Inside Vancouver’s Food Truck Business

Half the overhead and all the taste: is Vancouver’s future in food trucks?

Vancouver Food Trucks | BCBusiness
The Roaming Dragon food truck at Burrard and Robson.

Half the overhead and all the taste: is Vancouver’s future in food trucks?

“Anyone who tells you they’re making money in this weather is full of shit,” Jason Apple says on the phone on a dark and sloppy April afternoon in Vancouver. Apple is the first street food vendor who doesn’t fall silent when I tell him I’m on business, not culinary, detail. I find him, in person, at the corner of Burrard and Robson streets. Apple’s red Roaming Dragon truck is a custom 26-foot buildup on a GMC truck chassis, imported from California for a total cost of $150,000.

On the side of what Apple calls a “mobile restaurant,” a digital screen flashes menu updates. Inside, a crew of four hustles around a deep fryer, griddle and cold prep table, assembling Korean short- rib tacos, Indonesian braised beef and Vietnamese duck brioche. “We can probably pound through 100 orders an hour,” he says. The average order is between $5 and $12, so a bustling lunch shift can pull in several thousand dollars in sales. The truck also caters corporate events and private parties of up to 400 people. Operating costs are reasonably low: a stationary permit goes for $1,000 a year from city hall, downtown parking meters run $6 an hour and Apple’s six employees earn $12 to $15 an hour.

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Apple says the operation makes money, with all profits reinvested into expanding his street-food consulting firm, Gourmet Syndicate Inc. The company won a second licence for an Indian-themed truck, and he’s drawing up plans for a third truck, as well as for a commercial kitchen with a take-out window.

Other street carts are also expanding: pulled-pork sandwich cart Re-Up BBQ, at Hornby and Georgia streets, is opening a second location at the River Market in New Westminster, and fish-taco truck Tacofino is adding a bricks-and-mortar location this summer.

Vancouver city council (in particular, councillor and foodie Heather Deal) has championed the movement as “fine dining in the public realm” since the first post-hotdog-era food cart arrived in 2010. The City licensed 12 new carts this year, bringing the total to 103 carts and 20 mobile trucks. The next two years will each see about 12 new vendors, up to a maximum of 130 licences by 2014.

The newcomers’ impact on adjacent businesses is tough to quantify. Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association executive director Charles Gauthier is excited to see them function as incubators for sit-down restaurants, but he’s also juggling complaints from food businesses worried their open-air competitors are cutting into profits. He proposes the city hike the prices of licences.

“A thousand dollars a year is a drop in the bucket,” he says. “The city should look at this as a little bit of a profit centre. There’s certainly more demand than space available.”

The Vancouver Park Board is hoping to do just that: it’s piloting three food-cart licences this summer, including a spot in Stanley Park for $15,000 a year.

Back on Burrard Street, a couple appear to be breaking up; the woman blubbers as a horned, Minotaur-like creature on stilts rounds the corner. That’s the real reason Apple likes being out here. “It’s the great social equalizer,” he says. “It’s the one place you can have a judge come up and order fried rice balls and a crack dealer is in line behind him, and as they’re waiting for their food, they’re having a conversation.”