Tin Pan Alley brings the food truck craze to Bedford, Nova Scotia.
My cover story for the November issue of Bedford Magazine.
Before Tin Pan Alley even got rolling this past July, it had over 200 “likes” on Facebook and 200 followers on Twitter. But once owners Jill and Karl Warmé and Brendan Sullivan actually started serving their Dutch frites with flavoured aioli, the response was, as Sullivan put it, “shocking.” “I was blown away—I still am,” he says. “It’s incredible how many times one of us goes out to the truck and comes back empty-handed within two hours of opening.”
Today, a cool and clear Friday in September, I’ve already been beaten to the frites. Karl and Brendan just opened a few minutes earlier at their usual spot—1225 Bedford Highway—and yet a young woman is already driving off with what looks like pad Thai frites and ricotta ravioli. I’m not so quick. It takes me at least five minutes to give my order to a smiling—and patient—Karl: steak frites with chimmichurri mayo and lamb kofta poutine, a new dish with lamb meatballs, gravy and aged cheddar.
Warmé might be so patient because he can appreciate the value of a little food indecision. It took him and long-time friend Sullivan a few months to develop the food concept for the truck. “That was the toughest aspect to nail down and define,” says Warmé, who managed a private wine store in Bedford before starting Tin Pan Alley. “It came on its own over time, but it was inspired by my visits to Amsterdam to see my mother where we’d have frites and flavoured mayos almost every day.”
After trying different potatoes and techniques for months, they found their frites in January. Their thick, golden-brown fries with a dollop of mayo are now the foundation for most of the dishes on the menu, not to mention the business itself.
Taking to the Street
“When we started doing research, we quickly realized that the operating costs of a food truck are so much lower than a traditional bricks-and-mortar restaurant,” says Sullivan, who also owns Presto PastaWorks and On the Wedge in the Sunnyside Mall. This means food trucks can afford to serve premium, quality ingredients at cheaper prices than sit-down eateries. “Instead of going to a restaurant and having a $25 plate, you can do it for $15 or $12 or even $10 on a truck.”
It’s also just more fun to serve food from a converted Purolator truck they found in Sackville. “I’ve got my bricks and mortar,” continues Sullivan, “but it’s static so you get stuck doing the same thing. The beauty of this truck is that you can have a smaller menu and basically reinvent yourself for every event that you go to. You can have as much fun as you want.”
Customers are right on board with the roving menu, say the owners, yet ironically they aren’t so keen on Tin Pan Alley using its distinctive feature: wheels. “We thought we’d have to move around and we really don’t,” says Karl. “The more we move around the less happy our regular customers seem to be.” Other than the usual spot on the Bedford Highway, you can sometimes find Tin Pan Alley on a private lot in Burnside (11 Akerley Blvd.), and at private events and festivals, like the Devour Film Fest in Wolfville this month.
Tin Pan Alley’s owners are hoping to balance those private partnerships with more public ones soon. This summer, they joined the Food Truck Association of Nova Scotia, a group of mobile food vendors trying to promote their industry in the province. “I think it’s really important to work together with the other food-truckers rather than see them as competition,” says Karl. “The more interest there is in the trucks, the better we’re all going to do.”
That cooperation also gives them a louder, united voice at City Hall. One issue they all agree should be tackled right away is the draconian by-law C-500, which, among other restrictions, only allows street food to be sold in seven locations around the municipality.
In August 2012 Councillor Jennifer Watts (District 8 – Peninsula North) requested a staff report on amendments to the by-law, a motion Bedford-Wentworth Councillor Tim Outhit—along with 19 other councillors—supported and helped pass. “I want that report to come forward quickly so we don’t lose another season,” says Outhit. “Karl and others have told me they’d like to have a few more locations to choose from, such as one in the DeWolf Park area. We don’t want a carnival atmosphere, but it’d be nice to have food truck in our park.”
Back on the Bedford Highway, my steak frites and lamb kofta poutine are ready. Karl passes them down while still laughing at a story Brendan just told behind him. I escape to my car to avoid the cold wind that’s picked up and scarf down the steaming dishes of tender steak, moist lamb and thick, golden fries in half the time it took me to order them.
That cold may soon become an issue for Tin Pan Alley. “When you have a professional kitchen on a big 16-foot aluminum box and you throw freezing rain and snow into the mix,” says Sullivan, “you have no idea what will happen.”
Until they find out, they’ll continue rolling out the Dutch frites and loving every minute of it on the Bedford Highway. “People are just digging this food truck thing and so are we,” says Sullivan. “Since starting the truck, I’ve had more fun cooking than I’ve had in years.”