It’s lunchtime Saturday, and I’m giving in to the temptation of the Food Wolf’s K-Dog: a Korean-inspired hot dog served with spicy mayonnaise and kimchi. While I wait for my order, I recognize some patrons, and we chat. The sun is shining and the conversation’s pleasant.
Natalie Chavarie, the 33-year-old owner of the Food Wolf would be happy—and not just because we’re patronizing her truck. “Food trucks contribute to the social capital of a city by encouraging social interaction,” she says. “In Halifax, we’ve seen the emergence of a really strong local food movement, and food trucks are a nascent industry, which helps to retain youth and increases social capital.”
Talk to Chavarie, and you realize that she sees food trucks as representing a way of bringing people together, and helping keep young Nova Scotians in the province. “A lot of the entrepreneurs in this sector are younger people who felt motivated to create an opportunity for themselves to stay here,” she says. And she sees parallels with the tech startup industry: “We’re nimble, and have the ability to see an opportunity in a problem.”
Halifax has long been home to chip wagons (hello there, Bud the Spud) and the odd food cart, but 2012 saw the launch of more upscale trucks, serving dishes ranging from Korean-inspired cuisine to modern Mexican fare, to new takes on comfort foods such as grilled cheese, donuts, burgers, and burritos.
It all started with Nick Horne, an auto mechanic with a passion for food who spent 10 years working for Halifax car dealerships before he decided that “fixing cars wasn’t doing it for me anymore.”
Horne, now 35, decided to go into business for himself, and he had his eye on food trucks. “I saw the food truck movement coming,” he recalls. “It was moving north from California, and then east, and I could see it was coming here. It was viable, it was a good business opportunity and I decided to open Nomad.”
Nomad Gourmet, Horne’s food truck, hit the streets two years ago, serving customers primarily from downtown locations. The Food Wolf soon joined it. This year, about a dozen trucks are expected to be serving up street food on both sides of the harbour, and as far afield as Peggy’s Cove.
The flood of new trucks doesn’t have the more established players worried. Instead, they see an opportunity to create greater awareness of the food truck movement. “It may sound cheesy, but I’ll use the word ‘co-opetition’ because we work together on food-truck rallies, we posse together for different events, and there’s really a spirit of collaborating,” says Chavarie.
Mike Rossi, one of the principals in the soup-and-grilled-cheese truck Cheese Gypsy, which launched in May, agrees. “Food truck culture in Halifax is growing, evolving and changing,” Rossi says. “With more trucks, a lot more opportunities present themselves, and a lot of great personalities connected with these trucks have started to emerge.”
While foodies have been abuzz about the advent of more sophisticated street eats, Horne says there are still an awful lot of people who expect to be served fries from a truck window. “The mindset we’re trying to break is having fries with your lunch. People walk up to the window all the time and order fries and I get something of a kick from suggesting they try something different.”
The new breed of food trucks differ from the classic chip wagon in one other key way: they want to be mobile. With that in mind, HRM decided last January to review the decades-old food truck bylaw which was structured so that trucks would bid on available spots on city streets, and then stick to them.
Councillor Waye Mason, whose district covers much of downtown, says, “The bylaw had not been substantially rewritten in at least 30 years. The old model is you pay money, you rent the spot and you stay in that spot every day. But if you watch the Food Channel, you see that the trucks move around.”
Food truck regulations are changing in cities across Canada. Montreal is in the second year of a food truck pilot project that saw over 20 trucks hit the streets last year. Montreal trucks have to stay in fixed locations, and can’t be completely independent: they must have a partnership with a restaurant or commercial kitchen. In April, Toronto relaxed food truck regulations after much debate and some opposition from brick-and-mortar restaurant owners. Under the new rules, trucks can use regular street parking for up to three hours, and can’t operate within 50 metres of an open restaurant.
Vancouver loosened up its rules in 2010, awarding licences based on a point system (which includes a taste-off). The city now has over 100 food trucks, but is reviewing its rules because of the controversial practice of permit-holders renting out their licences. Halifax food truck owners like the rules in Hamilton (which the Toronto Star dubbed “Food Truck Town”), which allow trucks to park within 20 metres of a restaurant.
Trying to decide when to move and when to stay put can be a challenge for food truck operators. You want your customers to be able to find you (there’s an app for that, called Street Food – Halifax), but if things are slow, you also want to go where the crowds are.
“It’s a really fine balance between being mobile and being consistent,” Chavarie says. “Going to the same places regularly and creating a sense of rhythm is important. We move around based on a schedule, but there are times when we move unexpectedly.”
“It’s the freedom and ability to adapt to a changing climate that makes it attractive,” Rossi says. “You don’t have to wait for the customer to come to you; you can go to them.”
When I ask Horne a question about his role in launching the food truck trend, he bristles at the word. “It’s not so much a trend as it is a budding new industry. Food trucks have been around for decades, but the gourmet spin is what’s new. And I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere.”