Whether you’re a food truck friend or foe, you’re about to see a lot more of these mobile kitchens across Ontario this summer.
In her new Star Dispatches ebook, A Moveable Feast: Inside the Food Truck Revolution, Toronto Star food editor Jennifer Bain provides an in-depth look at the emerging scene. As Toronto takes a wary step towards embracing the new generation of roving gourmet food trucks, Bain checks out the scene in Toronto, travels to food truck-friendly Hamilton for a street festival, collects a few recipes and checks in on a number of food truckers, spending an entire day with one of them. Hungry for more?
The full ebook is available here.
It begins at the crack of 8 with bread-buttering, onion-chopping and bacon-frying. For 105 minutes. In a cold, cramped truck. By three people wearing coats and hats to keep warm.
WELCOME ABOARD THE GORILLA CHEESE FOOD TRUCK.
Actually, rewind a few minutes. Owner Graeme Smith’s day starts with a coffee pit stop at Tim’s (medium, cream, no sugar) and a cigarette before he dives into the kitchen drudgery with employees Sacha Cook, 42, and Pete Bridges, 30, Smith’s brother.
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We’re in Hamilton parked outside the future home of Gorilla Cheese the restaurant, near Gage Park, plugged into a power outlet to get the generator running. The truck is due in Toronto by 11:30 a.m. to serve lunch at 10 Bay St., an office tower called WaterPark Place. There is a lot to do.
Being a food trucker isn’t all long, lucrative lineups, fanatic fans and wild praise. Today, Smith’s three-person crew will work an eight-hour day to hopefully sell 80-odd sandwiches during a 2 1⁄2-hour lunch service. He’ll drive 140 kilometres and blow $100 on gas. It’s cold and windy, but at least it’s not snowing or raining.The crew did much better during the Food Truck Frenzy in Whitby earlier this month.
“To customers, food trucks look like a wonderful place,” muses Smith, who is 43 and single. “It’s backbreaking labour, you’ve got to buy gas and propane, and there’s always a problem, so you have to be able to think on your feet.”
His dreams are practical and modest. Like soon having room in the restaurant space for an industrial slicer, so he can buy unsliced cheese at $11.99/kilogram instead of sliced cheese at $16.15/kilogram.
Troubles, he’s seen a few. “You work six days a week, winter is touch and go, you stand losing money if you don’t sell enough sandwiches. Trying to get cheese to melt when it’s -5 is difficult, or getting butter to be soft enough to spread.” (Actually the “butter” is a mix of 1 pound of butter to 1 cup of mayonnaise. The mayo brings down the smoke point of butter and makes it easier to grill the sandwiches without burning them.)
Despite the litany of challenges, Smith is living his dream. Gorilla Cheese launched in 2011 as Canada’s first grilled cheese food truck. With 14,000-plus Twitter followers and a loyal fan base, it’s one of the most popular trucks.
People love Smith’s gritty back story as a former steelworker, and grilled cheese sandwiches have universal appeal. The sandwiches are exceptionally delicious, built around artisanal, local cheese and bread from Jensen Cheese in Simcoe and Cake & Loaf Bakery in Hamilton.
Then there’s Smith’s goal “to always try to come up with some silly name.” The gorilla in Gorilla Cheese is a play on the word grilled. It’s also Smith’s favourite animal. His Zesty Mordant offering combines cheddar, zesty cheese Doritos and pickled jalapenos. It’s a nod to Ricky from Trailer Park Boys who likes “ja-lap-a-no” chips and “zesty mordant” chips. (On bags of Doritos Zesty Cheese, the French translation is “fromage mordant.”)
The Sarducci, with mozzarella, tomatoes, red onions, fresh basil and balsamic glaze, references Father Guido Sarducci, a fictional character from Saturday Night Live in the late 1970s.
They’re being served today, along with the O.G. (Original Gorilla, cheddar and mozzarella), the wildly popular Lumberjack (cheddar, bacon, Granny Smith apple, maple syrup) and the French Onion (Gruyère, mozzarella, sautéed onions and crispy onion bits).
