Fidel Gastro food truck owner Matt Basille leads Toronto street food revolution
Zero, plus part time volunteers
Basile, a huge Elvis fan, named his food truck after the King’s wife, Priscilla.
A year and a half ago, Matt Basile was toiling in a cubicle at a downtown Toronto ad agency.
Today the former copywriter labours above a hot grill in a retrofitted 1981 fire marshall’s truck he calls Priscilla. It’s the mobile home of his new business, Fidel Gastro – one of Toronto’s hottest food trucks.
“Copywriting didn’t allow me to be as be as creative as I am now,” says 28-year-old Basile. “What I’m doing today lets me combine my long time passion for food and my dream of being self-employed.”
Basile’s fledgling company is already building a name for the self-taught cook. Thousands of foodie fans track his ever-changing location using social media, he’s been covered by 20-plus local newspapers and television shows, and was featured on The Food Network’s “Eat St.” He also pitched his story to a television production company, landing a 13-episode reality series called “Rebel Without a Kitchen,” set to air on the Travel and Escape Network this spring.
But the business has one major problem that’s putting the brakes on its burgeoning success: current City of Toronto bylaws don’t allow food trucks to operate on city streets or city property.
With just $5,000 in personal savings, Basile bet big by giving up his apartment, moving into his mom’s basement and launching (sans truck) as a roving pop-up caterer.He specializes in hearty, unconventional gourmet sandwiches inspired by Cuban cuisine. They include customer favourites such as The Cuban Mac — chorizo and three-cheese macaroni in a bun — and The Havana Club — pulled pork, havarti, ham, onions and chili aioli.
His debut event, a dining-and-DJ shindig at a small Queen St. West gallery, attracted a jostling mob of 250. He sold out in two hours.
“It was surreal, it blew my mind,” says Basile. “When it was over, I said, ‘Did that just happen?’”
The winning formula is based on serving remarkable food at fair prices – a hefty sandwich with a gourmet side, such as his popular pad thai french fries, costs just $11. Of course, this means he has to keep overhead at a minimum.
“My big expense is food costs,” he says. “I make sure I don’t exceed $3.50 a sandwich or it bleeds into profits.”
His branding talents, honed from five years in the ad biz, are also an obvious boon to the business. Along with the memorable company moniker are his shouts of “Ole!” following sales, his “rebel without a kitchen” tag line, and the rocking music (Led Zeppelin and Dr. Dre are favourites) blaring from the red vintage truck. They’re meant to build the brand with a holistic approach to dining — not just making great food, but providing a memorable eating experience.
To build on this experience, Basile invested in Priscilla, both his home base and a moving billboard, following his first year.
“I’m making a profit, but I’m not in any position to retire,” says Basile with a laugh. He’s also aware that just one repair could easily cost $3,000 and throw a wrench in upcoming plans, such as moving out of his mother’s basement.
To that end, the next step is selling on city streets, but restrictive City of Toronto bylaws have completely stalled this idea. Concerns over parking and traffic, and lobbying from traditional, non-mobile restaurant owners, created a 2002 moratorium on new food truck permits in the downtown core.
Basile and others in the industry are trying to lift that ban, asking Toronto to follow the lead of food-truck-friendly cities like Austin, Portland and Fort Lauderdale, each of which has licensed “street-food hubs,” — designated curb-side locations for groups of two to six trucks.
“There’s always better turnout with multiple trucks in one location,it’s the best way to generate word of mouth,” says Basile, who in June addressed the City’s Municipal Licensing and Standards Division with an deputation about his vision for Toronto’s food truck scene.
Patti Pokorchak, a small business sales and marketing expert at Toronto’s Down to Earth Marketing consultancy, agrees that selling on city streets will be key for continued growth.
“Tasting a product is the marketing strategy that works best,” she says. “It’s very labour intensive, but you win one customer at a time.”
Basile knew about the bylaw issues before buying Priscilla, but assumed they would change with the recent public attention and media frenzy directed at food trucks. There was some motion in the right direction. A City-mandated Street Food Vending Working Group – comprised of a variety of stakeholders – produced a June report with recommendations allowing hotdog carts to sell an expanded variety of foods. But the progress of a crucial follow-up report on potential food truck zoning appears to be stalled.
In the meantime, to keep the business rolling, Basile works a patchy schedule of private catering, public events, and weddings – he has five weddings booked already this spring (the truck only catered one in 2012). These jobs all resulted from word of mouth, he says, further emphasizing the marketing impact that a street presence could provide.
“Torontonians love to stand in line for street food, and I’m very grateful,” he says.
Now, he’s hoping more friendly rules will materialize in time for the summer season so he can get his food to the people.
“Freedom to the food trucks,” he says, “and viva la revolución!”