Ottawa, CAN: Keep on Truckin’

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By Peter Robb  |  Ottawa Citizen

via flickr -  jbassett9(http://www.flickr.com/photos/jbassett9/)
via flickr – jbassett9(http://www.flickr.com/photos/jbassett9/)

If there is one person bearing witness to the food-truck phenomenon sweeping North American streets, it’s probably James Cunningham, a Canadian standup comedian and the host of the Vancouver-produced Food Network show Eat St.

And even he is impressed by the impending explosion of street-meat variety that is coming to Ottawa streets this month.

“I had no idea how many trucks were coming to Ottawa until I started looking at your articles on the website (ottawacitizenstyle.com). You got like a crazy number.”

Cunningham is the self-described “food-truck man,” but he has been doing standup in Ottawa for many years. Ottawa, he says, is like his second home.

Eat St. just finished shooting its fourth season and there are 26 episodes that have begun airing, which will take in 104 food trucks. There is also a companion cookbook available featuring 125 recipes from across North America. It’s called Eat Street: Recipes from the Tastiest, Messiest, and Most Irresistible Food Trucks and costs $24, available from Penguin Canada.

Featuring 104 trucks may seem like a lot, but it is really only scratching the surface of this business.

“Every time we think that we’ve found the ultimate food truck, we move on to another city and find a better one.”

Over four seasons, they’ve featured more than 200 trucks.

There is a distinct difference between the U.S. and Canada.

In Greater Toronto, with its population of about five to six million people, there are 30 to 35 food trucks. “It’s been such a slow thing to catch on.” In Portland, Oregon, population 2.2 million, there are 700 food trucks. Austin, Texas, has 500 food trucks.

The weather is a major factor. In Canada, in most places, Cunningham says, a food truck is a seasonal business.

Vancouver leads in Canada, he says. The city has thought through what it wants on its streets. There are healthy menu requirements. Trucks are auditioned at city hall to get their permits, that sort of thing, Cunningham says.

The spark for this explosion is the crash of 2008 when a lot of good chefs were tossed on the streets.

What happened? Cunningham explains that chefs improvised and the street was the beneficiary of a lot of creative cookery. Trucks were much cheaper than opening a bricks and mortars restaurant. In the U.S., food trucks are available on leases. In Canada, proprietors tend to buy their trucks.

But the accessibility of the trucks allowed chefs to experiment with combinations of food styles, Cunningham says, and the result is what Ottawans will start eating this month. The other thing that happened is social media, which allowed the food trucks to reach their consumers directly, tweeting location and menu. So when a truck would pull into a stop, the patrons would be waiting. In Ottawa, the trucks and carts have assigned spots, but expect social media to play a large role in the future of their business (don’t forget to tweet #ocfoodtrucks when you eat on Ottawa’s streets).

In other cities, the trucks have tended to locate away from restaurant districts, moving into the suburbs or into working-class neighbourhoods to reach a new audience. The result has been an improvement of the diet in some of these tougher neighbourhoods. As well, some restaurants have converted to a food truck and vice versa, Cunningham says.

In Ottawa’s case, with many trucks located downtown, Cunningham suggests, they may start moving outside the core over time to find new markets and avoid the competition provided by á la carte menus.

Cunningham says Ottawa has been slow to get in the food truck game. Montreal, too.

“We’re really far behind in Canada, compared to the U.S.”

James Cunningham is at the Ottawa Spring Writers Festival, May 8, Ottawa City Hall at 7 p.m.

Tickets: $15, $10 for seniors, members free; writersfest.org Join Ottawa Citizen writers on May 15. Eat and tweet your views on the new food trucks and carts to #ocfoodtrucks.

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