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Culture

Life inside a Food Truck

Just in time for Food Cart Fest, hop into a hot mobile eatery. Like, really hot.

By Jesse Donaldson 30 Jun 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Jesse Donaldson is an author, journalist, photographer and one of the founding members of The Dependent Magazine. His first book, This Day in Vancouver, was shortlisted for a B.C. Book Prize. Find him previous articles published in The Tyee here.

For the employees of the Yolks Food Truck the day begins early. By 6 a.m., prep cooks are already hard at work in their Hastings Street Commissary Kitchen, preparing bins of potatoes, waffle batter, mushrooms. The truck is fully loaded and idling by a little after 7 a.m., packed with everything the three-person crew will need for their day on the streets, from cash, to sauces, to fresh water, to at least seven litres of ham.

"When I first started driving this thing, I was so sketched-out," laughs driver/cook Leo Leung, as he expertly guides the vehicle through the rear gate (the joke amongst employees is that it "handles like a shopping cart").

By 7:15, they're on site, plugging in lights, starting the generator, and setting up the mobile kitchen which will serve as their home base for the next eight hours. Napkin dispensers are filled. English muffins are pre-grilled. The Thermomix (a high-end heater/mixer which allows the truck to feature real Hollandaise) is filled and activated. "REMEMBER TO WARM UP THE BUTTER BOTTLE!" a sign taped to the fridge door declares.

For the past two days, a BC Hydro Maintenance Van has taken their customary spot at the corner of Burrard and Dunsmuir, necessitating a move further up the street--– a change which, yesterday, translated into a $400 dip in sales (not to mention some concern amongst regulars).

"It goes to show just how important it is to be in the same, reliable spot," notes manager Lisa Dauncey. "We had a really slow day yesterday. We only did $700, and we're usually pulling in easily a grand every day. It goes to show that even being a block down the street can really affect your business."

As it turns out, location isn't the only challenge faced by Vancouver's mobile restaurants; from civic and provincial regulations, to licensing, to mechanical snafus, to slim margins, the life of a city food truck is no drive down Easy Street.

"Food Trucks are extraordinarily challenging," explains owner Steve Ewing. "They're way more challenging than anyone would ever imagine. They break down, you get flat tires, BC Hydro's parked in your spot. Every day there's something. I'm mechanically inclined. I'm good with my hands, and I have a good circle of friends. And that's the only reason we've survived."

According to Steve's estimates (he worked collecting data for an upcoming Vancity study on the Food Truck business), a good location can effectively double a truck's monthly revenue, from roughly $500 per day to a little over $1,000 -- no small consideration when a truck's margins are already incredibly slim (he estimates his truck's operating costs at around $500 per day).

Part of the reason for these slim margins is a Coastal Health requirement that all trucks prepare and store their food in Commissary Kitchens, a unique and highly prohibitive hurdle which adds hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars per month to a truck's operating expenses.

"The biggest problem with Food Trucks is Commissary Kitchens," Steve says. "It's the ongoing issue, and it's what's sunk probably half of the trucks that have gone out of business. And it's always a looming threat to close down more."

Suppliers: short drives away

Despite these challenges, Steve is considered something of a local success story in the food truck world. A classically-trained chef, he started cooking out of a small trailer at Dunsmuir and Beatty back in 2012. Now, Yolks has expanded to include the truck, the trailer, and a restaurant at Hastings and Clark, with talks of another truck, a new location, and another restaurant in the near future.

Nearly everything on the menu is made in-house and bought from local sources; the eggs come from Abbottsford, the beef from Pemberton Valley, the pork and chicken from Chilliwack. And Steve's commitment to the local food landscape extends beyond just sourcing; he also pays overtime and offers medical and dental benefits -- virtually unheard of in the restaurant world -- and has since opened a Commissary Kitchen of his own, renting sorely-needed space to other food trucks.

"We get our gluten-free products from the East Village bakery, just down the street," Steve explains, with pride. "We get our coffee from Agro Roasters, which is right down the street. Our potatoes are B.C. Organic. Our mushrooms come from B.C. Our apples are local organic. All of our dairy, obviously, is local. In the off-season, we offer blueberry pancakes, but it's because we pick blueberries all summer, and freeze them. We're really dedicated to it."

