By Abby Langer, Foodable Contributor
Food trucks have been around for years and have evolved more recently to become a popular phenomenon in many cities around the globe. Mobile, efficient and accessible, many chefs and restaurants are coming out with rolling versions of their brick and mortar restaurants, or simply setting up shop altogether in a truck.
Toronto has a lot of food trucks, and include many of the usual suspects: cupcakes, churros, Italian food, and burgers. One innovative truck that’s at the top of everyone’s list these days is Fidel Gastro, which consistently tops lists of ‘best food truck’ in Toronto year after year.
A Bit of Luck and a Whole Lot of Talent
Fidel is the brainchild of Matt Basile. Matt used to work in advertising as a copywriter, but has always been interested in food, working in butcher shops as a kid and being taught how to cook by his grandfather.
Laid off during the recession from the ad agency he was working for, Matt got a job working at well-known Toronto chef Mark McEwan’s store, McEwan. It was there that Matt saw the brand power that a food company can have.
While working at McEwan, Matt decided he wanted to open a brick and mortar sandwich store, but couldn’t get the financing. Fortunately, fate took care of him while at a party one night. Everyone was hungry, so Matt went into the host’s kitchen and made an impressive baked ziti with everything the guy had in the fridge. He cracked six raw eggs on top and broiled the pasta dish — it was a hit!
Since he wasn’t able to open a sandwich shop, Matt adjusted to the situation by throwing pop-up food parties — at markets, breweries, and other spaces. He started noticing that people were showing up for his pop-ups and knew he had something marketable.
First Year Growing Pains
Matt launched Fidel Gastro three years ago this October with his girlfriend Kyla Zanardi and friend Dom Finelli. He admits that the first year was hard — it included a lot of no sleep, very high demand, and having to cook and prep food at several different sites, which took a toll. He finally found a commissary in downtown Toronto where he could prep and cook all the food for Priscilla, his food truck, which lessened the stress on him a bit. The commissary eventually also became a restaurant called Lisa Marie, which is described as ‘a brick and mortar with the heart of a pop-up.’
From the Streets to Celebrations
Working a food truck in Toronto is very seasonal, but that doesn’t mean Matt stops cooking when the weather turns cold. He has a thriving catering business, servicing weddings and other events. At weddings, Matt brings his BBQ trailer or food truck and uses the two vehicles, as well as on-site kitchens, as a means to cook. But at an event with hundreds of people, he needs to adopt the food delivery method to avoid the chaos of everyone swarming the food truck window to get their food. Instead, he uses food runners or stations so people can serve themselves. According to Matt, weddings are the most exciting growth for the company. He loves ‘blowing peoples’ expectations out of the water’ with the caliber of food coming out of his truck.
Matt’s new venture is Pigs n’ Roses, a BBQ catering arm of the Fidel Gastro business. He just acquired a BBQ trailer and uses it for a lot of catering outside the city. He was getting a lot of requests to come to other parts of Ontario, but the food truck doesn’t go on the highway, so he couldn’t honor them. As with the food truck and Lisa Marie, Pigs n’ Roses has a different menu. All the spokes of the business have their own identity, but all share one thing: they’re all part of what Matt calls a street food company.
Inspiration and Success
Running the business with his girlfriend helps them push each other to try unique menus and combinations that are new and different. Matt’s methodology is to combine things that people tell him he can’t, that don’t make sense. He’s also strict about maintaining the integrity of his menu, not ‘dumbing it down’ for the occasional customer who doesn’t want what he has to offer. For example, he doesn’t sell normal fries. Pad Thai Fries are a favorite and one of the foods that Matt is known for. As he describes it, selling normal fries would take away from the sales of Pad Thai Fries. For Matt, one of the most important things is staying true to his brand, offering food that people can’t get anywhere else, and staying true to what people expect.
Matt’s menu consists mostly of sandwiches, such as the Sergeant Slather, with BBQ pulled pork, guacamole, and crushed tortilla chips on a soft bun. The Kingzilla has short ribs braised in root beer, topped with kimchi. Having tried both of them, it’s easy to see why Matt rises head and shoulders above other food trucks. Portions are large, prices are good, service is quick and friendly, and the food is incredible.
The nature of the truck makes Matt free to change whatever food doesn’t work. In developing recipes, he has no real methodology — he invents recipes that he feels sound innovative, and if the recipe works, he uses it. Matt changes up the menu every time the truck goes out — around 4-5 times a week — and never has more than 3-4 items on the menu.
The DO’s and DON’Ts of Food Trucks
Matt’s advice to those who are thinking of launching a food truck business:
Before you open, figure out what your brand or schtick is. You need to know your brand and believe in it before you even launch the truck. Let people know who you are before you launch to pique curiosity.
Plan out all the logistics before launching. How will you use the equipment on the truck? How many staff will you have? The most staff you’ll ever see on Matt’s truck is 4 people, and only for a 300+ person food truck festival. According to Matt, a person is never going to make money if there are too many staff in the kitchen/truck. Food trucks have very tight margins.
Look at the community of the food trucks and fill a gap. Don’t just do another taco truck — those have been done. Also, don’t think of how you can steal business from other trucks. You need to be unique and innovative.
Know what your municipal bylaws are. You need to know things like where you can park the truck. Matt has gotten calls from new food truck owners who have no idea where they can park their trucks and do business — those fundamentals need to be worked out before you open for business!
Have realistic expectations of how much you actually make in the first year. It’s not always busy — there can be lots of downtime. Have a place to store all your food, vacuum pack your leftovers so you’re not throwing out lots of food, and make sure you have the capacity to store stuff.
Food truck owners must be business-oriented. After all, it’s still a business as much as a brick and mortar operation is.
Matt says it has always been about the experience for him, and customers respond to the tone that you set. He wants his business to be 50% foodservice and 50% brand experience: there is a certain kind of energy that defines the Fidel Gastro brand.
According to Matt, if someone is in line for the food, they’ve technically already bought it. When they get their food, you need to live up to their expectations.
Matt calls it a 360 degree approach: food, experience, visual, and how you tie it all together in one complete package.