Street food is the food of the people. Stalls, kiosks and trucks congregate around busy city streets the world over, filling the air with the scent of just-grilled skewers or glossy noodles tossed in blazing woks. Street food is synonymous with affordable, fresh fare that’s usually hand held, easy to transport and to eat. Most importantly, it’s food people want to eat — because it’s delicious.
According to Australia-based IBISWorld’s report, Street Vendors in Canada, published in 2015 by Andrew Alvarez, the “Street Vendors industry has been one of the best-performing industries in the broader foodservices sector during the past five years,” with revenues totalling $279.2 million and profits reaching $11.7 million.
“Canadian Food Trends to 2020: A Long Range Consumer Outlook” prepared by Serecon Management Consulting in Edmonton, Alta., notes that “Quebec and Ontario have the largest share of street vendors by an overwhelming margin, with 43.8 per cent and 37.8 per cent of establishments, respectively.” Most vendors, according to this report, set up shop close to densely populated areas, such as office buildings or work sites, to get the most bang for their operational buck.
That’s the case with Grumman ’78, an outfit credited with bringing street food back to the streets of Montreal in 2010. It now operates a bricks-and-mortar location in the St-Henri neighbourhood, in an old garage that used to house the city’s cavalry. But when spring has sprung, you’ll find its lime green truck — the first in the city — hitting the road and selling globally inspired tacos (especially since 2013, when street food got its legal status in Montreal). Hilary McGown is one of three partners in the Grumman empire (formerly a cook at Toronto’s Splendido restaurant, she now runs the business’ administration and accounting). For the Grumman team, street food is all about the taco. “It’s one of the most classic forms of street food — you eat it with your hands, it’s not expensive and it’s always delicious,” she says, adding, “When I go out to eat, I usually spend more than I wanted to. I’m just as satiated if I’d had a ceviche or a taco [instead]. You can eat well without it having to be expensive.”
Team Grumman views the taco as an affordable, blank canvas. Its most popular creation is a riff on the bahn mi sandwich, made with roasted, pulled pork shoulder dressed in hoisin sauce and garnished with pickled daikon and carrot (one taco for $6 on the truck or two for $14 at the restaurant). “Most people think we’re Mexican. We use corn tortillas, work with jalapeños and other chiles, but our driving force is what’s delicious, rather than what would be culturally relevant,” explains McGown.
THE CRAVEABLE FACTOR
McGown’s observation is backed up by Jill Failla, associate editor of Consumer Research at Technomic Inc., who believes it’s primarily consumers’ desire to try innovative, global, “craveable” flavours that’s attracting them to street fare (versus just lower prices).
Seeking out discernible, regionally specific flavours is what keeps Torontonians coming back for more at The Bombay Street Food Company. Two sisters-in-law decided to bring the street food of Mumbai (a.k.a Bombay) to Toronto, initially using festivals and farmers’ markets as testing grounds. What they found was that their food appealed to former Bombay residents craving nostalgia, as well as to Canadians who enjoyed the bright, fresh and bold flavours of the Indian city and who had begun to crave them, too.
“We don’t do fusion — we’re committed to authenticity. To us, that means being able to fulfil the nostalgic food fantasies of former Bombay residents, using farmers’ market fresh ingredients,” says co-owner Amreen Omar. Her sister-in-law Seema Omar, who grew up in Bombay, adds, “Palates have changed here in Toronto. People are accepting of new flavours; every food festival we’ve participated in has given us a great response.”
The company’s daily, scratch-made creations include various freshly made masalas (spice blends) and three, vibrant chutneys — another reason people seek them out. Failla notes vendors touting authentic, premium ingredients can get away with higher prices, even for street-food items. Scratch-made components such as aioli and slaws, or in this case masalas and chutneys, add value in the minds of discerning clientele.
At farmers’ markets, The Bombay Street Food Company’s most celebrated dishes include the keema pav ($8), a sandwich of spicy beef served on a griddle-warmed bun along with a farm-fresh salad. “This is a relatable dish,” says Amreen, “because it’s like a burger or a Sloppy Joe.” The other fan favourite is the vegan and lactose-free rice and lentil bowl with a vegetable salad ($6). It’s right on trend, according to the IBISWorld report, which notes customers’ health-conscious dining choices have been swiftly answered by savvy operators willing to highlight vegetarian, vegan and other healthy options on menus.
This spring, it will be opening a fast-casual service location (with a take-out component) on Bay Street in Toronto, where it hopes office, hospital and university foot traffic will keep its 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. eatery busy. It is planning on pricing a lunch combo, which will include a main and a drink, at around $15.
When consumers reign in their discretionary spending, suggests the IBISWorld report, they’ll likely opt for the creative, reasonably priced fare of food trucks and street-food options. When new and diverse food options capture their attention, clients quell cravings with “niche product offerings, and high-quality gourmet options.” Calgary’s Alley Burger answered both criteria with its initial offering of $5 gourmet burgers, sold out of the alley behind its sit-down Charcut Roast House.
In the winter of 2011, hundreds of burger lovers lined up for a taste of Connie De Sousa and John Jackson’s must-try burgers. The original Alley Burger, made with ground heritage pork sausage, whole chunks of roasted garlic, spices, white wine, Quebec cheese curds and a Portuguese piri-piri aioli made daily by De Sousa’s dad ($6 small, $10 regular), became an instant hit. Listening to customer demands, it also created the Whole Truck burger, a 7K Ranch grass-fed beef burger that guests got to top their way ($8 small, $12 regular). Fries, “Spiced Your Way” ($5) and a soup and sourdough bread option ($8) round out the menu at its new Simmons Building location (it recently sold its burger food truck in favour of a bricks-and-mortar location).
Jackson and De Sousa’s food reflects their love of charcuterie, while borrowing from their familial heritage and their travels to Europe. To keep innovating, Jackson says it’s all about keeping its “incredible and passionate team engaged and part of the conversation at the table.” To keep clients coming back at a reasonable price point, he says the operation tries to remain flexible and look for value opportunities guests will appreciate and recognize, adding, “We always look for ways to transfer savings on to our guests and show great value for their dollar.”
The team at Grumman ’78 has a similar philosophy. McGown says she buys the best ingredients she can for a fair price from reputable butchers and farmers; all of which is reflected in her food. “I can’t sell a taco for $3, or I’ll go under. But I do try and give people the greatest $7 taco they’ve ever had,” she says. That price also reflects staffing costs, truck and restaurant insurance and rent. “Because I have a truck and a restaurant, my costs are doubled.”
Why keep the truck then? It’s profitable, says McGown, bringing in about 10 per cent of its sales, even though the break-even is high. “It’s expensive running a truck, almost double the cost of a restaurant, because you need bricks-and-mortar to run the truck. It’s an extension of a dining room [but it’s] highly weather-sensitive,” she explains. If there’s a rain storm, no one comes out to eat. The truck is used more as an assembly line, in which restaurant-cooked dishes (via sous vide machines) are warmed on an immersion circulator on the truck before going on a steam table and ultimately put together and seasoned for the customer. And for a business with a short, seasonal window of opportunity (April to October), that’s a risky proposition.
The other reason it keeps the lime green mobile? “It’s a roving billboard,” says McGown. And in a town like Montreal that’s chock-full of edible options, sometimes a cheery, rolling, green salute to your tastebuds is as good as word-of-mouth kudos.
Volume 49, Number 4
Written By Mary Luz Mejia