On a roll
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that news of great tastes travels quickly by word of mouth.
Customers were lining up to sample the wares of four new Ottawa food businesses as soon as they started serving in recent months. And none of these is a fine dining establishment — all have popped up in parking lots with almost no fanfare, but a whole lot of buzz.
“We thought it would be just a soft opening for family and friends, but the day we opened, we had a line around the block,” says Jane Anderson, a manager at Tacolot, a tiny takeout spot that opened in a Hintonburg used-car lot on March 21.
“With the Internet and Facebook and Twitter, we didn’t need to advertise,” says Scott Amey, the chef who turns out addictive tacos such as Pork Pastor and Chipotle Beef at Tacolot. “Any more attention and we couldn’t cope.”
Next door, in the shack-like building where Hintonburger began, Sue Hamer has been cooking up melt-in-your-mouth doughnuts in flavours such as Caramel de Sel and Maple Bacon at Suzy Q since mid February.
“We’re selling 120 dozen doughnuts a day on weekends and it keeps going up,” says the former mail carrier. “Twitter has been huge for us. We had maybe 30 followers when we started and now there are almost 700.”
The Merry Dairy and Relish the Flavour are the newest tastes to roll into town — literally. Both are food trucks that developed a following through social media even before they took to the streets.
The diminutive Marlene Haley has been driving her frozen custard truck to parks and picnics since May 25, creating a Pied Piper effect.
“Social media has been a huge factor,” says Haley, who fell in love with frozen custard when she lived in the United States. “On my first night, when I tweeted that I would be in Champlain Park neighbourhood, there were two followers following the truck until I stopped. They had already been tweeting about my business before I was out selling my product. It was great.”
And it works two ways. When some nearby residents tweeted that “a whole bunch of kids would be very excited to have a visit from the ice cream truck,” Haley obliged by driving over to deliver the goods.
She even has a “Track the Truck” tab on the website her 11-year-old son Theo started for the family business.
“At Fisher Park on Tuesday, a few people commented that they had tracked my location by using the Track-the-Truck feature,” says Haley. “So, it brings people to different neighbourhoods as well.”
Paul Bergeron rolled out his Relish the Flavour food truck at Westfest on the weekend.
“I had a lineup almost as soon as I opened and a lot of people have been saying ‘I heard about you on Twitter,’ ” Bergeron said, taking a brief break sitting on his truck’s back bumper on Saturday afternoon. “I sold out of my appetizer by about 3:30.”
Here’s a taste of these sweet tweet-worthy businesses.
Relish the Flavour
Specialty: “My specialty is a changing menu,” says owner Paul Bergeron. “That works well for festivals, because they like to offer a range of things, so I can adjust my menu so I’m not duplicating what someone else is selling.”
At Westfest on the weekend, he debuted with Smoked Trout and Bacon Gaucamole with Homemade Cumin Chips (which quickly sold out each day), Crispy fried Green Tomato Sandwiches, Beer-Battered Haddock ‘n’ Chips, Masa Cakes with Jerk Chicken and Mango Salsa, and fresh mini-doughnuts filled with homemade strawberry sauce.
The backstory: Bergeron, who grew up in Kincardine, Ont., went to culinary college in Barrie, Ont., and worked in restaurants for a while, but then became a massage therapist. After he moved to Ottawa, he met his future brother-in-law, Simon Fraser, the co-owner of the Fraser Café, who convinced him to do a “stage” at the Fraser Café.
“I should have had that experience right out of school,” says Bergeron, 38. “Everyone was into the food, you’re working together and there’s just something about it.”
Bergeron still works a couple of nights a week at the Fraser Café, but now has rolled out his dream of offering fresh, chef-made food from his shiny new truck. He credits his friend, Jacqueline Jolliffe who owns the bright green Stone Soup Foodworks truck, for paving the way.
Quote: “A food truck is cheaper than buying a restaurant and I like the idea of it being mobile. There are tons of people interested in the whole street food thing and we’re starting to get a community together. The City (of Ottawa) regulations (which impose a moratorium on street-food spaces) have got to change.”
Where and when: He’s working on finding more places to park but, for now, look for the Relish truck at the following summer festivals:
Stewart Park Festival, Perth: July 20 to 22
Rideau Canal Festival, near the Bytown Museum and Ottawa locks: Aug. 3 to 6
Ottawa Folk Festival, Hog’s Back Park, Ottawa: Sept. 6 to 10
Prices: From $3 for doughnuts to $9 for a main course.
The Merry Dairy
Since: May 25
Specialty: Frozen custard, which has been popular in the American Midwest since the 1920s, but is now something of a cult passion among dessert lovers, with places such as Jedd’s Frozen Custard taking off in Toronto and New York’s legendary Shake Shack serving it in cones and shakes.
“It’s all about the mouth feel,” says woman behind the wheel in the Merry Dairy truck, Marlene Haley. “It’s creamier and denser — there’s just something different about it.”
The classic flavour for frozen custard is vanilla and while some serve it from a dispenser, like soft ice cream, purists insist that it must be scooped, though it’s served at a much higher temperature than regular ice cream and must be made fresh just hours before serving, not frozen solid and stored like ice cream. It’s made with just three ingredients: cream, egg yolks and vanilla.
The backstory: Haley, a teacher by trade who grew up on a dairy farm near Brantford, Ont., came to appreciate frozen custard when she was living in Washington, D.C., with her husband, who worked in Foreign Affairs. They would regularly pack up the kids in the car and drive to the Dairy Godmother, in nearby Virginia.
In preparation for bringing frozen custard to Canada, Haley took a course at the Frozen Dessert Institute in St. Louis, Missouri, consulted “The Ice Cream Bloke” from Australia, spent months researching the right equipment and finally invested big time on a former cake delivery van she found in Pennsylvania.
