Has Edmonton’s meals truck scene reached its peak?
For those still on the road, diversification is key
When Nevin and Kara Fenske opened their award-winning Drift food truck in 2011, they found it difficult to get city hall officials to understand the concept.
“I remember trying to get permits and explain what we were doing,” says Nevin (Cooking ’04). “We had a food truck and a communal kitchen and they couldn’t take care of it. We sat there for hours that afternoon. “
Back then, Drift pioneered as one of only half a dozen food trucks in Edmonton. By 2016, 92 were registered in the city (excluding food trucks and trailers).
Figures suggest that the culinary phenomenon in the capital peaked this year. While the city government has made the journey from concept to operation smoother for food truck operators, constant competition and a changing market have created bumps along the way, Nevin says. According to the City of Edmonton, the total number of food trucks dropped to 53 in 2017 and 43 in June 2018.
“It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.”
It’s premature to say that the food truck scene is past its prime, but current and former operators agree that this has changed. “It’s easy to get lost in the mess,” says Nevin. Even if there are fewer trucks, high throughput means constant choice for consumers.
The question is: how many of these trucks will be returning after the long and profit-limiting Edmonton winter? As the Fenskes have shown, it largely depends on how truckers spend the hours off-road fighting for money for lunch on the city streets.
Food truck numbers in reverse order?
Glenn Alexander, who oversees the city’s street vending program, thinks the decline in food trucks last year is more an anomaly than a trend. “We get a lot of inquiries; We are very interested, ”he says. He thinks it’s too early to say if this year’s final numbers will continue to decline. Nevertheless, many of the operators active in 2016 have disappeared or have turned to other companies.
“You don’t see street sales as often as you used to,” says Diane Lee, administrative assistant at the JR Shaw School of Business and organizer of What the Truck.
Since its launch in 2011, What the Truck has been promoting local food truck culture on its website and by organizing food truck events. Operators can join the group for $ 50 a year, which gives them listing on their website and the opportunity to attend their events.
What the truck reduced from five smaller food truck events in 2016 to two larger ones in 2017, says Lee. Three events with 15 to 20 trucks each are planned for this year. The number of members has fallen to around 55 trucks and trailers, around 20 fewer than in the previous year. However, Lee says this could potentially mean new operators won’t turn to What the Truck.
Levi Biddlecombe (Culinary Arts ’11, above) is one of those operators who left the food truck community. He sold his popular Attila the HUNGry Truck in October 2016 after three seasons on the streets of Edmonton.
“I think the market was incredibly saturated,” he says. “I had the feeling that I got in at the perfect time, shortly after the huge food truck peak. Then I feel like I got out just in time. It’s a bit like cupcakes. They were the greatest and now people have switched to donuts. “
“It’s a bit like cupcakes. They were the biggest and now people have switched to donuts.”
Biddlecombe, who recently opened his own restaurant, Why Not Café and Bar, says he has no plans to go back to a food truck. “It was more to build my name and reputation, and once I figured that out, it had served its purpose.”
Despite the decline, Lee believes the food truck community is stabilizing. “We’re starting to see some new trucks replacing this one, so it seems pretty healthy in that sense,” she says.
Part of the reason for this good health is due to their belief that the business is diversifying.
An industry in transition
“Trucks show up at a lot of events,” says Lee. “Everyone seems to be integrating food trucks into their events.”
Truck operators are increasingly keen to find ways to stop sticking to the midday crowds and are looking for more reliable markets.
“Somebody once told me you always have to be ahead of the guy who doesn’t exist yet,” says Nevin, whose truck can still be found on the streets of Edmonton in the summer. Staying ahead also means being picky. They prefer corporate or private events where they are paid for a certain number of meals over events like festivals where sales are based on weather, attendance and competition.
“You always have to be ahead of the guy who doesn’t exist yet.”
“It’s a short season so you really have to focus on getting into the right gigs and getting volume,” says Nevin. In the winter months, the Fenskes hide in the Shamrock Curling Club, where they operate the concession and organize private events. In summer the Shamrock is their communal kitchen.
Despite the challenges, food trucks still attract Edmonton chefs. Todd Rutter opened the Curbside Truck with chefs Kim Szalinski (Culinary ’00) and Me from Leive (Culinary ’99). The trio may be late for the game but bring a wealth of experience and resources from their other business, A Cappella Catering.
For Rutter, the food truck is an opportunity to build up the brand and polish up the image of his 27-year-old catering company.
“It also makes us look and feel like we’re the cool kids,” he says. It also keeps them competitive in a catering market where food trucks are now serving private events. But a food truck in and of itself is no guarantee of growth.
“If you look at the return on investment, [it’s] not a very good place to invest your money, ”says Rutter. Sole proprietorships “basically work for wages – they have created a job. It’s very close in terms of profit. “
Even so, food trucks seem to be driving both owners and consumers to come back. Rutters currently sees little measurable return, but – like the many trucks before him – still sees a great opportunity in Edmonton. He plans to keep Curbside downtown for breakfast and lunch for as long as possible – possibly year-round.
“I think if we build up a strong fan base, we hope that it will give us the strength to be able to survive in winter as well.”