Going mobile: food trucks branch out at Brewers Row

Chefs strive for staying power in a moving business

Joe Fazio leaves his house at 7:30 a.m. He heads to where the truck is parked: a 22-foot step-van. Just a black silhouette in the dim morning light, the truck travels down the road and pulls up to the commissary kitchen.

Here, he loads the truck with the day’s supplies: mozzarella, bread, salami, pesto, extra virgin olive oil, peperonata, prosciutto, sopressata and a bin of kindling to keep the truck’s wood-fire oven fed all day.

By noon, the truck is parked at its location du jour — often Port Moody’s Brewers Row — and ready to dish out classic Italian eats. First up: the lunch crowd.

Food trucks represent different things depending on who you ask. For some, the low-overhead allows them to simply get a foothold in the food industry, for others, it’s the opportunity to cook and visit with customers. It can also be a way to get creative, to test an idea. Will people enjoy wood-fired Italian sandwiches? What about pizza? Or grilled cheese?

There’s trucks for nearly every type of food and fusion you can think of—and then some. Fazio and Nonna’s Cucina are part of the burgeoning crew of Tri-Cities food trucks making gourmet eats and serving them streetside. What binds them is a collective desire to dish out delicious food in a different environment: the street.

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Hitting the pavement

It’s a gray Saturday, early on a late-October afternoon. The rain has briefly stopped and the smoke rises steadily from the roof of Nonna’s Cucina food truck. Today, Fazio is parked next to Parkside Brewery. It’s a coveted spot along Brewers Row and one that Fazio has been eyeing. He and his cousin Frank Fazio picked the truck up earlier this year. Both with previous restaurant experience, they had been planning on opening a restaurant before the pandemic. But when the truck became available earlier this year, a death in the family spurred them to take action.

photo Marissa Tiel

The menu is clearly influenced by their Italian heritage. They can trace their grandmother’s roots back to Calabria, Italy, which is where the inspiration for many of their dishes comes from. There’s the Caprese, Nonna’s Giardino, Nonna’s Meatball Panino, the Calabrese, all cooked in the wood-fire oven. Wednesdays, when they offer Cotto-Letta, a breaded chicken sandwich with fresh tomato and lettuce, they’ve sold out for 10-weeks straight. Their sandwiches—classic Italian paninos—have garnered fans along Brewers Row, dating back to their first day this summer at the Sk8 Park in Port Moody.

“We worked pretty hard to show what we do and what we’re all about,” says Fazio.

One of the truck’s fans, George McIntosh, also owns a food truck and is a regular fixture along Brewers Row.

Winging it

McIntosh has owned and operated his food truck, Wings Outdoor Grill, for 11 years. He’s been serving wings on Murray Street for quite some time—long enough to see Brewers Row change. Before, the main clientele was locals out for a walk to grab a brew or a bite to eat. Now, McIntosh regularly sees people arriving by Uber, by taxi, by private car and walking from nearby Moody Centre Skytrain station.

For more than a decade, George McIntosh has been serving up award winning Wings. photo Marissa Tiel

The locations—both the breweries’ spots and the city’s spots—are just a stone’s throw from Rocky Point Park. Rain or shine, there’s a near-constant flow of people. But getting in with the breweries isn’t easy and the trucks that do will hold their positions.

Wings has set days at Parkside, Moody’s Ales and Yellow Dog and McIntosh says he’s unlikely to give them up. But he is willing to put in a good word for fellow owner Fazio, who he helped get on the breweries’ rosters.

photo Marissa Tiel

The people in the food truck industry are really helpful, says Fazio, who’s also worked in restaurants. There, he says, “it’s always a competition, but here in the food truck industry, the culture is great. Everyone Is willing to help each other out with whatever they need. It’s really, really, really nice to see.”

Food trucks have found popularity in places where municipalities see their benefit. City hall has the power to make or break a food truck’s will. Take Chicago, where in 2012, the city banned food trucks from parking within 60 metres of anywhere selling food (including pharmacies and corner stores). One report estimates that half the fleet left the road.
Other locales, like Portland have jumped on the food truck bandwagon, even hosting festivals.

If the Tri-Cities were on a scale, they’d tip closer to Portland than Chicago. Coquitlam, which has offered a food truck program since 2012 has made eight different spots available for trucks to park. Currently, there’s four trucks with licences. Port Coquitlam, which has issued just one mobile vendor licence this year acknowledges that it’s an area of opportunity. One they’d like to develop.

The scene in the City of the Arts

To understand why, one need only glance at Port Moody. In the last year, the city has issued 20 food truck licences, more than the previous two years combined.

Here, the majority of the city’s mandated spots (four of six) are along Murray Street. Their numbers are further boosted by the trucks that are invited to park at the breweries. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Trucks offer food for brewery patrons beyond nuts and cold cuts, and the trucks don’t serve booze.

IbisWorld estimates the industry is worth $325-million in Canada with nearly 2,100 businesses. Its worth is expected to grow over the next five years.

