By Ron Eade | Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa City Hall is a place, I suspect, where politicians are more accustomed to circling wagons than food trucks.
So imagine my curiosity Wednesday on spotting a cluster of street vendors corralled over lunch hour at Marion Dewar Plaza, outside the Laurier Street entrance, where they served eager folk a taste of new and interesting sidewalk eats the public can expect in the nation’s capital this summer.
By any measure it was a glorious, warm and bright early-summer afternoon, with postcard-perfect weather smiling on a momentous occasion — celebrating an end to the city’s moratorium on new street food vendors that, sadly, saw the number of carts and trucks dwindle to 32 from about 100 just two decades ago. For a complete list of trucks, carts and locations, click here.
Accomplished restaurateurs and experienced vendors promise much more diverse fare, often with an ethnic twist, to supplement the usual tired staples of poutine, fries, dogs and sausages that have distinguished the city’s street food scene for so long. But at the end of the day it’s all still sidewalk food and much of it remains high-caloric, which in popular Food Network culture seems enough to thrill an enthusiastic audience.
And what an audience it is. People Wednesday were encouraged to purchase one of 550 plastic bracelets for a $10 donation to the Shepherds of Good Hope soup kitchen, which entitled bearers to try the victuals. The astonishing thing was, within 20 minutes every bracelet was snapped up — and still the people came, queuing in long lines here, there and everywhere — well over 1,000 by my estimate — all anxious to sample, and every one hungry for more.
Those who didn’t get a coveted bracelet had to pay as they munched. Not surprisingly, some carts ran out.
“We had to limit the bracelets because vendors are donating the food,” says Anna Silverman, executive director of the Shepherds Foundation. “We’re very pleasantly shocked by the turnout.
“It’s clearly something Ottawa wants, so having all these new vendors is a very good thing. Everyone is anxious to sample their food,” Silverman says.
It’s all about new and interesting choices,” adds city employee Maria Grant, in line outside the brightly coloured Ottawa Streat Gourmet, one of 11 new trucks (plus another seven carts), by chef/owner Ben Baird (photo, left), who previously launched his successful upscale Urban Pear restaurant in the Glebe in 2002.
Baird’s is a repurposed 21-foot, 1994 Chevy P30 diesel van, formerly a Snap-On Tools wagon, he had outfitted by Kitchens on Wheels Canada in Alexandria, at a cost of $60,000.
“For lunch it means you can get not just the usual fries and sausages,” Grant says.
“Now you can find everything from Korean to Vietnamese, and the big turnout today speaks to the fact Ottawa is dying for food like this.”
On hand for the honours was mayor Jim Watson, as always, along with a small gaggle of councillors including Mark Taylor, chair of the city’s community and protective services committee that shephered the new and relaxed rules for 18 successful applicants through city hall in February. Also on hand were four out of five members of the volunteer selection committee who vetted 61 applications based on a potential score of 100, as well as standup comedian and television celebrity James Cunningham, host of the Food Network show Eat St.
“Ottawa is so hungry, and it’s so wonderful to see this,” Cunningham told revenous well-wishers.
“Ottawa is now a leader in Canada in the food truck revolution … I couldn’t be happier as a food truck aficionado,” he says.
Adds the mayor: “These 18 new food vendors bring their own unique tastes and cuisines to the streets of Ottawa — from Asian to frozen yogurt.”
In a few cases, trucks were not ready to press into service: Some are still being built, while others are waiting for final government permits, which obliged a few operators to set up makeshift stands. “Our truck will be out in June,” says Wasi Choudhry, who calls his operation Olive Green, offering south Asian cuisine, which translates into a range of Indian and Pakistani snacks, entrées and desserts from samosas to butter chicken and lassis.
“We’re new in the food truck business, but we operate a restaurant called Olive Green inside Midway Family Fun Park on Kaladar Avenue. We have a passion for food and when we saw the city was looking for diversity we definitely applied and got it. Our food is very tasty — we’re using home recipes that people appreciate,” Choudhry says.
Red Roaster Food Truck owners Glen Galbraith and Steve Dupras did their own work, outfitting a 21-foot former Frito-Lay delivery truck now complete with stainless sinks, counters, fryers and an expensive Rational oven that can perfectly roast a flock of eviscerated chickens simply by pushing a button. Unfortunately, they’re still awaiting final health and safety permits, and so could not serve food at the grand unveiling last week. The partners figure they’ve invested $110,000 — considerably less coin that leasing and fitting a traditional bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
“I had this vision of doing a truck more than a year ago,” Galbraith says, “so I bought the truck in Indiana. We spent a harsh winter getting it up here and retrofitting it.
“Originally we were going to do rotisserie chicken and call it Turns, but because propane is so expensive and you can only carry a limited amount of gas we figured the rotisserie would consume too much fuel. So we went with the German combination oven, which is six times more efficient. The Rational can cook 18 chickens in 36 minutes and it does absolutely everything.” He”ll be serving chicken, shaved beef, meatball tortillas, roast potatoes, slaw and fried noodle balls.
“Being mobile for me is a big attraction,” Dupras adds. “And we were able to do the outfitting work ourselves.”
Layne Belcher and partner Matthew Hinds expect their truck, Urban Cowboy, will be ready later this month serving Texas street food. On Wednesday, they set up tables and dished up smoked brisket with barbecue sauce on a potato bun with onion and pickle, made famous when Belcher’s dad, the late CFL star football great Val Belcher with the Ottawa Rough Riders (1979-83), used to serve food at Lansdowne Park. The tradition lives forever on.
“Both of us really love food,” Hinds says. “We’ve been in the food industry for years and we thought this is a great forum to show what we’re about. It’s all about food and trucks without the bricks and mortar. Me and Layne just started talking about it, which led to a business plan, and then – behold! – we got a spot in the City of Ottawa.”
Sheila Whyte, a member of the city’s truck and cart selection committee and owner of Thyme & Again Creative Catering, is confident the interest in street eats has legs with the public. “We’re catching up with the rest of the world,” she says.
“There are food trucks in every great city and we’re now part of it.”
(Only time will tell for sure. After all, I’m old enough to recall opening day in April 1993 when the city’s $17-million Lynx Stadium was packed to the rafters with 10,000 adoring fans out to welcome professional Triple-A baseball. True, the Ottawa Lynx sold out 43 games in its first season, but by 2006 the farm team had the lowest average attendance in the league, and it was gone after 2007. Today, well, the stadium stands as an underused monument to wishful thinking …
(With street food, at least, taxpayers aren’t on the hook in any big financial way. Perhaps Ottawa has done something right after all.)
Cathleen Kneen, also on the city committee representing Just Food, says the street food evolution reflects a change in demographics. “Food is the way people connect to express what and who we are, so now we have the opportunity to see that diversity in vibrant, dynamic and eclectic street food,” Kneen says.
Philip Powell, city manager of licensing, permits and markets, says he’s blown away by the public response. By the way, without any question Powell deserves the credit for pulling this off.
“The demand and interest is beyond anything we could have imagined,” Powell says. “It’s phenomenal with the public interest, the number of applications and the interest here today.”
“People eat like this all over the world,” says selection committee member Scott Warrick, a chef/instructor at Algonquin College, representing the local chefs federation.
“And for young people having a truck or cart is a more affordable way to get into the business and show their skills.”
In fact, Warrick says, Algonquin College is also considering setting up its very own student-manned food truck.
Hey, why not?