Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
Garry and Joyce Powers, owners of Sis & Me, a food truck currently celebrating its 25th year on Broadway, like to tell the story of how they are married to their job.
Garry got into the then-fledgling food truck biz in 1995. The following year he enlisted Joyce — they were just friends at the time — to give him a hand. Four years later the two of them walked down the aisle as husband and wife. Only in their case the aisle consisted of 10 square feet of floor space wedged between a charbroiler, flat-top grill and pair of deep fryers.
"We married in the truck on Broadway (and) did our own catering," Joyce says, kidding (we think) that the reason she can’t share any wedding pictures is due to the "preacher, photographer and witnesses ending up in the ER over my cooking."
The couple, who first met at a social in St. François Xavier, have a great sense of humour, that’s true. But neither one was laughing in late March, the time of year they typically begin mapping out their spring, summer and fall schedule. Owing to COVID-19, events they’d been prebooked around their downtown, lunch-hour itinerary — everything from high school track meets to neighbourhood block parties to rural fairs and festivals — were being postponed or cancelled outright, one after another.
Under normal conditions Sis & Me, which boasts an extensive menu including burgers, dogs, reubens and fresh-cut fries, is up and running April 1. But because it took city officials a while to figure out where food trucks fit under the provincial government’s public health guidelines, they weren’t able to hit the streets until mid-May, meaning their revenue is down 75 to 80 per cent "easy," Garry says.
"Things have been picking up a bit lately now that more people seem to be getting back to work but at the end of the day it’s going to be a lost year, pretty much," he continues, seated at a picnic table steps away from their Monday to Friday "home" at the northwest corner of Broadway and Edmonton Street.
"I recently turned 80 but since I wasn’t able to celebrate the way I normally would, I told everybody I’m staying 79 for the time being. Maybe we can do the same thing with the truck and wait till next summer to toast our (25th) anniversary."
For 10 years Garry, born and raised in River Heights, split his time between Panama, where he ran a deep-sea fishing resort from October to April, and the Northwest Territories, where he operated a fishing lodge during the summer months. Tired of all the back and forth, he returned to Winnipeg in 1995 and began hunting around for a new venture to sink his teeth into. He found one in the form of Chip Gypsy, a converted, 1975 GMC stepvan that served french fries to passers-by, while stationed near the Bank of Montreal building at Portage and Main.
"The story was the owner had gotten into a bit of trouble with the taxman and had to sell," he says. "I’d spent a lot of time helping out in the kitchen at my lodges so figured running a food truck was going to be a piece of cake in comparison."
Soon after Joyce, who grew up in the Sandilands area, came aboard, they changed the truck’s name to JIG Rig, JIG being an acronym for Joyce, her sister Irene, who also agreed to help out, and Garry. The tag resulted in more questions than answers - people would mouth the words JIG Rig and continue on their way with a puzzled look on their face, Garry says — so they switched it again 12 months later. Joyce says the thinking behind Sis N’Me was simple. One of 12 siblings, she says whenever she or Irene wasn’t available another member of their family happily stepped up. Therefore it was almost guaranteed to be "sis and me" in one form or another taking customers’ orders, she explains with a laugh.
These days, of course, mobile eateries are commonplace in Winnipeg, with offerings ranging from pizza to tacos to roti to bahn mi sandwiches. When Sis N’Me was founded, however, there were maybe three food trucks in the city, tops, Garry says, and each one served pretty much the same fare: hotdogs, smokies and fries. Also, things weren’t quite as organized back then as they are now, what with food truck owners on Broadway having to enter an annual spring parking-spot lottery to determine who sets up where and when. (In a nutshell, owners are given one ticket to put into a drum for each year they’ve been in business. In Garry and Joyce’s case, they received 25 ducats this year so their chances of garnering one of a limited number of spots was almost guaranteed.)
"Until the lottery system came along, it was a matter of getting here early enough to make sure nobody was in ‘your’ spot," Garry says, noting he and Joyce moved around a fair bit early on before a "lawyer-friend" of his invited them to park in front of his building at 387 Broadway, where they’ve been ever since.
Another difference between now and then. Before, in Garry’s sarcastic words, "the city knew what it was doing," a food truck owner wasn’t able to park in one location from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., as is currently the case. Instead, they had to move their vehicle every two hours or face being handed a ticket from a commissionaire tap-tap-tapping on his wristwatch.
"It didn’t matter if you had a long line, 10 burgers on the grill or a boiling pot of oil on the stove. They didn’t give a (crap)," Garry says, shaking his head. "The rule was you had to at least go through a stop sign or light before you were allowed to return to where you just were. I’d leave Joyce standing in our spot to make sure nobody pulled in while I was gone, then drive once around the block."
And then, five years ago the city further regulated the industry by splitting food trucks into two categories for permit purposes. They imposed one fee, close to $1,800, for those less than 22 feet long and a second fee, almost double the first, for food wagons longer than 22 feet. Garry and Joyce, whose truck was a shade over the cutoff, had a decision to make: fork over the extra dough or reach for a saw.
"We ended up removing about five inches of bumper, if you can believe," Joyce says, gesturing towards Garry, whose chief role now is "shopping," when asked what part of the truck they’ll get rid of next if city hall imposes new restrictions down the road.
Like a lot of conventional restaurant owners who have a steady clientele, Joyce, who also ran Victoria Beach’s Moonlight Inn for a decade, has gotten to know many of her regulars by order, if not by name. As if on cue, she whispers, "Here comes smokie and a poutine," to her assistant Cyndi, when she spots a tall gent third in line.
"People have been coming to us for years and that was one of the things we heard most often when we finally got here in May, how our regulars missed us and were happy to have us back," she says, adding she never frets when queues get long, afraid customers won’t want to wait and head elsewhere, her reasoning being "usually if they see a line, they’ll think, ‘Oh this truck must be really good.’"
Before we go, if you think after a long day serving lunch to hungry Winnipeggers from the confines of their non-air conditioned truck, the last thing Garry and Joyce would want to do at night is watch TV shows such as Food Truck Nation or The Great Food Truck Race, think again.
"The way they make everything look so glamourous, they’re better than turning on a sitcom," Garry says. "We sit on the couch and laugh, telling each other, Ha! If only things could be that simple."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
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