The pandemic has been a bumpy road for food truck operators, with mass gatherings not allowed.
Jason Faria, who runs Greater Vancouver Food Truck Festival as a venture related to his family’s Next Gen Concessions, works with close to 75 independently operated trucks in a typical year.
“In the industry as a whole, we saw around 20 per cent of food trucks either close last year or change hands, because they just couldn’t make it through the environment, with very few events planned,” Faria said.
With five food trucks of his own, Faria says the business was essentially forced out of Surrey in 2019, a year before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
The issue, he says, was having the trucks parked on his family’s South Surrey property, located not far from Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre.
“We moved to Langley because the city kicked us out,” Faria charged. “By having food trucks, we were violating a bylaw with having them parked on our property, and you couldn’t even see them behind the house. Someone complained, and we fought tooth and nail with the city, and they sent bylaw officers to our house almost daily.
“We had no intention of leaving, but we’re in Langley now, where I grew up.”
Over the years, Next Gen has been a staple at events such as the PNE, where the company has set up trucks selling corndogs, cotton candy, candied apples, funnel cakes and other high-calorie treats.
Last June, Jason Faria figured he’d try a drive-thru model for the Greater Vancouver Food Truck Festival, which was launched six years previous.
For 2021, a “Spring Drive-Thru Series” was rolled out in Chilliwack last weekend (March 27-28), with other events planned in Abbotsford (at Tradex, April 3-4), Maple Ridge (Planet Ice, April 10-11) and Cloverdale Fairgrounds (April 24-25).
A typical food truck festival event planned by Faria features dozens of trucks, but a drive-thru gathering has enough space to accommodate just eight or nine trucks.
“Those first events we did drive-thru style last year, people were just happy just to get out of their house and have an event to go to,” Faria recalled. “It’s funny because some people actually preferred the drive-thru model, because they didn’t have to stand outside a truck waiting to get their food, they could wait in their cars, in comfort.”
Ultimately, the modified festival allowed some food truck operators to survive, Faria said.
“But it definitely wasn’t what it was before,” he noted, “when you take away 20 food trucks that used to be there, because of space limitations, and take away the live music, beer gardens, roaming entertainment, all that stuff, it’s a different event.
At each event, food trucks are rotated in and out of the daily lineup, giving “foodies” something new each time. The featured trucks are posted to Facebook and other social media channels, and also to greatervanfoodtruckfest.com.
Finding suitable space for such a festival isn’t easy in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley, Faria said.
“The private property that is available, like casinos, a lot of them just aren’t willing to do anything because it’s a drop in the bucket for them, the money we’re able to pay them, it’s really nothing to them,” he said.
As an event operator, Faria said one of biggest challenges is the interpretation of provincial health orders – of what’s right and wrong, what’s allowed and what’s not.
“Some of it is in a grey area,” he explained, “and there’s all sorts of communication between the bylaw officers and health authorities, all the way up, and sometimes things get lost in the interpretation. It’s really challenging, because someone in Surrey may interpret things one way and a person in Abbotsford thinks it means something else.”
This year, he said live music is “being explored” for the drive-thru events.
“We’re very cautious of what we tell people,” Faria said. “We mentioned the phrase ‘live music’ last year and we had Dr. Bonnie Henry’s office contact us direct saying we can’t do that.
“We just want to be able to do what we do, get these food trucks going again and give people something to do, those who’ve been cooped up in their homes for so long, before they go crazy,” Faria added. “We believe we are providing a safe environment for this.”
At the Chilliwack event on Sunday, March 28, strong winds played havoc. “Our first event of the year brought broken trucks, hail, wind, tents in trees, sore feet and a lot of happy tummies,” says a post on the festival’s Facebook page.
For the Abbotsford stop on Easter weekend, the food trucks included Dim Sum Express, Hunky Bills Perogies, Lenny’s Lemons, Reel Mac & Cheese, Beavertails and others.