Last spring, on an Easter weekend trip to Miami to research the area’s thriving food truck scene, Suresh Doss had a revelation. Mr. Doss, a 34-year-old computer systems engineer who runs a popular food and drink website called Spotlight Toronto, is the de facto face of street food in Toronto. He’s a born organizer. When somebody wants to start a food truck, or work through the city’s all-but-impossible street-food regulations, or even just to find a street-food seller at lunchtime, they turn to Mr. Doss, typically. He grew up surrounded by the stuff.
As a child in Colombo, Sri Lanka, he’d often buy a bowl of poori slathered with curry, or a paper cone filled with mango, pineapple and hot sauce from a street-side hawker on the way to school in the morning. He even worked as a chutney boy on the days when his mother, Bernadette, made her fermented rice and lentil dosas at fundraisers held outside one of Columbo’s Catholic cathedrals.
Toronto, where his family moved when he was 12, was a shock to his system. Save for a shrinking band of hot-dog carts and the tired, diesel-belching chip trucks grandfathered into prime spots outside Nathan Phillips Square, food vendors weren’t welcome on public streets in Toronto. The issue was stalled, too, for the most part. As for the new generation of food trucks springing up outside the city, in St. Catharines and Hamilton, Toronto city hall wasn’t about to welcome something it had never seen.
In Miami, Mr. Doss saw a way to fix that. Miami’s trucks had banded together into fleets 10 or 15 strong for enormous rallies that drew thousands of food lovers. That could work in Toronto, he figured, if they did it on private land.
“I came back and I had a very specific idea, taking into account BIAs, taking into account restaurants – we can’t just randomly do a food-truck thing and piss everybody off,” he said.
He contacted the Distillery District, where the trucks wouldn’t face too much municipal interference. The district’s management gave him the Saturday of Canada Day weekend.
Four food trucks showed up that morning, as well as 10 booths run by chefs that Mr. Doss had invited. There were beef empanadas, Acapulco-style kingfish ceviche and “Canadian lumberjack” sandwiches made with bacon, apple slices, maple syrup and aged cheddar cheese. El Gastronomo Vagabundo, a truck from St. Catharines, served five-spice pork belly on steamed buns with chili jam. The truck’s chef, Adam Hynam-Smith, had been struggling to get by until then. He and his wife, Tamara Jensen, typically parked outside a winery in Niagara, and hoped there’d be enough business to pay for the gas.
That day, Mr. Doss and the district’s management had planned for 800 people. They got nearly 4,000 instead.
A month later, they threw another Food Truck Eats, as the rolling festival soon became known, with 10 trucks, 10 restaurant booths and an estimated 10,000 revellers this time. Mr. Doss has since organized food-truck rallies at Ryerson University, the University of Toronto, in Liberty Village and at the Bay Adelaide Centre – always with the area management’s invitation, and always with local restaurants onside.
It’s working. In recent months, city councillors have started lining up to support Mr. Doss and his efforts, and nearly a dozen new food trucks are expected to debut in the GTA before the end of this year.
Quinten Chan, a partner at Buster’s Sea Cove, a seafood grill and sandwich shop in the St. Lawrence Market, said his company’s new truck will be ready to launch this coming week. Suresh “knew everything from the legal aspects of it, getting the permits, and he even has all the contacts for the mechanical part of the truck, and then he also has the social media side of it,” Mr. Chan said.
Mr. Hynam-Smith of El Gastronomo Vagabundo put it even more succinctly. “This guy, selflessly, I don’t know when the guys sleeps – he’s some sort of Sri Lankan god or something. I don’t know, maybe he’s part elephant. He can just soldier on through anything.”
Deep-frying food-truck myths
The most common misconception about food trucks is that they’re less clean somehow than restaurant kitchens. Mr. Chan’s truck cost $70,000 to outfit. “We have grills, we have griddles, we have cold tables, we have deep freezes, coolers, ventilation system, suppression system, hood vent. It all has to be stainless and it all has to be custom,” he said.