A brief history of the food truck

The concept of street food isn’t new. Food trucks first joined the mix during the Wild West. Cooks would serve cowpokes on the dusty road from their chuck wagons, which had purpose-built storage for collections of pots and pans.

Modern food trucks can trace their roots back to the ice cream trucks of the ‘50s rolling through neighbourhoods with sickly sweet jingles to announce their frosty arrival.

The road has been bumpy for food trucks but the industry is modernizing. The shift began with the 2008 recession. Many chefs found themselves without work but still wanting to create and share delicious food.

They followed Los Angeles’ Roy Choi to the streets, combining gourmet techniques with accessible eats to create unique, delicious food. Choi, who founded Kogi Korean BBQ, is often credited as being the father of the modern food truck. After Kogi opened and people tasted his dishes celebrating Korean-Mexican fusion, the public opinion of food trucks began to shift. The food truck has “largely transcended its roach-coach classification and is now a respectable venue for aspiring chefs to launch careers,” the New York Magazine wrote in 2009.

These aren’t your parents’ food trucks.

With low start-up costs, a food truck can offer a compelling toe dip to prove a concept before jumping in feet-first.

Staying power and staying mobile

Some trucks, like Lucha Libre, which got its start in the Tri-Cities, have opened permanent locations. Others, like Taps + Tacos had their brick and mortar space first before launching a truck. Fazio says a restaurant is still in the cards for Nonna’s Cucina.

To stick around for so long, there’s a few things that food trucks need to do. They have to be consistent in their schedule, show up when they say they will, and serve delicious food along with great service. They’re always evolving and even established trucks, like Wings, try new things from time to time in terms of locations, schedules and menu items.

For the most successful trucks, brand factors in. The trucks aren’t driving blank white vans. Nonna’s Cucina is a sleek black silhouette, a white drawing of a Nonna on the side. BC TACO, regularly found at Rocky Point Spirits on Murray is a seafoam green while Wings is the colour of a classic barn.

The food trucks help draw a crowd in Port Moody. photo Marissa Tiel

“They can’t get lazy and open up one day out of the blue and hope it works,” says Port Moody dad, Jeff McLellan.

Following the trucks

McLellan has become the de facto promoter of food trucks in the Tri-Cities and composes a list each week with their locations posted to the “I Love Port Moody” public Facebook group. It’s a labour of love. While there’s many apps out there for food trucks, not all the trucks are on all the apps. As such, there’s no one-stop-shop for where to find trucks in the Lower Mainland.

McLellan surveys the various apps and looks at a dozen-or-so Instagram pages before penning his list of where to find food trucks in the Tri-Cities. He gets excited when a new truck comes to town. It’s a thankless job, and one that he’s not paid for.

He spends at least an hour a week making sure the list is correct, but food trucks are mobile and sometimes they change their plans.

“If someone’s really looking forward to a specific truck and you have it on a list that you’ve put out there and they go there and they’re not there,” says McLellan, “they’re actually upset.”

He’s also gotten “some grief” from locals who say his benevolent list is hurting local brick and mortar restaurants.

McLellan calls foul.

“Almost every time that me and my family have eaten at a food truck, we never ever would have gone to a bricks and mortar restaurant instead,” he says. “It’s a completely different experience. It’s a completely different thing.”

The Canadian Competition Bureau agrees. In an online report published in 2018, the bureau asked municipalities to re-examine their policies to make it less difficult for food trucks to make a living, citing limited competition for restaurants.

The Bureau said it found “no clear evidence that shows detrimental impacts of mobile food services on restaurants.” It actually found the opposite: food trucks are attracting new customers to the food service market.

As the industry continues to modernize more opportunities present themselves. There’s a trend now, says McLellan, to have food trucks at parties.

Even the local farmers markets have spots for them. The trucks bring a “sit and stay” feel to the markets, says Grow Local Society Executive Director Tabitha McLoughlin. The non-profit society organizes markets in Port Moody and Coquitlam. McLoughlin says there’s usually two trucks at each market and they will cycle through applicants to offer a variety of options through the season. If a truck does have a large following, it may get a repeat spot over
another truck.

As the rainy season sets its roots, some of the trucks are looking for greener pastures. Nonna’s Cucina, for example, is testing the waters in catering and private events.

There will continue to be people who just want to eat at a food truck. More than half of Canadians say they eat out at least once a week.

When McLellan was growing up, if his father didn’t feel like cooking, he would call home to Port Moody before leaving the office in New Westminster. He’d take orders from each of the kids before starting his evening commute, picking up everyone’s orders along the way.

“I remember saying ‘I’m never going to do that, why does my dad stop at three different places on the way home?” says McLellan, “And now I’m that dad that does that for my kids.” And if his kids ask for Mom’s Grilled Cheese, McLellan checks his phone to find the location of the day. If he doesn’t feel like having the same — quite probable — he’ll pick up their orders then head down the street before choosing his own option and heading home. The Wings truck is calling.

This story has been amended to correct the spelling of Roy Choi’s Kogi food truck.

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