Vancouver, CAN: Taking It To The Streets

Johnny's Pops

By Mia Stainsby  |  Vancouver Sun

Johnny's Pops
Johnny’s Pops

In the beginning, street food groupies went into border collie mode, chasing around and rounding up their favourite street food vendors.

Now, for those impassioned folks, there’s an excellent app (Street Food Vancouver) that lists vendors, their locations, when they’re open, and the kind of food they sell. Or they can stalk favourites on Facebook or Twitter. Visitors to the city can book a street food tour in the name of efficiency.

If you’re more relaxed about food cart serendipities, the Food Cart Fest is the answer. No need to wear out the treads in your Keds. In its second year, the festival rounds up the “best of the best.” Last year, it was at the Waldorf Hotel parking lot but we know what went down at that venue. (Sold to a developer.)

Good thing food carts and trucks come with wheels. Vendors moved the weekly event (every Sunday, June 23 to Sept. 22, noon to 6 p.m.) to 215 West 1st Ave. by the Olympic Village. There will be about 13 vendors each week, from a roster of about 30.

Johnny Wikkerink, of the newly minted Johnny’s Pops (artisanal frozen treats) will be there (his application is just being processed). He normally operates outside the Tap and Barrel at the Village. These summer events are his ticket to economic survival. His frozen bars are made from fresh, local fruits. “I’m using berries right now.” Some are straight-ahead fruit but his fine arts degree demands creations like blueberry cardamom, strawberry balsamic, apricot caramel and banana pudding.

The six-foot-nine Wikkerink sees it as a benefit. “I have a deep cooler. I can reach down. No one else can steal the popsicles,” he laughed.

At the Commercial Drive Car-Free Day festival last weekend, he sold 700 popsicles. When I phoned him the day after, he was in recovery. “I’m reeling today,” he said.

Expect street food elements at all kinds of functions over summer, from private events (big at casual weddings and corporate events) to public.

“When food carts get together, it definitely draws a crowd,” says Sarb Mund, treasurer of the Street Food Association and owner of Soho Road Naan Kebab. (His hariali chicken kebab is my current obsession.) “It’s good for the vendors. We definitely have each other’s backs. No one else knows the pain and joys we go through. It’s kind of like a carny life. It’s cool that we have this every Sunday. People know exactly where to go.”

The 30 members of the Street Food Association are vetted. “The association acts like an accreditation for the best of the best. If you go to an event with a roster of food trucks, lining up will be worth the wait ,” says Andy Fielding, who operates Kaboom Box and is executive director of the association.

This summer, expect food trucks and carts at events like the Chinatown Night Market (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, May 17 to Sept. 8), the TD International Jazz Festival (June 21 to July 1), Vancouver Folk Music Festival (July 19 to 21), EPIC Sustainable Living Festival (July 6 and 7), and the Khatsahlano Music and Arts Festival (July 13).

Trucks and carts are roaming further afield, too. In New Westminster, the May 25 Hyack Uptown Live Street Festival featured eight food trucks. “Ideally, we always want to engage local operations but in terms of application processes and approvals, the food trucks offered cookie-cutter approvals,” says Douglas Smith, executive director of the Hyack Festival Association. “They’ve already got health approvals from Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health recognizes them. Our patrons (25,000 to 30,000 at the event) were pretty responsive and the food truck people were pretty delighted at the amount of money they were able to make.”

On Aug. 10, the New Westminster BIA will be hosting the city’s first Food Truck Festival. “Once we heard that the Waldorf was shutting down, we reached out and offered Columbia Street,” says Kendra Johnson, executive director of the New West BIA. “I put one simple phrase on our Face-book asking what people thought of a food truck festival. It went viral and we had overwhelmingly positive feedback,” she says.

Up at Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus, Food Truck Thursday has become a tradition. Vendors set up beside the Sustainable Learning Garden near Convocation Mall, offering an alternative to the cafes on campus.

Arrival Agency, the organizing group for Vancouver’s summer Food Cart Fest said vendors include Aussie Pie Guy, Chili Tank, Didi’s Greek, Dougie Dog, Eli’s Serious Sausage, Feastro, Finest at Sea, Guanaco, Holy Perogy, JJ’s Trucketeria, The Juice Truck, Kaboom Box, Le Tigre, Mangal Kiss, Mogu, Mom’s Grilled Cheese, Pazza-rella, Roaming Dragon, Soho Road, Street Meet, Tacofino, Taser Grilled Cheese, The Reef Runner, Vij’s Railway Express, Yolk’s Breakfast, and Ze Bite.

“Pretty much every festival that’s happening now, you’re going to find some food trucks,” Fielding says. “Event organizers recognize food trucks bring great cache. They bring higher quality food and a sense of fun. There’s still novelty to it and it creates a buzz that wouldn’t exist.”

The Street Food Association sets guidelines for organizer fees. “Before, people had no idea how much money we make. Some wanted 20 per cent of our sales. That’s a ridiculous request,” Fielding says. “We say, nothing over 10 per cent to event organizers if they want the best of the best. It’s not fair that we have to raise prices or cut into our own sales. Our margins are thin.”