Food trucks are driving profit for Canadian restaurateurs

A small group of Canadian restaurateurs is taking their unique twist on food service literally to the streets.

From designer tacos and high-end burgers to gourmet cupcakes and deli sandwiches, a number of chefs are counting on the power of social media and the eclectic tastes of a restless generation to turn the Canadian foodservice industry on its head.

Riding the wave of popularity for mobile kitchens or “food trucks” south of the border, these entrepreneurs are forgoing the traditional brick-and-mortar establishments for the more transient clients who are no more than a tweet away on their mobile phones.

And this gamble is paying off for the savvy chefs who have chosen the driver’s seat over the heat of the kitchen.

“I wanted to get out of the restaurant scene. I wanted to do something new and exciting, and when we looked at the food trucks we knew what we were up against,” says Australian chef Adam Hynam-Smith who operates El Gastrónomo Vagabundo out of the Niagara Region with his Canadian partner Tamara Jensen.

“We said ‘there is nothing like this here. At the moment it’s all hot dogs, so why don’t we give it a go and try to see if we can make a change.’ We went for gold and it has been huge.”

El Gastrónomo Vagabundo, or “the gourmet vagabond,” offers a new take on international street food, from gourmet tacos, tapas, and Southeast Asian dishes, to garden fresh salads.

Providing a creative alternative to the tried-and-true bakery establishment was also the reason behind the Cupcake Diner, a mobile distributor of the popular cakes for those with a high-end sweet tooth.

“I didn’t want to open just another cupcake store,” says founder Natalie Ravoi.

“I have experienced gourmet food trucks in several parts of the states, so I thought it was a perfect combination to do cupcakes curbside. Bring the cupcakes to people – something different – and the response has been unbelievable.”

Popularity rising

Recent studies have shown the popularity of this fast-moving industry. A July 2011 study by U.S.-based food industry consulting firm Technomics suggested that 91 per cent of those polled were familiar with food trucks and considered the trend as having staying power and not a passing fad.

The huge numbers alone and the clamour for these culinary treats prove the popularity of these mobile establishments. A summer gathering of a few trucks in Toronto for which the organizer was expecting about 750 people saw some 3,500 attend.

Savvy use of various social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter has helped spawn the success.

“The current economic situation has led some of the leading chefs to adopt creative strategies to counter the recession’s adverse impact,” notes a recent report by Paul Medeiros and Lise Smedmor, from the Guelph Food Technology Centre. “The gourmet food truck business is one such concept of cash-strapped, talented chefs who are unwilling to take the risk associated with investing into brick-and-mortar type of restaurants.”

Rules and regulations

But the road to success for the Canadian food trucks has been bumpy, unlike the relatively smooth ride for their American counterparts. A difference in rules and regulations among the various towns, cities, and provinces has caused confusion and frustration for the entrepreneurs.

While Vancouver has embraced the concept and Calgary is warming up to the idea, Toronto has imposed strict rules in the downtown core which makes it difficult for new startups to move into the heart of the country’s most populated city.

A moratorium on new permits has forced the vendors to private property enabling them to sell at special events on closed streets or outside of the downtown core.

Some have managed nonetheless to carve out a successful following with their trucks. Zane Caplansky, largely considered the pioneer of the city’s food truck industry, says a thorough understanding of the city’s regulations and shrewd business dealings has allowed him to take the specialties of his Caplansky’s Delicatessen on the road.

“People have this assumption that the city does not give licences and that it’s impossible. I think that is part of my role to show that it is possible,” he says.

Chad Finkelstein, a franchise lawyer at Dale & Lessmann LLP in Toronto notes that there a number of legal issues which could impact the operation.

“There may be a requirement to obtain special parking permits or storage space for your vehicle. Different municipalities will have varying rules with respect to the placement of food trucks on certain streets, so you should be aware of this additional cost,” he says “Similarly, you should make sure that food service and alcoholic beverage rules, regulations and by-laws are followed, just as they are required to be for any stationary restaurant.”

Finkelstein also says certain franchising considerations, advertising and social media requirements, and fee structures might need to be addressed.

Even the country’s foodservice association is struggling to keep up with the burgeoning success of the food trucks. Board chairman Warren Erhart says the association has not yet developed a stance on food trucks. “It is early stages right now on the agenda.”

While he notes regional differences rule out a national policy, Erhart maintains that there must still be consistency in the regulation of these trucks.

“I don’t have a problem with the regionalization of these things. I just hope that all the same rules for a full brick-and-mortar restaurant and a food truck are taken into consideration,” he says.

Still Erhart knows firsthand the success of these vehicles. His Vancouver-based Triple O’s restaurants became the country’s first quick-service restaurant chain to launch a truck when it took its premium burgers, french fries and hand-scooped milkshakes on the road earlier this year.

This was a return to its roots for the company whose founder transformed his 1918 Model T into a travelling lunch counter to serve sightseers at Vancouver’s Lookout Point.