We’re ready to hit the road, but there’s a snag. The truck — a 22-foot black beauty crafted from a former Purolator vehicle — has only a driver’s seat. The crew must follow in a car. There goes my dream of rocking down the highway, music blasting, pots and pans shaking.
We agree to rendezvous at a Tim Hortons/gas station on the QEW just past the truck inspection station. That’s right: food trucks that weigh more than 4,500 kilograms must stop at Ministry of Transportation truck inspection stations (if they’re open).
Smith, who has his commercial vehicle operator’s registration, is well-versed in the rules of the ministry and well-aware that they track trucks on Twitter and Facebook.
We’re already cutting it close — it’s almost 10, lunch begins at 11:30 and it’s a good one-hour drive without traffic. A delay could spoil lunch for a lot of people. Luckily, the inspection station is closed.
After getting $100 worth of a gas and another round of Timmies, the truck pulls up at 10 Bay St. and drives onto the private portion of the sidewalk owned by Oxford Properties. Part of the building is being renovated and to compensate, Oxford has been inviting a rotating roster of food trucks to sell lunch. “We’ve been coming once a week since January,” says Smith. “It’s been a bit of a saviour for us through the winter.”
It takes about 15 minutes to heat up the flat-top grill, get the homemade tomato soup made from premium canned San Marzano tomatoes simmering on the stove, grate the Gruyère for the French Onion sandwich, post the menu board, put out the garbage can and otherwise prepare for the lunch rush.
“Wind is like my least favourite element,” grumbles Smith as he snaps the menu board into place. “These stupid menu boards are 80 bucks a piece, did you know that? I just had to buy a new one.”
We watch from inside as three, then five people line up. “OK, you guys ready to go?” asks Smith. He slides open the serving windows and starts bantering. “People — hello. How are you? Are you cold? Well let’s do this so you don’t have to wait too long.”
The first order is for a French Onion. “Do you want tomato soup with that?” asks Smith. “There’s no chunks of anything. It’s in a cup and you just sip it like a coffee. It’s a wonderful thing.” No sale this time.
I spend the next 2 1⁄2 hours listening to Smith charm customers. He takes a name with each order and talks to everyone like they’re best friends.
“Can I get the Lumberjack?” wonders Bianca.
“He’s kinda busy today,” is Smith’s cocky reply. “Will you settle for the sandwich?”
Those who provide coins instead of bills and those who tip get extra praise. Almost everyone is told it will be a seven-minute wait and they might want to stay warm in the building lobby.
There’s a lot of “my brother” and “my sister” — perhaps a holdover from Smith’s steelworker union days. Sometimes it evolves to “my captain.”
“How did your show go?” everyone wants to know. Like Zane Caplansky and the Caplansky’s Deli truck, Smith just asked Dragons’ Den for help — namely $150,000 in exchange for 25 per cent of the company. He doesn’t find out until the fall if his episode will air, and he’s forbidden from saying more. “Chaotic and crazy and scary,” is how he describes the TV taping to customers.
He doesn’t want to spoil their illusions, but trucking isn’t all glamour and lineups like on Eat St. and The Great Food Truck Race. Last year, payroll ate 40 per cent of his profits, food costs another 37 per cent. Then there were taxes, truck storage and event fees, licences (for Hamilton and Toronto), propane, gas, maintenance and a costly new engine. There was also buyout money to Smith’s ex-partners. Gorilla Cheese grossed $274,000 but made a $543 profit. Smith took home $22,000.
“It was rough last year, it was really rough,” sighs Smith. Gorilla Cheese sandwiches sell for about $10, but the truck is definitely not “a cash cow.” At least with the new restaurant space, Smith hopes to cut costs by buying bulk.
Back to today’s customers. Janet, Cleo, Mark, Mark2, Brian, Roberta, Zane, Travis, Ben, Kristin, Mia, Piper and Pete, they all get friendly banter such as: “Here is your Lumberjack, here is your soup, thumbs up, stay awesome.” To the guy who buys a Gorilla Cheese T-shirt: “Hey, the babes are going to love you now.” To the woman who took a $20 bill for her much-needed fives: “You’re the best thing that ever existed.” To an exuberant customer nicknamed Chesty Larue. “Have the greatest day of your life.”