Driven to succeed

By 12:30, the lunch rush is in full swing. While the breakfast crowd was substantial (the first customers, a middle-aged tourist couple from New Jersey, were waiting outside before the truck even opened), the lunch hour is quieter than usual, owing to the change in location, and their proximity to a Tacofino food truck, which has pulled into the spot directly behind them.

"I think Tacofino poached our customers," Lisa notes wryly, frying an egg.

Inside the vehicle, the heat of the sun, coupled with the grills and stove, is sweltering. But the ease in demand from the lunchtime crowd allows staff to prepare for the busy weeks ahead -- set to include appearances at Buskerfest, as well as a weekly spot at the city's 3rd Annual Food Cart Festival (due to set up shop in the False Creek Olympic Village every Sunday until Sept. 6).

In addition to being one of the more than 20 vendors involved in this year's festival (all of whom are dedicated to some measure of sustainability and local sourcing), Steve is also the president of Streetfood Vancouver, a nonprofit society which organizes the annual event -- set to feature beer gardens, DJs, local music, a giant ping pong area, and a 400-person patio, as well as the best of local food trucks.

The festival is also dedicated to sustainability in other ways; in addition to being a Zero Waste event (during last year's fest, 'Zero Waste Ambassadors' from Recycling Alternatives and Green Chair Recycling diverted more than 90 per cent of waste from local landfills), it will also be staffed in part by workers from United We Can, a charitable organization dedicated to creating economic opportunities for the residents of inner-city Vancouver.

"We're even more strict than the city rules," Steve says, of their selection process. "We got 31 applicants this year, and we only accepted three. We went out and tried them all, we vetted them -- everybody went out. We did research online. We thought this thing through."

That’s all, Yolks

By 2 p.m., the crew at Yolks is ready to call it a day. Even up to the last customer, people are still asking about the change of location ("You guys confused me," one woman asserts gravely). And although the day's service is technically over, there's still plenty to be done, from cleaning the fryer, to emptying and refilling the truck's water tanks, to wiping down all the surfaces, to filling the restaurant's fridges with food for the busy weekend to come.

And despite some last-minute problems (the truck returns late due to worrisome engine noise, prompting a hurried call to the mechanic), Steve remains committed to the Food Truck world, and the more vibrant local landscape it helps provide.

582px version of PHOTO4.foodcart.610.jpg
Photo by Jesse Donaldson.

"I'm in the Food Truck business," he concludes. "That's it. Even if I open four new Yolks Restaurants. And even though they've regulated the hell out of food trucks -- regulated them to the point where it's almost impossible to make a go of it -- people have made a go of it. And it's a small baby-step toward all of us not being a bunch of sticks in the mud. It feels like you're a rebel when you're out there. Like you're breaking the rules a little bit. And I think we need more of that. Anything that can make Vancouver more dynamic, and make B.C. feel less like this rigid society, the better. More food trucks, more flower vendors, more buskers. More stuff. Let us do stuff."  [Tyee]

Read more: Food,

ABOUT VANCOUVER FOOD CART FEST

WHERE: 215 West 1st (Between Olympic Village & Cambie Bridge). Map

WHEN: 12 p.m. - 5 p.m., every Sunday, between June 28-Sept 6

WHAT TO EXPECT: DJs, a giant ping pong area, kids recreation zone, a 400-person patio featuring live local music and craft beer and wine, and more than 20 local food trucks.

This year's festival is a Zero Waste event (last year's festival successfully diverted more than 90 per cent of its waste from local landfills), with volunteers from Recycling Alternatives and Green Chair Recycling on hand, as well as employees from United We Can, a charitable organization that provides employment opportunities for residents of Vancouver's inner-city neighbourhoods.

"United We Can is always experimenting with employment opportunities that have more environmental impact," explains Maureen Cureton, Green Business Manager at Vancity (one of the event's sponsors). "And we asked them: 'Are you in need of more opportunities for your team?' So, this year, we're going to pilot the project at Food Cart Fest. Green Chair will have the Leads, because they're experienced in this, and then United We Can will provide the on-site Ambassadors. That way, we can help work toward more inclusive employment opportunities."

Admission is free to Vancity and car2go members, or with the donation of a non-perishable food item.

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