By Jennifer Bain
Whether you’re a food truck friend or foe, you’re about to see a lot more of these mobile kitchens across Ontario this summer. In her new Star Dispatches ebook, A Moveable Feast: Inside the Food Truck Revolution, Toronto Star food editor Jennifer Bain provides an in-depth look at the emerging scene. As Toronto takes a wary step towards embracing the new generation of roving gourmet food trucks, Bain spends a day on a grilled cheese vehicle, travels to food truck-friendly Hamilton for a street festival and even collects a few recipes.
Single copies of Star Dispatches eReads can be purchased for $2.99 at starstore.ca or itunes.ca/stardispatches
A Moveable Feast: Inside the Food Truck Revolution
It begins at the crack of 8 with bread-buttering, onion-chopping and bacon-frying. For 105 minutes. In a cold, cramped truck. By three people wearing coats and hats to keep warm.
Welcome aboard the Gorilla Cheese food truck.
Actually, rewind a few minutes. Owner Graeme Smith’s day starts with a coffee pit stop at Tim’s (medium, cream, no sugar) and a cigarette before he dives into the kitchen drudgery with employees Sacha Cook, 42, and Pete Bridges, 30, Smith’s brother.
We’re in Hamilton parked outside the future home of Gorilla Cheese the restaurant, near Gage Park, plugged into a power outlet to get the generator running. The truck is due in Toronto by 11:30 a.m. to serve lunch at 10 Bay St., an office tower called WaterPark Place. There is a lot to do.
Being a food trucker isn’t all long, lucrative lineups, fanatic fans and wild praise. Today, Smith’s three-person crew will work an eight-hour day to hopefully sell 80-odd sandwiches during a 21/2-hour lunch service. He’ll drive 140 kilometres and blow $100 on gas. It’s cold and windy, but at least it’s not snowing or raining.
“To customers, food trucks look like a wonderful place,” muses Smith, who is 43 and single. “It’s backbreaking labour, you’ve got to buy gas and propane, and there’s always a problem, so you have to be able to think on your feet.”
His dreams are practical and modest. Like soon having room in the restaurant space for an industrial slicer, so he can buy unsliced cheese at $11.99/kilogram instead of sliced cheese at $16.15/ kilogram.
Troubles, he’s seen a few. “You work six days a week, winter is touch and go, you stand losing money if you don’t sell enough sandwiches. Trying to get cheese to melt when it’s -5 is difficult, or getting butter to be soft enough to spread.” (Actually the “butter” is a mix of 1 pound of butter to 1 cup of mayonnaise. The mayo brings down the smoke point of butter and makes it easier to grill the sandwiches without burning them.)
Despite the litany of challenges, Smith is living his dream. Gorilla Cheese launched in 2011 as Canada’s first grilled cheese food truck. With 14,000-plus Twitter followers and a loyal fan base, it’s one of the most popular trucks.
People love Smith’s gritty back story as a former steelworker, and grilled cheese sandwiches have universal appeal. The sandwiches are exceptionally delicious, built around artisanal, local cheese and bread from Jensen Cheese in Simcoe and Cake & Loaf Bakery in Hamilton.
Then there’s Smith’s goal “to always try to come up with some silly name.” The gorilla in Gorilla Cheese is a play on the word grilled. It’s also Smith’s favourite animal. His Zesty Mordant offering combines cheddar, zesty cheese Doritos and pickled jalapenos. It’s a nod to Ricky from Trailer Park Boys who likes “ja-lapa-no” chips and “zesty mordant” chips. (On bags of Doritos Zesty Cheese, the French translation is “fromage mordant.”)
The Sarducci, with mozzarella, tomatoes, red onions, fresh basil and balsamic glaze, references Father Guido Sarducci, a fictional character from Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s.
They’re being served today, along with the O.G. (Original Gorilla, cheddar and mozzarella), the wildly popular Lumberjack (cheddar, bacon, Granny Smith apple, maple syrup) and the French Onion (Gruyère, mozzarella, sautéed onions and crispy onion bits).
We’re ready to hit the road, but there’s a snag. The truck — a 22-foot black beauty crafted from a former Purolator vehicle — has only a driver’s seat. The crew must follow in a car. There goes my dream of rocking down the highway, music blasting, pots and pans shaking.
We agree to rendezvous at a Tim Hortons/gas station on the QEW just past the truck inspection station. That’s right: food trucks that weigh more than 4,500 kilograms must stop at Ministry of Transportation truck inspection stations (if they’re open).
Smith, who has his commercial vehicle operator’s registration, is well-versed in the rules of the ministry and well-aware that they track trucks on Twitter and Facebook.
We’re already cutting it close — it’s almost 10, lunch begins at 11:30 and it’s a good one-hour drive without traffic. A delay could spoil lunch for a lot of people. Luckily, the inspection station is closed.
After getting $100 worth of gas and another round of Timmies, the truck pulls up at 10 Bay St. and drives onto the private portion of the sidewalk owned by Oxford Properties. Part of the building is being renovated and to compensate, Oxford has been inviting a rotating roster of food trucks to sell lunch. “We’ve been coming once a week since January,” says Smith. “It’s been a bit of a savior for us through the winter.”
It takes about 15 minutes to heat up the flat-top grill, get the homemade tomato soup made from premium canned San Marzano tomatoes simmering on the stove, grate the Gruyère for the French Onion sandwich, post the menu board, put out the garbage can and otherwise prepare for the lunch rush.
“Wind is like my least favourite element,” grumbles Smith as he snaps the menu board into place. “These stupid menu boards are 80 bucks a piece, did you know that? I just had to buy a new one.”
We watch from inside as three, then five people line up. “OK, you guys ready to go?” asks Smith. He slides open the serving windows and starts bantering. “People — hello. How are you? Are you cold? Well let’s do this so you don’t have to wait too long.”
The first order is for a French Onion. “Do you want tomato soup with that?” asks Smith. “There’s no chunks of anything. It’s in a cup and you just sip it like a coffee. It’s a wonderful thing.” No sale this time.
I spend the next 21/2 hours listening to Smith charm customers. He takes a name with each order and talks to everyone like they’re best friends.
“Can I get the Lumberjack?” wonders Bianca.
“He’s kinda busy today,” is Smith’s cocky reply. “Will you settle for the sandwich?”
Those who provide coins instead of bills and those who tip get extra praise. Almost everyone is told it will be a seven-minute wait and they might want to stay warm in the building lobby.
There’s a lot of “my brother” and “my sister” — perhaps a holdover from Smith’s steelworker union days. Sometimes it evolves to “my captain.”
“How did your show go?” everyone wants to know. Like Zane Caplansky and the Caplansky’s Deli truck, Smith just asked Dragons’Den for help — namely $150,000 in exchange for 25 per cent of the company. He doesn’t find out until the fall if his episode will air, and he’s forbidden from saying more. “Chaotic and crazy and scary,” is how he describes the TV taping to customers.
He doesn’t want to spoil their illusions, but trucking isn’t all glamour and lineups like on Eat St. and The Great Food Truck Race. Last year, payroll ate 40 per cent of his profits, food costs another 37 per cent. Then there were taxes, truck storage and event fees, licences (for Hamilton and Toronto), propane, gas, maintenance and a costly new engine. There was also buyout money to Smith’s ex-partners. Gorilla Cheese grossed $274,000 but made a $543 profit. Smith took home $22,000.