Photo Credit: Northern Persona Photography
Mobile Eateries Drive Home Local Food Movement
When you tuck in behind the wheel on your next journey along a northern BC highway, there’s a pretty good chance you will already have your favourite pit stops planned out. Whether it’s a fresh-out-of-the-oven loaf of wholegrain from Skeena Bakery in Hazelton, creamy espresso and biscotti at Edgewood Farm in Quesnel or a handmade slow-roasted pulled pork at The BEAM in Fort St. John, northern BC is littered with some of the best food to make any long-haul road trip noteworthy.
Over the past few years we’ve been lucky to add a number of food trucks to this list. While their existence is relatively new in the region—almost half opened in 2015—the summer months promise any foodie or hungry traveller two dozen mobile eateries to choose from. However, without a robust regional food truck culture or a handy app to tell you where your new favourite mobile eatery is parked, finding them can be a challenge.
Last summer, my partner and I embarked on a mini-research project to see how food trucks act as a vehicle for community economic development in northern BC. We hit the road to catalogue the 24 food trucks that are anchored in northern communities at almost every stretch of the region’s highways. We wanted to find out how this popular urban sub-culture made its way to the North and why, in 2015, the industry started to explode.
We found out that, like their urban counterparts, rural food truck operators work tirelessly in the name of bringing delicious, fresh, local cuisine to their communities. The ones we talked to told us that, aside from wanting to work for themselves, they decided to get into the business because of relatively low start-up costs, quick turnaround in finding or outfitting a vehicle, and an interest in being part of an emerging regional food culture.
Northern BC boasts a mixture of standard commercial food trucks and trailers, both new and renovated, their boxy fabricated walls holding together the most nimble camp kitchen you’ve ever seen. They are often found in their hometowns at farmers’ markets, local events and on commercial lots (most community bylaws restrict food trucks from using municipal properties).
These trucks serve mostly concession-stand foods (hamburgers, fries, ice cream, hot dogs, sandwiches, the odd taco) and barbecue (pulled pork, beans, mac and cheese). The menus on newer trucks will often feature vegetarian fare, charcuterie platters filled with local meats, cheese, pickles and jams, and fancy comfort foods like the banh mi, a tasty Vietnamese sandwich on a baguette.
Love of Caravan
Ask anyone in the Bulkley Valley and they’ll tell you the dishes coming out of Michaela Kafer’s food truck Caravan are to die for. We first heard about Caravan from other food producers in the area who could not stop talking about Kafer’s delicious offerings. Every time we asked someone about their favourite food trucks they said, “You have to try Caravan!”
Kafer launched Caravan last year after her desire to open a restaurant was met with the opportunity to get her hands on a food truck. “A restaurant felt a bit like it was too much of a commitment and there just happened to be a food truck for sale in the area that was brand new—you know, a couple years old, really well laid out, decked out with all the equipment that you would need. I felt like that was a message that everything was in line and to go down that road,” Kafer says.
But that road can be bumpy. Food truck operators in northern BC face challenges when getting their businesses up and running. Mobile food vending is an emerging phenomenon in the region and municipal bylaws, financial institutions and health officers are playing catch up. For vendors like Kafer, getting their hands on a reliable, high-traffic location near their municipality’s centre is a challenge.
Overwhelmingly, operators say finding permanent places to set up and vend is a critical issue when municipal bylaws prohibit or place restrictions on food trucks from vending on public property or within close proximity of similar businesses. Some worked around this by repeatedly calling and advocating for themselves with bylaw officers to gain access to popular parks and neighbourhoods.
This approach worked for Kafer, who was recently granted access to a space in downtown Smithers’ Bovill Square, where she launched another season of her favourite seasonal menus in May. Despite the challenges with getting a food truck off the ground, Kafer was driven by the impact her business has on the community.
“I think the reason that I do it is that it’s something I care about. My friends and family all care about good food, the flavours of the food and the quality of the food that we’re eating. I try and bring that to everybody, hopefully educating people a little bit as well by using local products, finding out what’s here and learning how to incorporate that into the food,” she says.
Food trucks’ inherent mobility and their seasonal nature mean menus are inspired by what ingredients are available around them. Supplies are bought from local farms and producers, as well as smaller, locally owned wholesalers aiming to keep their purchasing dollars in the community as much as possible.
For Amy Quarry, inspiring her community to explore local ingredients was a main motivation for getting into the food truck business. Last year, the founder of Small Town Love, a website advocating buying local in the North, and her best friend, Jodi Ballinger, launched Elevenses Snack Shop in Quesnel. With the help of friends, they renovated a 1974 fibreglass Triple E Surfside trailer into a space where they could assemble their beautiful charcuterie platters. Using reused and repurposed materials, they painted it a bright turquoise and installed wood counters and chalkboard elements. Often they brought along a table, chairs and festive bunting, spilling out into the space around them.
“We both have an interest in local food and local food products so what we served was a showcase for local food,” Quarry says. Their artfully crafted charcuterie plates featured jams, produce, meats, pickles and cheeses, all made by local producers. “People were saying, ‘Wow, it’s amazing, I’ve never had this,’ but they could get it where they live, they just didn’t know they can, so trying to create that awareness of other people who are making food in the area has been a bigger part of how we created our menu,” Quarry says.
This past winter, Ballinger relocated to 100 Mile House. She and Quarry decided to sell their food truck, giving another budding entrepreneur the opportunity to jump into the business a little more easily than they did. “We’ve made a really beautiful thing out of not a lot of money,” Quarry says. “I think people like that. … I hope it inspires people.”
Every vendor we met on the road was excited about the work they were doing in their community and their place in creating a regional food culture. Their unrelenting focus on supporting local products speaks volumes to the ability of this emerging industry to build community and inspire a much-needed refocusing toward local food production. They envision a place where people gather to share a meal at a food truck whose work is more than just to feed, but to introduce our region and its people to a new way of doing business that puts the community first.
Fantastic food trucks and where to find them
Hitting the road this summer? Be sure to stay fuelled: find the following food trucks via their Facebook pages or ask at local visitors’ centres.
Jodie’s Ice Cream Wagon, Little Prairie
The Funky Goat, Valemount
Frozen Paddle Ice Cream, Prince George
Taco Gypsy, Quesnel
Zittlaus’ Quick Eats, Telkwa
Happy Pig Organic Farm, Smithers
Fender Food Company, Hazelton
The Puckered Pig Mobile Bistro, Terrace/Kitimat
Dash Mobile Bistro, Stewart
Fries & Pies, Prince Rupert