New eats on our streets: Bold new era in mobile-food sector in city

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As Broadway bakes in the sun of a fiery summer day, Roddy Seradilla's streetside grill sizzles.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/07/2012 (3745 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As Broadway bakes in the sun of a fiery summer day, Roddy Seradilla’s streetside grill sizzles.

In the biggest possible picture, Seradilla is part of a red-hot mobile-food movement that is changing the way North America eats. But for now, as office workers hover around his Pimp My Rice food truck, he is just a very busy chef, cooking up Filipino comfort food.

At 38, Seradilla is a familiar face around the city. For years, he tended bar at the Corydon cornerstone Bar Italia. Recently, after leaving a restaurant-manager gig, Seradilla’s thoughts drifted back to a youthful cookery dream that never really died. So he bought a food truck, painted it in bright cartoon colours and filed for the slew of necessary permits and inspections.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Roddy Seradilla shows his wares from Pimp My Rice on Broadway. His food truck is a childhood dream come true.

In early June, Pimp My Rice served its first serving of Pinoy barbecue. “Having the largest per capita population of Filipino people, you’d imagine the food would be more popular here, but the restaurants aren’t well-known,” Seradilla says. “I figured if they won’t go get the food, I’ll bring the food to them.”

Bringing food to the people: That’s the rallying cry of a new generation of local mobile-food entrepreneurs, each one looking to eke out new territory in a city where hotdogs, burgers and the occasional bucket of mini-doughnuts have long dominated a shallow street-food scene.

Winnipeg’s food-truck renaissance kicked off last year, when El Torrito took the city by storm with its fresh tacos and chorizo dogs. In 2012, besides Pimp My Rice, a zesty sandwich truck called Stuff It Foods started rollin’. So did the Little Bones Wingery, which started slinging chicken wings topped with a panoply of sauces at the end of May. And another Filipino food truck, Baon Bistro, hopes to hit the streets by the end of July.

Are we missing anyone? Probably. There are options now.

“This is going to revolutionize options for fast food in Winnipeg,” Stuff It owner Jordan Zwingerman says, waving at a curious customer squinting at Stuff It’s menu in the scorching noon sun. “People come up and say, ‘Do you have french fries?’ They don’t understand there’s different food on the street right now.”

Stuff It’s difference is a “dream menu” of Zwingerman’s own design. From his fire-engine-red truck, deep-fried pickles and banana peppers (which, the self-taught chef notes proudly, are already bestsellers) are served with baguettes overflowing with savoury fillings.

For the 21-year-old Asper School of Business student, the food-truck biz suited perfectly. “People respond to the attitude and the culture of the food,” Zwingerman says. “One of the main reasons for this idea was I wanted to build a brand. I’m not a fan of when people go corporate, and they’re afraid to have that attitude.”

In this case, “attitude” isn’t just about an eclectic menu. It’s also about a sea change in how North Americans see food. Although the norm around the world, street food traditionally struggled to earn space in most North American cities, where dense bylaws and expensive permits conspired to keep chefs from setting up shop on the streets.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Jordan Zwingerman owns and operates Stuff It Foods, a new food truck..

Then about 25 years ago, some entrepreneurs in vivacious Portland, Ore., set up mobile kitchens on a surface parking lot. The city and the wider Multnomah County responded with something similar to a shrug; their low-cost, easygoing approach to food-cart regulation would help give rise to one of North America’s most colourful street-food economies.

Today, about 475 eclectic trucks and carts are camped out on Portland’s streets, settled into mostly permanent “pods” that have turned surface parking lots into bursts of colour, flavour and community. Escargot, rare northern Chinese flatbread sandwiches, Korean-fusion tacos — all of that, and more, served fresh off the street for a $5 bill or two.

Meanwhile, there is only a single McDonald’s in Portland’s comfortably pedestrian downtown. “Food brings people together,” says Brett Burmeister, the managing editor of FoodCartsPortland.com, who has helped lobby for street-food-friendly laws in cities across North America. “People can bike to a food cart, people can walk to a cart lot in their neighbourhood and they have seven different options. It draws people in, and while they wait, they start to chat.”

From Portland and other points west, this community-friendly trend is now sweeping outward, riding the waves of a new cultural dialogue about food: fresh food, healthy food, food from around the world and food from as close as possible to home. The mobile movement has spawned television shows, coffee-table books and thousands upon thousands of entrepeneurs, almost all of them small and local.

Civic governments took note. If street food is cultural, for entrepreneurs it’s also a flexible and comparatively low-cost “in” to Canada’s $63-billion food-service industry. “There is a financial return to any city,” Burmeister says. “You’re employing people; you’re possibly offering a method for immigrants to start something and incubate it into something larger.”

Some cities have struggled to take up the trend, wrestling to unravel red tape and find the right balance between the exuberant entrepreneurial spirit of street food, and health and safety regulations.

In 2008, Toronto test-drove a plan that allowed a handful of vendors to dish more eclectic food from city-provided carts. The project, dubbed Toronto A La Cart, was well-intentioned, but the execution was a disaster. In the program’s first two years, every one of its vendors lost money. The program was scrapped, and Toronto’s city council is now moving to adjust bylaws to let street food flourish more freely.

In Winnipeg, regulations are neither as onerous as Toronto’s, nor as liberal as in Portland. Here, food trucks have full mobile kitchens but a more complex checklist of regulations and licences to fill. Food carts are restricted to reheating pre-cooked food such as hotdogs. (You’ll never see a Winnipeg version of Portland’s Taco Pedaler, which serves fresh tacos from a traditional Mexican tricycle grill, under the current regime.)

HADAS PARUSH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Ian Bowman (left) and Jorge Torres in their El Torrito truck. El Torrito was a hit last summer, spurring growth in the food-cart sector.

Could things be tweaked to encourage even more growth in the sector? Perhaps. Though city council has not taken up the issue specifically, several food-truck owners said civic employees indicated they would like to see street food flourish in Winnipeg. At least one city councillor approves of that idea. “This has been a long time coming,” said Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry Coun. Jenny Gerbasi. “I would love to see the city explore it further and start seeing more variety of choices, especially healthy choices.”

The choices are coming, and there’s more on the way. Some of Seradilla’s friends have mused about launching trucks selling Vietnamese sandwiches and jerk chicken. And maybe someday soon, Winnipeg too can be known as a place where people gather on the street to eat and talk and taste something new.

“I’m glad the city’s stoked,” Seradilla says, taking a quick break from Pimp My Rice’s bustling mobile kitchen to cool off in the shade. “We’re already known for all our restaurants, and this can only put us on the map again. It’s been all Jets and Slurpees for so long.”

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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