HAMILTON—Welcome to Steeltown, henceforth to be known as Food Truck Town.
This feisty city of 500,000 is poised to welcome two trailblazing food trucks dishing out gourmet cupcakes and grilled cheese sandwiches.
Natalie Ravoi’s should start this week. You can’t miss it — it’s the pink Dodge Sprinter.
Graeme Smith and Scott Austin expect their branded truck to arrive next month. It will be big, black, emblazoned with gorillas, and prowling the city by July.
Sorry food truck fever is passing you by, Red Tape Toronto. At least you’ll probably get a food truck festival this summer. Hamilton, meanwhile, is more than happy to pave the road for kitchens on wheels.
“It makes me feel really giddy and excited that we can do it here,” says Ravoi.
“There was an urgency, a feeling that we have to do this now — this year,” admits Smith. “We don’t want to lose the coveted position of being the first of a kind.”
Canada has precious few gourmet food trucks. Vancouver has a fledgling scene. Toronto is still dithering about its disastrous A La Cart street food project. El Gastronomo Vagabundo, the gourmet taco truck that weekends at Flat Rock Cellars in Jordan, has added a farmers’ market and golf club to his stops, but still can’t rove in St. Catharines.
Toronto blogger Suresh Doss (publisher of Spotlight City) is planning a food truck festival in late June. Cupcake Diner, Gorilla Cheese and El Gastro are expected to join Toronto truckers from Smoke’s Poutinerie and Caplansky’s Deli plus restaurant chefs doing street food.
Compare this meager list with America’s food truck revolution.
Bon Appétit just did a cheeky timeline tracing how “yuck trucks” evolved into a craze that has gone full circle with food truck chefs now opening permanent spots. Even so, food trucks have their own show (The Great Food Truck Race), iPhone app (Eat St.) and book (Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels).
“If a trend hits the shelves at Barnes & Noble, is it still trendy?” the magazine wonders.
Food Truck author Heather Shouse thinks so. “Favouring quirk over pomp, talented cooks and critically acclaimed chefs are ditching the brick-and-mortar standard for kitchens on wheels, churning out incredible food for a new breed of diners more interested in flavour than fuss,” she concludes.
That description fits Ravoi, who’s 26, lives in Ancaster and has a master’s degree in sociology. Baking has been a passion since she got an Easy-Bake Oven at age three.
Opening a brick-and-mortar cupcake shop held no appeal. Driving a food truck did.
Ravoi, whose fiancé lives in Toronto, admits she looked at Hogtown first but immediately hit a wall with permits, bylaws and licensing. She found Hamilton’s rules for refreshment vehicles “reasonable and doable.”
The city is so keen on new business, it created the Business One-Stop that brings all the needed departments (like zoning and licensing) into one location. Hamilton already has hot dog carts (including one that’s doing crêpes), French fry trucks, ice cream trucks and catering trucks, and doesn’t restrict the type of food that can be sold.
Ravoi had to equip her Cupcake Diner with a “watch for children” warning sign, amber lights that flash when she’s stopped, and a rear bumper guard to deter kids from standing or sitting on it. When she parks (legally, of course), she must set out a garbage can.
The biggest rule is that food trucks can’t stop within 100 metres (328 feet) of an eating establishment (unless they have written approval from the owner), school, recreation ground, playground or public park.
Undaunted, Ravoi found enough potential stops to make a route. She aims to visit four each weekday, but also secured a Hamilton Farmers’ Market space and some festival gigs.
Gorilla Cheese also hopes to park at festivals, events and corporate parties, while roving to capture the bar and concert crowd.
Devoting himself to grilled cheese has been a longtime dream for Smith, a 40-year-old steelworker currently locked out of his job. He honed the idea while getting a culinary diploma from Liaison College, then partnered with his friend Austin, a 40-year-old, recently outsourced creative designer.
Gorilla Cheese is a play on words, but gorillas are Smith’s favourite animal because “they have strength, bigness and boldness, yet they’re a gentle creature just like us.”
The men are having a 24-foot Purolator truck renovated by an Alexandria business into Gorilla Cheese for about $40,000. It should be ready next month.
Ravoi, meanwhile, spent about $20,000 for her used Dodge Sprinter (plus a flight to Missouri with her dad to pick it up). She had it “wrapped” here with her pink colour scheme and 1950s-inspired logo that shows her holding a chocolate cupcake with pink buttercream icing and a cherry on top.
The Cupcake Diner won’t be used for baking, so it had minimal health regulations to contend with — just a hand-washing system and a cover for the cupcakes. Ravoi plans a rotating selection of 25 cupcakes “curbside” at $2.75 a pop. She loves working local, seasonal fruit into her creations.
The Gorilla Cheese truck will have a kitchen to turn out signature and build-your-own grilled cheese sandwiches, tomato soup and baked beans. Jensen Cheese from Simcoe will supply the main ingredient.
Both trucks will — of course — post their schedules on Facebook, Twitter and their websites.
“I’m going to say that by next year you’re going to see even more food trucks in Hamilton,” predicts Smith. “We’re not going to see them as competition. We really want to start a whole new food culture here.”
Ravoi, whose bid for a CNE spot was rejected, still hopes to one day rove Toronto with her Cupcake Diner.
“What charm and character they would add,” she muses.
Don’t we know it.