strike a balance between established businesses and the new wave of rolling chefs. While Vancouver allows food trucks to park in designated spots and at parking meters on city streets, and Portland has welcomed food trucks with designated hubs or “pods” for its 600-plus street vendors, Victoria has banned food trucks from city streets and public property, except for special events and festivals.

Mayor Lisa Helps says the City has taken a hands-off approach to the food-truck phenomenon, not giving up street parking to trucks but “not getting in the way” when it comes to vendors making arrangements to set up on private property. And while she says there has been some push and pull on the topic of downtown food vendors from both sides, the dust seems to have settled.

Still, with 240 bars, cafés and restaurants in the city centre — 2,530 seats on Government Street alone — competition for downtown diners is fierce.

Ken Kelly, outgoing general manager of the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA), says not all restaurants welcome the outdoor food vendors, but he does believe food trucks “create excitement” in the core.

“We are the organization that represents the bricks-and-mortar restaurants downtown, so we have to tread a careful course,” says Kelly, “but we also want to be open to as many new elements that add to the vibrancy of our downtown.”

To that end, the DVBA recently opened a space for food trucks to park on a rotating basis at the corner of Douglas and Yates, along with new lighting, seating and bright puzzle pieces painted on the street. 

“We’ve invested in this StART space on Douglas to enhance the feeling of our ‘grand avenue,’” says Kelly. “The response from the food truck community has been very strong.”

For now, says Helps, that’s as far as on-street parking will go for food trucks, despite the fact that many operators say relaxing the rules would help their businesses succeed.

Taking it to the Streets
Food-truck owners have myriad reasons for choosing the life of a street vendor over a traditional food-service operation. Some like the idea of operating flexible, and seasonal, small businesses. Some are test driving an idea or menu they hope will grow into a bricks-and-mortar business. Others are adding a mobile arm to an existing restaurant or food product to expand and market their brand.

Running a busy food truck has plenty in common with any food-service operation, but it comes with unique challenges.

“Being at events around town is fun, but the logistics of a restaurant are much easier to manage,” says Karrie Hill, a longtime Red Seal chef who launched her own Deadbeetz food truck in 2013.

“Maybe you run out of propane and you can’t get a fill. Maybe a tire goes flat, or there’s grease running out of the deep fryer,” she says. “This is a 7-by-12-foot box — it’s hot, there’s never enough refrigeration space, and it has to meet the standards of any restaurant kitchen for health and safety, ventilation, everything.”

Hill used a $5,000 loan from the local Community Micro Lending Society to get her first truck on the road. Finding a unique niche, and filling it with a quality product is what keeps customers coming back, says Hill of her popular signature burger that features local grass-fed beef and house-pickled beets.

With a permanent space on the Royal BC Museum’s Food Truck Festival patio and a new roaming truck for attending events and festivals, Hill is a committed member of the street-food community, despite the reality that bad weather, poorly organized events and truck malfunctions can quickly turn a profit into a loss.

“I like the small scale and the connection to my customers, but my food costs are 30 to 35 per cent and profit margins are still slim,” Hill says. “It’s just as much hard work and it’s just as much hustle.”

Paulina Tokarski agrees. The former owner of the Cook & Pan Polish deli, Tokarski opened her Hungry Rooster perogy truck five years ago and now parks regularly in the Capital Iron parking lot, serving an eclectic lunch menu featuring her mother’s homemade perogies.

She understands why restaurants are concerned about competition but says street vendors have plenty of overhead too.

“We pay parking fees, licensing fees and thousands of dollars to be at events,” says Tokarski. “I had a restaurant for 14 years — this is more work, and the fees are huge.”

While most trucks have a regular parking spot, many also move around to festivals and markets, so they register with StreetFoodApp.com, which is updated daily. Still, Tokarski says she would like to see public spaces where trucks could gather.

The Rolling Reef is an example of a bricks-and-mortar restaurant expanding into mobile food service. When a used truck became available, Reef Restaurant owner Liz de Mata jumped at the chance to make it her own.

“There are so many outdoor events here, and we had lots of experience being off site,” says de Mata. “But having a food truck is so much easier than a booth — it’s a mobile kitchen.”

With a small downtown restaurant, de Mata also understands the issues of having a food truck parked outside her door.

“I think hubs are a better idea,” she says. “Victoria has a very high per capita restaurant population, so it begs the question of just how many food trucks can afford to operate.”

Street Smart
While opening a food truck might look easy, success is far from guaranteed. According to a report issued last year by the Vancity Credit Union, the lender behind many mobile food operations in Vancouver and Victoria, the average profit for a food truck is just $31,300 and nearly one in three (29 per cent) are losing money.

Still, many great restaurants had their start on the street.

For Josh Carlsen and Mike Dawson, setting up a Tacofino food truck in Victoria was a stepping stone to their busy taco shop on Fort Street. After three years of serving tacos from a truck, it was time to put down permanent roots.

“We had been on the lookout for a bricks-and-mortar location from the start, as a huge advantage to being indoors is that the weather is less of a factor,” says Dawson. “Business has more than doubled since moving inside.” 

They’re part of the Tacofino empire — a business that started with a popular food truck that’s still operating in Tofino and now includes two trucks and three restaurants in Vancouver.

“Starting as a food truck is beneficial because it has less financial overhead than opening a restaurant,” says Dawson. “Those savings allowed us the freedom to expand. That’s not every food-truck operator’s intention, but it was definitely ours.”

Though he’s off the street now, Dawson isn’t concerned about competition from food trucks and says the City could loosen up the parking restrictions to support mobile food vendors.

“I would welcome more trucks downtown because there is obvious demand for it,” he says. “If I was worried about food trucks or any other restaurant taking business away from us, I would worry more about what I was doing wrong and improve there firstly before blaming external factors.”

Chef Lisa Ahier’s legendary SoBo restaurant in Tofino is another case study for aspiring food truckers. Ahier says she had no intention of building a restaurant, but her winning menu of killer fish tacos and addictive polenta fries proved too popular for her purple bus.

“We wanted to be our own boss, stay small, have a life,” says Ahier of the decision to open a food truck with her husband Artie in 2003. Soon she was winning awards — named one of the top new restaurants in Canada by enRoute magazine in her opening year — and customers were flocking to her busy bus from across the country.

“It’s all about numbers in trucks, but when you’re serving 500 a day, and you can’t prep enough food for the people in line, it’s time to expand,” she says.

Ahier first added dinners in the nearby Botanical Gardens centre, then opened her own casual restaurant in downtown Tofino in 2007.

“I never wanted a restaurant, but I would never go back to a truck,” she says. “A food truck is fun, but it’s also extremely challenging. You have to be extra clean. You need to be very friendly with your neighbours and staff. When I’m at work for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, I need space, room to breathe.”

To critics who complain that a roaming kitchen amounts to an unfair advantage in a tough business, Ahier says there’s room for everyone.

“When I opened the food truck, some people said, ‘that’s not fair,’ but I was paying rent, I was paying for electric and water, paying my licences and all of my taxes. My overhead was a lot less, but they were providing a lot less to me too.”

When municipalities provide centralized hubs for food trucks “it can be good for everyone,” she adds, luring food-focused visitors who come to eat, and stay longer. “Whether you’re a food truck or a restaurant, the strong will survive,” Ahier says. “So do great food and people will come to your place.”

Moveable Feasts
Back at the colourful First Nations-themed truck in Victoria, bison “Indian tacos,” sockeye salmon salads and fluffy bannock with blackberry jam are flying out the window. Mark Salter, the Songhees Nation’s marketing coordinator, says the food truck makes a cultural connection with the community and provides a training ground for aspiring Aboriginal chefs. The goal is to offer a creative First Nations menu at the new LEED-certified Songhees Wellness Centre too.

Food trucks can be profitable, says Ahier, but you need to know what you’re getting into, from regulations to health permits.

“It’s not just going down to Clover Point, swinging the window open and slinging hash,” adds Hill. “If you’re willing to work hard, you can make a living.”

And it’s likely we’ll see more street chefs doing just that in the future.

“We’re getting a reputation as a very food-centric city,” says Mayor Helps. “Food trucks are part of the food ecosystem.”