Food truck trend pulls into Victoria

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Karrie Hill thinks serving meals out of her colourful food truck will be “a lot of fun,” and will let her establish a face-to-face connection with customers.

“You are right there. They can see you cooking. You can hand them your food. You can get direct feedback from them,” said Hill, who is awaiting final permits and ready to hit the road in Victoria.

Food truck frenzy is sweeping North America — and Victoria these days.

The City of Victoria has licensed 26 mobile food vendors, representing everything from brightly coloured trucks parked on private property to smaller food carts allowed to set up on Government Street to add more vibrancy to downtown. Four years ago, there were eight vendors, Victoria spokeswoman Katie Josephson said.

Hill is applying for government approvals and hopes to open next month. She is backed by a $5,000 loan through Community Micro Lending of Victoria. Offerings will include beet and yam fries and a strip steak sandwich.

In Victoria, three grandfathered vendors are on city property, 13 are on private land and 10 are on sites owned by the Provincial Capital Commission and Greater Victoria Harbour Authority. In addition, the Late Night, Great Night program, dedicated to downtown issues, is allowing three or four late-night vendors to operate under a $300 busker’s licence plus a fee for using public space, Josephson said. Mobile vendors are also permitted at special events and licensed outdoor markets.

Food trucks on private property in Victoria need a $100 licence and the site must be zoned for restaurant use. Businesses also need approval from the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

Given public interest in food trucks, Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard has asked a municipal committee to look at food trucks from a planning perspective.

Vancouver’s thriving food truck scene features 114 licensed food cart vendors on city streets, including 15 added this year. Fare includes Caribbean, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, British, Persian and Italian cuisine, as well as curries, burgers and hot dogs.

Municipalities have to do a balancing act when it comes to the number and location of food trucks they permit as B.C.’s bricks-and-mortar restaurant industry watches the trend closely.

Bob Parrotta, B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association branch chairman for Victoria, said the location of food trucks is a major factor and that there is some division among members on the issue. “There have been instances where a food cart shows up literally within steps of another restaurant and all of a sudden there’s a concern there,” he said.

A restaurant pays far higher taxes, has other overhead costs and can’t just move or close up when customer numbers dwindle, he said.

The association wrote Victoria more than a year ago asking to be involved if the city considers increasing the number of food carts, Parrotta said. “We’d love to be able to work with them and the city to make it work better for everyone.”

Vancouver talked to the association and new locations were strategically placed on the perimeter of the downtown core, Parrotta said.

He supports food trucks as a way for new people to enter the restaurant business. Operators begin with a cart or truck and graduate to a restaurant. Also, many have “amazing” food, Parrotta said.

“We all feel there is a net benefit to the city, to the downtown core. It adds a certain vibrancy to it, it’s just a good thing.”

Chef and owner Jonathan Pulker of the Refiner Diner, 950 Yates St., converted a former highways construction vehicle to a mobile food truck. “I always wanted to go into business for myself and it was an affordable way to do it.”

He estimates it would cost about $50,000 to buy an existing food truck.

Good food and an online presence are must-haves in this business, he said.

Festivals are much-desired by food truck operators because they can generate thousands of dollars in sales per day.

Fees can run from a low of $100 to several hundred dollars per day for a large festival, he said.

Pulker drops a handful of cheese on the stovetop to make his $8 burger. The crispy cheese then goes underneath the patty. A heaping order of poutine ($7) has soft cheese curds quickly melting into chicken gravy and fries.

Marion Tustanoff, who works at the nearby provincial archives, ordered a $4.50 burger this week at the Mark’s Big Dogs and Burgers cart on Belleville Street.

“I come here because it is a convenient location, the food is awesome and the gentleman who runs the cart is very, very nice and polite,” she said. Prices run from $4.50 to $8.

Smiling staffer Danny Panya said: “I meet people from all walks of life, from all around the globe.” Moving quickly, he whipped up a $3 lemonade with wildberry flavouring, a slice of lime and crushed mint leaves.

Perogy-lovers flock to the Hungry Rooster at 724 Courtenay St., or, on Wednesdays, at the Victoria Downtown Farmers’ Market in the carriageway behind the Hudson building.

Paulina Tokarski runs the truck, featuring perogies made according to a family recipe from Poland. Mother, Janina Tokarski, said they launched their perogy business a year ago. Truck customers loved them so much that production expanded to include grocery stores. Janina is pleased the business is successful but said what is most rewarding is that “people are happy and want to eat the perogies.”

When a Tacofino food truck arrived in Victoria this month, it had a built-in following. The company has loyal customers in Tofino and Vancouver, lured by offerings such as its $5 fish taco and $2.50 spicy Chocolate Diablo cookie. Located in the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre parking lot, it serves about 100 customers on an average day, said Josh Carlsen, one of the truck operators.

Customers include nearby workers, those who get dirty on the job and don’t want to feel out of place inside a restaurant, and drivers of larger vehicles who pull in for a quick order.

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