Have you ever watched an episode of Eat St. or The Great Food Truck Race and thought, “Hey, I could do that!” If so, you’re not alone. But it probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise that what you see on TV doesn’t really reflect the realities of the industry. Many of the challenges were detailed in Vancity’s report on food trucks last year.
We talked to Steve Ewing, owner of Yolks and a veteran of Vancouver’s young food truck industry, about his own experience and the advice he has for budding food truck operators.
You can check out Yolks and 80+ other food trucks at YVR Food Fest on Saturday, August 6 and Sunday August 7 in the Olympic Village. There’s also the Columbia StrEAT Food Truck Fest coming up on Saturday, August 20 in downtown New West, which will feature 90+ food trucks, 24 shaded patios and 6 beer gardens.
Why did you decide to open a food truck?
SE: In 2009 I was supposed to open a restaurant in Lower Gibsons, but the economy tanked and our financing fell through. The restaurant got delayed and I had to pull out. I returned to Vancouver and consulted for a few restaurants before deciding I was going to try to open a food truck. It was difficult and I had to rent an obscure spot from a hot dog vendor to get started.
What are the best things about being a food truck operator?
SE: It’s really fun being on the truck. As a guy that has been in the kitchen my entire career, it is great to interact with guests. There is also camaraderie among food truck operators and the festivals and events can be really fun.
What are the hardest things?
SE: It’s really feast or famine depending on the weather. Plus there’s the cost and limitations of commissary kitchens, and the cost of parking for your street location—that’s when people aren’t parked in your spot! The constantly changing regulations and certifications needed to operate are challenging, and each city/area requires business licenses, health inspections, fire and safety, etc.
Why did you open a brick-and-mortar restaurant?
SE: Yolks was doing really well as a food truck. We had great feedback, good sales and lots of positive media attention, but we were struggling because of our location at Dunsmuir and Beatty. We would be slammed on weekends, but weekdays were really tough due to the low business density in the area. That coupled with our really high commissary kitchen costs, I couldn’t see it as sustainable so I started looking for a place to use as a commissary.
Are food trucks profitable?
SE: There is this unfounded belief that food trucks are making money hand over fist, but in reality it is more hand to mouth for most operators. Before the restaurant it was tough. Summers are by far the best, but the rest of the year was a struggle. As a solo operator I made a humble living, but if you get a flat tire or someone is parked in your spot (which happens 4 out of 5 days) then it can really hurt your bottom line. Operating the food truck with the brick-and-mortar location is much more profitable because inventory, cleaning, prep, storage and all other costs are shared with the restaurant. It also allows us to have people doing prep work while the restaurant is open and the trucks are out.
How do you see the industry changing?
SE: I see the food truck business changing direction quite quickly. In the past, it was the city deciding who was going to open a food truck business with the lottery. Most of those vendors have since gone out of business and a second wave of vendors came into play and most of them have since folded as well. Those with really strong business practices or, more importantly, great vending locations seem to be making it. I think the main reason is the cost and obscurity of commissary kitchens, which can cost more than the rent on a brick-and-mortar location.
What seems to be happening now is that restaurants are buying failed food truck businesses to expand on their restaurant business and I feel that this is the direction of the food truck business as a whole. I have to say that our little blue trailer at Dunsmuir and Beatty was the best marketing that I could have imagined for the restaurant. If it wasn’t for the trailer, I don’t know that the restaurant would have been as successful as it is now and without the restaurant, then the trailer would no longer be in business. They are now eternally linked and one wouldn’t exist without the other.
Would you recommend the business to prospective new entrants?
SE: I would recommend it, but I would want them to understand the realities of the business. This isn’t The Great Food Truck Race and you aren’t going to be seeing $5,000 days! It is like any other business and you will get out of it as much as you put in.
That being said, I would only suggest it to those that have been in the restaurant business in a management position for at least several years. You need to be as well versed in the business as if you were to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. You will also need to be handy, understand vehicle mechanics and be willing to get your hands dirty. It takes a true entrepreneur and a powerful work ethic. You have to be a problem solver and have a diverse skill set. Having a good circle of family and friend support was huge for me. I have friends that are electricians, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, A/V techs and everything in between, and I couldn’t have done it without them.