“That was when there was that moment of terror,” she says. “I thought ‘Are we really going to do this?’ ”
Quote: “A truck is fun,” says Haley. “You’re going to parks and people are so happy to see an ice-cream truck and excited that it’s nut free.”
Where: The Merry Dairy moves — in fact, under City of Ottawa regulations covering mobile refreshment vehicles, Haley must move her truck every 10 minutes unless parked at a private event.
On June 14, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., she will be in Hintonburg, near the corner of Irving Avenue and Wellington Street West.
On June 15, she will be in Tunney’s Pasture from noon to 1:30 p.m.
On June 16, she’ll be at Mooney’s Bay between noon and 3 p.m.
On June 17, she’ll be in the Glebe, behind Il Negozio Nicastro at Bank Street and Third Avenue, between 12:30 and 2 p.m., then move to Blumenstudio at 465 Parkdale Ave. between 2:30 and 4 p.m.
Check themerrydairy.com for a list of upcoming locations or to use the “Track the Truck” feature.
When: On weekdays, Haley usually makes a fresh batch of custard about 3 p.m., cleans the truck and feeds her family, then hits the road between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. On weekends, timing depends on the event she’s attending.
Prices: $2 for kiddie cones and cups, $3 for regular ones, 50 cents extra for toppings such chocolate and caramel sauce or sprinkles.
Since: March 21
Specialty: Tacos, but the types change by the day and even the hour.
“The Pork Pastor is the most traditional Mexican taco we do here,” says chef Scott Amey. “It’s marinated with pineapple, cloves and special chilies we order from Montreal.” Chipotle beef is also another standard, and chicken and vegetarian tacos are also often the blackboard, but fish is also in the mix and causes something of a splash.
“We’ve done bass, mackerel, salmon, shrimp and even squid,” says Jane Anderson, a manager at Tacolot. “When any of the fish tacos are on, people go crazy.” Some of the fish tacos have been topped with caviar.
And while most think Mexican when they think taco, sometimes Amey, who once worked at Kinki, gives the tacos an Asian twist — think Thai coconut shrimp or Thai basil beef — or Islands’ spice, with a Jamaican curry pork taco, for example.
“Because we don’t have a lot of room for storage, it’s whatever we can get our hands on that day,” says Amey. “It’s guaranteed to be fresh.”
The backstory: Tacolot’s owner, Jon Reilly-Roe, lived in Southern California for a while and developed a keen appreciation for taco stands. When he moved back to Ottawa, where he runs a courier company by day, he resolved to open one.
“A mere 18 years later, he was walking by this car lot and saw that the building was for rent,” says Anderson. “Eight months later, we opened.”
The lot still sells used cars, but the tiny terra-cotta-and-turquoise building is now one of Hintonburg’s hottest destinations — literally. With an oven and several slow cookers and steamers, as well as three or four staff working as fast as they can, it’s often more than 45 degrees inside the cinder-block building.
There are five tiny tables for eating outside.
“There used to be six, but one was stolen,” says Anderson.
Quote: “I don’t think any of us were ready for the response we got,” says chef Scott Amey. “John and I through we’d be sitting around strumming our guitars for the summer and serving tacos to our families.”
Where: 995 Wellington St. West
When: Open from noon to 8 p.m. seven days a week.
Prices: One taco is $5; a taco platter with two tacos, rice and salad, is $10.
Suzy Q Doughnuts
Since: Feb. 18
Specialty: Handmade yeast-raised doughnuts. “I stole the recipe from my mom,” says Sue Hamer, whose parents are from Finland. But she’s gone far beyond her mom’s sugar-cardamom confection. Flavours have included Pomegranate White Chocolate, Coconut Kaffir Lime and Chocolate Dip with Spicy Dirt.
What you might not expect is that most of the ingredients are local and organic. The milk is from Cochrane’s Dairy, the eggs from Bekings and the organic flour comes from near Montreal.
Each week she uses 30 to 40 pounds of bacon on her popular Maple Bacon doughnuts and even the slab bacon comes from a local pig farmer and is smoked at a local smokehouse.
“It’s important to us that we do this right,” says Hamer, a mother of three.
The backstory: Hamer, who has a fine arts background, was a letter carrier who had dabbled in making doughnuts as a creative outlet. When the letter carriers were locked out last summer, she says she decided to take a chance and applied to sell her doughnuts at the Ottawa Farmers Market.
“I made as much in one day as I made in a week at the post office. It was motivating and it gave me a lot of courage. When I heard the Hintonburger was moving, I harassed them until they let me move into their old space.”
Now she makes doughnuts all day, and sells out of the seven-or-so flavours she makes each day within hours.
“On Sunday, the line was out the building and across the parking lot, all day long. I feel more lucky than anything. It’s a really wonderful neighbourhood and we’ve been received in such a positive way.”
Already, says Hamer, she’s outgrowing the space, since she’s pouring her profits into spiffy new equipment, most of it stainless steel. But there’s one piece of equipment she won’t be replacing: a simple white plastic ring that she uses to cut each doughnut out of the dough.
“I must have used this to cut maybe 50,000 doughnuts by now,” she says.
Quote: “I think there’s a trend away from large corporate-type food businesses,” says Hamer. “People want to know who’s runs the business and they want to have a relationship with the people making their food.”
Where: 991 Wellington St. West (next door to Tacolot) and at the Ottawa Farmers Market on Sundays
When: New summer hours at the Wellington Street store are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays.
Price: $2 per doughnut or $10 for a half dozen. Hamer’s new doughnut ice-cream sandwiches are $3.75 each.