'Food trucks are here to stay'

Converted school bus offers organic coffee and freshly made culinary treats

Sylvie Paillard / Kamloops Daily News
May 16, 2013 01:00 AM

Cathy Obertowich and Joe Thompson take a break from busy days serving southern style barbaecue from their new food truck, the Pig Rig.

Customers belly up to the window, craning to read today's special and take in tempting aromas while exchanging looks that hint at a shared thrill of something new.

It's Saturday morning and the Kamloops Farmer's Market is buzzing with the newest offering from the Bellringer Espresso Bus.

This is not your dad's food truck with the quilted aluminum siding that doles out a ham and cheese on Wonder bread, bag of chips and a pop.

Dave Burgess created the eye catching converted school bus and got it on the road last September.

He offers organic coffee and freshly made culinary treats like pulled pork, apples and currants in a gooey cinnamon bread pudding topped with a maple bourbon glaze and crispy bacon bits or cheddar and havarti, caramelized onion, spinach and roasted red pepper on fresh focaccia.

The response has been enthusiastic to say the least.

"Well it's a bus. It makes everyone smile," laughs Burgess.

"I think (mobile food vendors) add just another great dimension," he adds. "It puts things on the street and gives people another reason to connect on the street with food. And the food is usually more or as affordable as a restaurant."

Burgess is an old hand at innovative mobile food vending - back in 1993 he converted an antique fire truck into one. That business didn't pan out because the technology was too cumbersome, he said.

"I was a bit ahead of the curve back then."

Today's propane innovations have eased the way for such operations. Maybe that's why there's been a boom across North America over the past few years.

Vancouver loosened its street food regulations nearly five years ago and the results have put the city on the foodie map. Its downtown is now dotted with a seemingly endless variety of meals from Japanese style hot dogs to gourmet perogies to exclusively wild fare.

Kelowna got on board a few years ago when it put out a request for proposals to service the downtown and its parks.

Kamloops may be on the cusp as well, but first the City has to review bylaws deemed archaic by street vendors.

Whereas pushcart vendors are allowed in 10 zones, the City allows food trucks to park in only four zones with permission from property owners: C-3 (arterial commercial), C-4 (service commercial), C-5 (shopping centres) and C-3T (truck travel centres).

And if that zoning lingo means little to you, you're not the only one.

Don Garrish, Kamloops business licence inspector, said staff takes great care to ensure licensees know the rules.

But there's still a lot of confusion out there.

Heffley Creek's Miles Carrier owns and operates Samidges, a food truck with such traditional items as hot dogs, frozen yogurt and hot beef sandwiches.

With permission from the business owner, he operated once a week on the highly visible Penny Pinchers parking lot at Tranquille Road and Eighth Avenue in North Kamloops.

Chris Speer, a Kamloops truck driver who found Samidges in the ideal place at the ideal time for a quick bite last week, said he'd like to see more food trucks in the city.

"The people deserve it. This is a summer thing. People are outdoors. Bring it to them," he said.

Little did Carrier know that Speer would be among his last customers in Kamloops. He was breaking the law, and he only found that out later that day when a bylaw officer warned him off the site.

"There's no clarity," said Carrier. "I was at this location a few times last year and this year and had no problems."

Carrier is now scheduled to meet with City staff and said he's considering legal action. Meanwhile, he plans to stay out of Kamloops entirely and stick to music festivals.

"It's disappointing. Hopefully things change," he said. "I think Kamloops needs to have a vending (policy) that works."

Cathy Obertowich said the process of finding an appropriate location is "extremely complicated."

"You need a degree in business licencing, I tell you," she said. "It takes a lot of time to figure out the loopholes."

On March 28, Obertowich and her partner Joe Thompson put the Pig Rig on the road - an eye-catching, airbrushed cube truck that sells southern style barbecue, smoked meat and chocolate covered bacon.

They're busier than they ever believed they would be.

Hundreds of locals follow them on Facebook and Twitter, getting daily alerts on their current location. Businesses are even asking them to park on their sites because of the Pig Rig's popularity.

"This isn't a fad. Food trucks are here to stay," said Thompson.

They say City staff have been very helpful and they've had no problems sticking to the rules. But they're also pushing for changes to the zoning restrictions.

City bylaws, they say, don't reflect the obvious desire among the public.

The problem is that not everybody loves a food truck, no matter how adorable the paint job or creative the menu.

Restaurant owners say they already have a glut of competition to contend with and they fear that vendors will park right outside the door.

"If one was to pull up in your parking lot, you'd be pissed," said Vicky Dempsey, whose sister bought The Grind restaurant on Victoria Street two and a half years ago. "It's hard enough."

She added that food trucks have an advantage because of low overhead costs compared to traditional restaurants' high tax or lease rates.

However truck vendors say they have their own challenges too.

Obertowich said restaurants operate 12 months a year.

"Joe and I, if it's a rainy day our numbers go down," she said.

And most cities with broader policies impose lease fees that rival bricks and mortar sites.

For example the City of Kelowna charges up to $15,000 per season to lease its most desirable downtown and waterfront spaces to food truck vendors.

Burgess added that he has a lot of money invested in his bus and he's spent decades in the industry.

"I've paid my dues," he said.

Burgess and his wife have submitted a policy proposal to the City that involved research from Portland to Winnipeg. (He declined to share his findings with the Daily News.)

The City of Kamloops says they're working on it.

City staff is compiling research and will reach out to stakeholders soon before sending the matter to City council, said Randy Lambright, Kamloops planning and development manager.

If bylaws need tweaking, he said, that could occur at the beginning of the 2014 food truck season.

"There's some positives obviously because it creates more energy, it creates more business," said Lambright.

He was also keenly aware of the restaurant owners' concerns.

"It's competition and they've spent a lot of money and taxes on having the bricks and mortar and then somebody comes along and just plops a vehicle down and is able to at somewhat minimal overhead be able to compete."

Obertowich said it's up to the City to make sure policies reflect the emerging industry and protect everyone involved.

"If the City does due diligence like the other communities," said Obertowich, "it shouldn't be an issue."

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