There comes a moment in every man’s life where he has to choose between sleeping in or manning up by waking up early to hang out with one of his favourite food trucks in town. A couple of Saturdays ago was that day.
I showed up bright and early (for a Saturday) at Casel Marche where Blam!wich was going to be parked that day. It was a gorgeous but windy Fall day. Margie (owner) was already out and about getting ready to start off the day by turning on the generator:
That right away answered one my long-standing mysteries: do they keep the engine running to power the truck? The answer (if you haven’t guessed it by now) is a no. The generator that Margie was working so hard to get started (while I was watching taking photos…haha) keeps the truck powered. It’s the most important piece of equipment out there.
Margie quickly took me inside the truck to introduce me to her line cooks Eleni (blue shirt, background) and Ashley:
The photos don’t do justice capturing how truly tiny the cooking space is inside the truck. At 6’3”, I felt like gojira walking through downtown Tokyo hell-bent on destroying everything. There isn’t really a lot of room to move and one quickly learns how to move in the most economical and efficient manner so you don’t start destroying shit. But back to that in a bit…
Margie, who is originally from Montreal (and has a degree in Art History) is a veteran of the food industry. On one of her trips out to Calgary, she fell in love with the mountains. One thing led to the other and she ended up owning, operating, running restaurants in the mountains for the next 15 years. Eventually, in Margie’s own words, every cook burns out and so did she, which led her to take an 8 year break in Marketing. The food truck pilot is her first venture back into the food industry…and she is going after it in full force!
Eleni, who was the head line cook that day, knows Margie from way back. She’s been in the industry since high school and has been through various roles over the past 11 years – from waitressing to culinary manager – before hooking up with Margie on the Blam!wich adventure.
Last, but not the least in the truck was was Ashley who was helping Eleni to speed up the line and cut down the wait times for sandwiches. Ashley, who’s originally from Manitoba (who’s favourite is the Tree Hugger!) kinda fell into the food industry and has been working in it since she moved to Calgary two years ago.
As mentioned earlier, the truck aka “Pearl” was pretty cramped. Margie and her bf picked it up in Golden from a guy who was looking to get rid of it. The duo drove it all the way to yyc, painted it themselves, got a friend to design the logo, got all the necessary permits, and BLAM!, were on the road selling sandwiches in less than a month…all thanks to the extremely streamlined City of Calgary process to get the food truck pilot going. Good job, CoC!
The most fascinating part of the day for me was seeing the trio in action dealing with multiple orders. Prep work such as cutting veggies, cooking the ratatouille, and prepping the jerk sauces is done the night before in an external kitchen. While trucks such as Perogy Boyz and Alley Burger have their restaurants where such prep work can be done, Blam!wich doesn’t have that luxury, and hence, has to rent an external kitchen.
Even then, the cramped working conditions don’t help, especially as most line cooks like Eleni are used to lots of counter space if full size restaurant kitchens.
With multiple orders coming in at one, it’s pretty important to be on the ball – the ability to multi-task is critical. Someone like Eleni has to constantly calculate in their head which orders can be grouped together so she can efficiently get orders out in that 7 min. window.
Even little things like how the order is written down makes a difference in her efficiency. For instance, depending on who’s taking the orders, the location of the customer’s name changes, costing Eleni that extra second before registering the name and calling it out. It’s a high stakes operation in there.
Of course, once all the prepping and cooking are done, it’s time to clean the truck. All in all, most food truck operators are looking at 12-16 hour days after the prepping and cleaning activities are taken in to account!
I got to hang out with John (aka Margie’s bf) towards the end of my sojourn and we got talking about the cost challenges involved in running a truck. A lot of people (including myself) have complained about how much this supposedly “fast food” costs. At the end of the day, there are a lot of costs that have to be covered by that $8 sandwich: food, labour for three, insurance, rental for a separate kitchen, indoor parking lot during winter so fire suppression system doesn’t freeze up, etc. that all add up and need to be paid for.
I think the main issue is perhaps the perception that food from a truck is supposed to be fast, and more importantly, cheap. While this could be true, it often isn’t, as there is a lack of understanding around what it takes to own and operate a truck: it is essentially a mini-restaurant on wheels.
At the end of the day, if the truck ain’t working, then there’s no revenue coming in. It’s as simple as that.
The most positive thing about working in a food truck environment for all three seemed to be the chance to meet people from all walks of life. The constantly evolving and dynamic nature of the job seemed to fuel both Margie and Eleni. Both of them seemed to revel in the adrenalin rush of working in a high-stress, multi-tasking environment. Margie especially seemed to thrive on the high of meeting and interacting with multiple people.
What amazed me the most was how elated people looked when they picked up their orders. I don’t know if I look that happy when I pick-up my orders, but it was the most amazing thing to watch from behind the scenes. At the end of the day, that probably in itself keeps the crew going day after day.
Amazingly enough, Blam!wich plans on working through the winter, once again showcasing that the only way to take back winter is to stop bitching and doing something about it. Margie plans to buy a 10’ x 10’ pop-up tent so people can be sheltered from the wind while waiting for their orders. Pretty neat.
Blam!wich is also planning on trialing a RT Twitter ordering system. The whole idea is customers can tweet their orders in prior to getting to the truck. Margie guarantees that the sandwiches will be ready in 7 min. regardless of when you plan on getting there. So, if you pre-order too soon, your sandwich might be sitting for a while…which is not a bad price to pay for not having to stand in –20 deg C weather. Brilliant!
It was pretty illuminating hanging out behind-the-scenes and getting to know the people who make great things happen. The three ladies formed a pretty tight team – everyone knew exactly what their job was and what they needed to get done – and didn’t waste any energy or energy getting those sandwiches out. It was pretty cool to see Eleni intensely focused, popping out multiple sandwiches like Third World Country families pop out kids!
The trucks will have to step up their game eventually once the novelty wears off. Right now, people are willing to disregard the high costs and/or band reviews for the novelty of trying out truck food. Shows like Eat Street on Food Network (which, interestingly enough, contacted the City to do a piece on yyc food trucks as opposed to the other way round!) have done a great job of introducing North Americans to the concept of food trucks, but like everything, Calgarians will undoubtedly get jaded and will start getting more discerning. It’s going to be very interesting to see how new and old players evolve and adapt to an increasingly demanding audience.
Personally, I couldn’t be happier. This was one thing missing from the Calgary food scene. As someone who grew up in cities with an amazing street food culture, it is very exciting to see Calgary develop it’s own street food scene. Calgarians now have additional options to satisfy their late night hunger pangs after a hard night of partying.
After all, there’s only so many times you can satisfy your soul with pizza-by-the-slice after some heavy drinking.