Branding and advertising

Unlike food truck operators out to drive a profit, Triple O’s is using its 30-foot restaurant on wheels as a mobile test kitchen.

“It is a great branding vehicle. When you see our truck on the road, it does support what we do in our restaurants that way as well,” says Erhart, who is also president of White Spot Limited and Triple O’s.

Caplansky also notes that the presence of his truck on the streets of Toronto has provided his permanent establishment invaluable advertising.

“The truck allows us to extend the brand without dumbing it down and people don’t have the expectation that the food is going to be just as good in a truck as it would be in a restaurant, but it is a one-two punch for us,” he says. “The truck helps the restaurant become more efficient … and the truck also advertises the restaurant.”

See also: 

“I have experienced gourmet food trucks in several parts of the states, so I thought it was a perfect combination to do cupcakes curbside. Bring the cupcakes to people – something different – and the response has been unbelievable.”

Popularity rising

Recent studies have shown the popularity of this fast-moving industry. A July 2011 study by U.S.-based food industry consulting firm Technomics suggested that 91 per cent of those polled were familiar with food trucks and considered the trend as having staying power and not a passing fad.

The huge numbers alone and the clamour for these culinary treats prove the popularity of these mobile establishments. A summer gathering of a few trucks in Toronto for which the organizer was expecting about 750 people saw some 3,500 attend.

Savvy use of various social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter has helped spawn the success.

“The current economic situation has led some of the leading chefs to adopt creative strategies to counter the recession’s adverse impact,” notes a recent report by Paul Medeiros and Lise Smedmor, from the Guelph Food Technology Centre. “The gourmet food truck business is one such concept of cash-strapped, talented chefs who are unwilling to take the risk associated with investing into brick-and-mortar type of restaurants.”

Rules and regulations

But the road to success for the Canadian food trucks has been bumpy, unlike the relatively smooth ride for their American counterparts. A difference in rules and regulations among the various towns, cities, and provinces has caused confusion and frustration for the entrepreneurs.

While Vancouver has embraced the concept and Calgary is warming up to the idea, Toronto has imposed strict rules in the downtown core which makes it difficult for new startups to move into the heart of the country’s most populated city.

A moratorium on new permits has forced the vendors to private property enabling them to sell at special events on closed streets or outside of the downtown core.

Some have managed nonetheless to carve out a successful following with their trucks. Zane Caplansky, largely considered the pioneer of the city’s food truck industry, says a thorough understanding of the city’s regulations and shrewd business dealings has allowed him to take the specialties of his Caplansky’s Delicatessen on the road.

“People have this assumption that the city does not give licences and that it’s impossible. I think that is part of my role to show that it is possible,” he says.

Chad Finkelstein, a franchise lawyer at Dale & Lessmann LLP in Toronto notes that there a number of legal issues which could impact the operation.

“There may be a requirement to obtain special parking permits or storage space for your vehicle. Different municipalities will have varying rules with respect to the placement of food trucks on certain streets, so you should be aware of this additional cost,” he says “Similarly, you should make sure that food service and alcoholic beverage rules, regulations and by-laws are followed, just as they are required to be for any stationary restaurant.”

Finkelstein also says certain franchising considerations, advertising and social media requirements, and fee structures might need to be addressed.

Even the country’s foodservice association is struggling to keep up with the burgeoning success of the food trucks. Board chairman Warren Erhart says the association has not yet developed a stance on food trucks. “It is early stages right now on the agenda.”

While he notes regional differences rule out a national policy, Erhart maintains that there must still be consistency in the regulation of these trucks.

“I don’t have a problem with the regionalization of these things. I just hope that all the same rules for a full brick-and-mortar restaurant and a food truck are taken into consideration,” he says.

Still Erhart knows firsthand the success of these vehicles. His Vancouver-based Triple O’s restaurants became the country’s first quick-service restaurant chain to launch a truck when it took its premium burgers, french fries and hand-scooped milkshakes on the road earlier this year.

This was a return to its roots for the company whose founder transformed his 1918 Model T into a travelling lunch counter to serve sightseers at Vancouver’s Lookout Point.

Branding and advertising

Unlike food truck operators out to drive a profit, Triple O’s is using its 30-foot restaurant on wheels as a mobile test kitchen.

“It is a great branding vehicle. When you see our truck on the road, it does support what we do in our restaurants that way as well,” says Erhart, who is also president of White Spot Limited and Triple O’s.

Caplansky also notes that the presence of his truck on the streets of Toronto has provided his permanent establishment invaluable advertising.

“The truck allows us to extend the brand without dumbing it down and people don’t have the expectation that the food is going to be just as good in a truck as it would be in a restaurant, but it is a one-two punch for us,” he says. “The truck helps the restaurant become more efficient … and the truck also advertises the restaurant.”

See also: 

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