Edmonton’s only food truck festival started with just two people and an accident: Mack Male and Sharon Yeo stumbled on the first installment of a food truck festival in San Francisco called Off the Grid and they decided that something similar would be perfect for Edmonton. They already had relationships with local restaurants, thanks to Yeo’s popular food blog, and with the trucks that frequented the 104 Street Market near their downtown home. And since they’re the type of people who do things instead of just talking about them, they jumped right in.
They started small, with only seven trucks. “And that was stretching the definition a bit,” says Male. With slim pickings for food trucks in 2011, even non-truck vendor Fat Franks was included. Despite their humble start, they decided to go pro right off the bat, choosing an impossible-to-forget name and hiring designer Gabe Wong to create an unmistakable visual identity.
So what’s so exciting about food on wheels anyway? Male says that from the beginning they saw food trucks as a way to get people outside, on the streets, interacting with their neighbours and filling up under-utilized spaces. Their focus is on pedestrianism and showing people that this is an interesting city to be involved in. As Male pointed out, people in this city are usually dying to get outside once summer rolls around. What better way to appreciate a warm summer evening than to gather with friends and strangers, explore a new corner of the city, and people-watch while eating high-quality food from some of what Male calls Edmonton’s “most interesting chefs”?
By promoting food truck culture, the events also play a role in helping businesses to develop and grow. Chefs Nevin Fenske and Mike Scorgie started out with food trucks (Drift and Nomad, respectively) and have since opened restaurants (Dovetail for Fenske and Woodwork for Scorgie). Says Male, “I think these are examples of how it’s been great for these chefs to build a profile, gain a following, hone their craft, maybe test out the market to see what Edmonton’s looking for, and then be able to go forward with their business.”
While Male is confident that food truck culture would have grown in Edmonton with or without their festival, it’s clear that the trucks have a valuable ally in the What the Truck?! team. Besides organizing events to bring in thousands of customers, they also post “Meet the Truck” Q & As with the vendors on their website, so customers can get to know them better. There’s also a form on the site that event planners can use to book trucks for their own parties — a service which the team provides free of charge.
Despite this work, and despite the emails and calls from people asking how they can set up their own truck, Male emphasizes that What the Truck?! isn’t a business association for the food trucks — they’re enthusiasts, not vendors themselves. “I think that there’s room for an entity that represents the interests of the food trucks. But I think it should be run by the food trucks. We’d rather focus on promotion of the scene and the culture and the events.”
It’s not just mobile businesses that benefit from the increased interest in street food: when people show up at events and see the sometimes daunting lineups, they’ll often go to other restaurants in the area to get their dinner instead. In fact, that’s how I first discovered Smokehouse restaurant — my hungry boyfriend and I were too impatient to wait for food from the Smokehouse truck, so we went to try out the restaurant.
This spillover effect enlivens neighbourhoods as diners wander the area before, after, or during the event. Always careful to choose locations that are accessible by transit, the team is pleased when people arrive to their events on foot. Male describes the “throngs of people that were walking down 102 Avenue that night (May 23, 2015) to get to Churchill Square, and you wouldn’t normally see that, even on a Friday night. Jasper gets busy and otherwise it’s pretty dead. So I like to think that we had a pretty big impact on that.”
Having grown a substantial following, the events look a lot different today than they did four years ago. Male says that the first event drew about 200-300 people, most of who were connected to him and Yeo in some way, while their first event of this season, in May, drew around 10,000. They’ve gone from seven trucks on their roster to 70, and their team has increased to seven members. In the first year they chose small spaces that would appear bustling with a handful of trucks, now they can easily fill Churchill Square to capacity.
As the project grows year by year, the team is working hard to ensure that the quality of their events stays consistent or improves. In the last years they’ve instituted some strict guidelines to make sure that everyone — diners and vendors — have the best experience. One rule is that all vendors must make something on the truck. The organizers want to avoid “scoop and serve” situations, and instead promote creativity and high-quality, made-to-order food. They only allow mobile vehicles — no booths or tents — and emphasize that mobility by choosing a different location for almost every event in a season.
Their goal is to bring in vendors that aren’t just in it for the festivals. “Ideally if we can have trucks that are available at lunch as well, those are the trucks we want to feature because those are the ones that you as a diner can experience on a normal day. It it’s just a special event truck, it’s less interesting to us. Let’s highlight the trucks where it’s their actual business and they’re building quality,” Male says.
The team has also resisted requests to have live music or other entertainment at their events. They want to keep the focus on the trucks, since that’s what makes them unique. Male explains, “You can go to almost any other event in the summer and find food trucks at it, but they’re an addition, they’re an extra piece. With What the Truck?! we want them to be front and centre.”
If you’ve been to one of the events recently, you’ve likely been overwhelmed by the lineups. Male says that they try to make things run as smoothly as possible but with this kind of experience, it’s important to understand that the lineup is an intrinsic part: “They make every order fresh. And I think that’s partly why you’re coming to a food truck, it’s partly what you’re paying for.”
There are some ways to make things easier on yourself, however, with the biggest one being to show up early, before the lines get long. You can also print out menus from the website and strategize ahead of time. Bring a group of friends and plan who’s going to get what, then regroup and enjoy your spoils amidst the bustling atmosphere.
Starting at their next event, on July 10, you can also enter a contest to win two “Golden Tickets” to the front of the lines. Just fill out a feedback form at either of the next two events, or post a photo of yourself enjoying your food truck fare on social media. See the full contest rules here.
What’s next for this popular festival? Thankfully more of the same. The team plans to keep bringing you the delicious events you love, and they’re putting things in order so that the organization will continue long after the founders are ready to bow out. Says Male, “We decided early on that we haven’t created anything of value if it can’t live beyond us. I don’t know if food trucks will always be popular, but I know they’re always be here, to some extent and so I think there’s a role for people who love food trucks to follow them and have events to celebrate them. That’s What the Truck?!”
Storify: Edmonton’s food celebration What The Truck?! kicked off their 5th season with record-breaking attendance, 25 food trucks, and 29 C weather: