Like many other foodservice businesses, food trucks had to pump the breaks amid the COVID-19 pandemic with corporate offices closed, events cancelled and weddings postponed. However, with many of these events resuming this summer, the demand for food trucks is expected to improve significantly.
Over the course of the pandemic, there hasn’t been just one right way to do things. Some food-truck owners opened brick-and-mortar stores, some restaurateurs opened food trucks and some entrepreneurs made the leap to launch brand-new food-truck concepts.
After six years of running their food truck and catering company, Fully Loaded T.O. co-founders Kevin Green and Amanda Lynn Louie opened Birdies Fried Chicken restaurant in February 2021. For the time being, the duo is focusing on their brick-and-mortar location, although Louie says she has received a considerable number of catering inquiries so far this year compared to the last two years.
“I like the stability of the store right now,” says Louie. “Catering is always profitable. We know exactly what you need to bring in and how many people you’re feeding, but it’s not just about catering. We need to get our name out there [in other ways.]”
Similarly, Matt Brennan and Corvette Romero opened their first brick-and-mortar location in South Vancouver just two-and-a-half years after the successful launch of a Filipino jeepney-inspired food truck, Shameless Buns, in May 2019, which offers sandwiches served on pandesal (Filipino brioche bun), loaded fries and house-made sauces.
“We wanted to highlight Filipino food, which isn’t as mainstream as Korean, Thai or Vietnamese,” says Romero. “We wanted to test the brand and gain a following before launching our brick-and-mortar, and we hope to scale to a franchise down the road. We’re slowly but surely working our way towards that goal.”
Conversely, in July 2021, Steve Murphy, owner of The Blue Mussel Café in North Rustico Harbour, P.E.I. converted a mini trailer into The Blue Roller to sell lobster, chicken, veggie and cinnamon rolls behind the restaurant during the pandemic.
Additionally, new food trucks have entered the Waterloo, Ont. region and are picking up speed, including The Lab Street Eats, Our Humble Little Food Truck (an addition to Berlin 95), Los Rolling Tacos, The Funnel Cloud and Little Tree Wandering Café, according to Explore Waterloo Region’s website.
Finally, Cameron Pounder and Ada Mok, co-owners of feasTO dumpling food truck and winners of Food Truck Face Off on the Food Network, have spent more time in their commercial kitchen preparing frozen dumplings for pick-up or free delivery in Toronto.
“Our three lines of business — catering, downtown lunch rush and festivals — disappeared immediately,” says Pounder. “We had been wanting to sell frozen dumplings for a while, but we didn’t have the capacity or time to grow that [side of the business]. Once the pandemic hit, we had nothing but time.”
Food-truck rules and regulations vary greatly across Canada. For operators serving in more than one city, complying with different rules at the municipal level can be costly and frustrating.
For example, in Toronto, food trucks with street permits must be parked at least 30 meters away from another restaurant and there can’t be more than two trucks per block. Also, they can only be open for maximum five hours. Comparatively, in Vancouver, food trucks must be parked at least 100 meters away from any restaurant that serves similar cuisine or menu items. Currently, Halifax has only seven designated spots that are available for bidding every five years while Montreal has 25 designated spaces with no roaming opportunities according to the Competition Bureau Canada. That said, operators have been challenging street-vending laws for several years to no avail.
Michael Eskenazi, president and founder of Felix & Norton, Montreal’s first-ever food truck, says the business has relied solely on private events and festivals because “the cost of permits and the time it takes to set up and tear down for only a couple hours of service” wasn’t worth it.
“It would be nice to have only one permit that allows you to park in different cities because if you sign up for an event in a city that you wouldn’t normally vend in, then it’s not worth it to obtain a license for that,” says Romero. “It’s a pipe dream.”
“We’re trying to get more spots for food-truck owners, but the industry is just starting to come back since we’ve been in hibernation and fighting for survival over the last two years,” says Terry Miller, president, Food Trucks Association Nova Scotia (FTANS). “With such a small supply of sites available to us in Halifax, it’ll be competitive once everyone wakes up again.”
Miller continues, “I would like to be able to rotate vending sites. We can’t interchange spots, and I think that’s a mistake when it can provide variety for customers in the city by having different food at different times.”
Furthermore, the more recent installation of bike lanes in cities such as Toronto also restricts where food trucks can operate, says Louie. “Bike lanes take up majority of the street locations that are considered good for food-truck owners,” she says. “Most days, operators spend more time fighting each other for spots than actually servicing customers.”
Bumps in the Road
Although the segment’s largest sources of demand are beginning to return, operators are facing the same challenges as other foodservice businesses, such as staffing shortages, supply-chain disruptions and increasing food and fuel costs.
“Gas is through the roof,” says Miller, who also owns three Miller’s Gourmet Kettle Corn food trucks. “At one time, it was roughly $280 to fill my truck. Now, I’m probably close to $600. The cost of travel, food and staffing has escalated and needs to be passed on during events. If you don’t, you’re ROI is gone.”
With regard to events, Louie says one challenge is knowing what events and locations to serve at because the success of the food truck largely depends on the number of people the event is able to attract. In a similar way, if a food truck doesn’t have enough food to meet the demand, customers will be dissatisfied. At the same time, an oversupply can result in costly waste.
Another challenge for food trucks specifically has been securing a commissary kitchen to prepare food. “Commissary kitchens are becoming harder to secure because more entrepreneurs are opening food trucks, as well as ghost kitchens,” says Romero.
To that end, Fully Loaded T.O was unable to pivot to consumer takeout or delivery because they didn’t have a commissary kitchen.
“We had planned for it, but it just didn’t work out for us,” says Louie. “It was too costly and we weren’t sure where the pandemic was going.”
By Nicole Di Tomasso