Smith — a tall lumberjack of a man wearing a ball cap and jeans — comes by his folksy charisma honestly. On top of working at Dofasco, he has done construction, sold cars, been a private investigator, deejayed, toiled in retail and blabbed at call centres. He even dabbled in cultural studies and critical theory at McMaster University. All the while, Smith dreamed of being an entrepreneur.
For 20 years, he knew his calling was grilled cheese and a restaurant called Gorilla Cheese, serving “high-end fast food.” He got 100 per cent on a chef’s school assignment to write a restaurant business plan and menu. His chef/teacher said: “This is a great idea. If you don’t do this, I will.”
The restaurant idea became a food truck that spawned a soon-to-launch restaurant. There have, of course, been problems and pitfalls. Smith’s partners wanted out, and he’s now digging his way out of a financial hole.
The job is all-consuming. “My non-Gorilla Cheese life is when I force myself to lie down and flake out to Netflix or play Call of Duty. I’m a teenager stuck in a 43-year-old’s body. I still listen to punk rock and play video games.”
The truck’s Twitter account, @gorilla_cheese, has more than 6,600 tweets. Smith’s personal account, @gorillagraeme, promises: “These are the uncensored tweets of a kooky dude that do not necessarily represent the views of a truck that combines primates with a dairy product.” He’s tweeted just 579 times.
It’s cold in the truck. My hands are numb. My legs ache from standing so long. I’m not one of those food truck dreamers. I can’t wait for lunch to be over. In the final 15 minutes of the 10 Bay lunch service, Cook washes dishes and cleans up.
Today, like most days, Smith won’t really eat until after 8 p.m. He’ll live off Timmies and a bunch of Advil for a sore hip. “This job is really painful,” he says with a shrug. “It’s the leaning over that kills me.” (That’s the leaning over from inside the truck to serve customers who are at street level.) “I’m looking forward to the restaurant. I’m not going to have to work on the truck so much.” For some, the dream begins and ends with the truck. For others, it’s about the food or building fans while saving for a bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
The final order is for two Lumberjacks and a Sarducci. “Thank you, my good man,” says a weary Smith. “Take care, eh?”
Turning to his crew, he adds: “OK, that’s us. Shut her down.” Cook scrubs pots and wipes counters. Bridges scrapes the grill. It’s better to do most of the cleaning before the drive home.
Westbound traffic is heavy. There’s also the renewed threat of a Ministry of Transportation truck inspection, albeit without any fear of losing service time. Again, it’s closed. Whew.
The Hamilton rendezvous point is Allegra, a business printing services company, so Smith can get new stickers for both sides of the truck. One has the company tagline “Canada’s First Grilled Cheese Food Truck” and the other its hotline, 1-855-LUV-CHEESE
At 4:08 p.m., Smith, Cook and Bridges say their goodbyes. Cook will head home to her two teenage sons. Bridges and Smith, the brothers, will kill time together until the truck is ready. When Smith finally gets back to the site of the future Gorilla Cheese restaurant, he’ll plug in the truck, take the perishables inside, throw out the garbage, dispose of his waste water, and sweep and mop.
Later, home alone, Smith will tally the day’s take, answer emails, tweet and do the location scheduling (a job he loathes and hopes to soon delegate). The day’s take is $922 for 88 sandwiches, 32 soups, one T-shirt and bunch of drinks.
Smith hopes to rack up $400,000 in sales this year. He’s not sweating his low salary. “I’ll make more money down the road. Right now it’s about paying dues.”
As Smith drifts off to a well-earned sleep, he’ll be considering his Toronto game plan now in light of the city’s new street vending bylaw.
Want to read more about delectable food truck fare — everything from Coke-braised beef brisket sandwiches to chicken tinga tacos to steak and ale pie — and to get recipes for two of Gorilla Cheese’s killer sandwiches? A Moveable Feast is available through the weekly Star Dispatches ebook program. To subscribe for $1 a week, go to stardispatches.com. Single copies are available for $2.99 at stardispatches.com/starstore /starstore.
Write food editor Jennifer Bain at email@example.com