Some Vancouver food truck operators have found themselves thrown into the hot seat this week after they learned the City of Richmond was discussing cancelling their licences after businesses in the waterfront community of Steveston raised complaints.
Matt Brennan and Corvette Romero own and operate Shameless Buns, a popular Filipino food truck that was approached by an auto shop in Richmond about two months ago with the proposal they set up in Steveston. Though already licensed to operate in Richmond at a private business park where the eye-catching Shameless Buns "jeepney" sets up occasionally, the City requested the food truck vendors submit various supporting plans and documents, like location and COVID-19 safety details, in order to be permitted to sell in Steveston.
Licensed and compliant, Shameless Buns ended up entering into an agreement to operate on private property at the Steveston Hub, a venue that provides co-working space and art and yoga courses for the community. Brennan and Romero pay rent to the Hub - a boon for the facility that has had a hard go over the last year due to COVID-19 - and have received positive feedback from customers, most local businesses, and Richmond bylaw officers.
Food truck owners heard about complaints through the news, not directly
On Monday night, however, Romero heard from a friend who said their food truck was in the news: The City of Richmond had discussed cancelling the licence for Shameless Buns and that of a second and unrelated food truck business, Salty's Lobster Shack, in a council meeting, and were looking to re-write the bylaws regarding where food trucks could operate in Steveston specifically.
"We had to find out through the article," Brennan told V.I.A. in a telephone interview Wednesday morning, who said no one from the City of Richmond had reached out to them about the controversy or to relay details about complaints.
In fact, as Brennan and Romero explained, they've had bylaw officers out to the Steveston Hub site regularly with no issues or violations, and local businesses have told them Shameless Buns has their support.
However, Brennan and Romero believe it is some longstanding Steveston restaurants that are taking issue with the food trucks and taking their opposition to city officials.
"I'd love to have a chat with one of the business owners to find out why they are so annoyed," added Brennan, who acknowledged one of the upsides to operating a food truck is that while there are a number of fees and taxes involved, it's a business that does not have to pay property tax in the communities in which they vend.
Taking Steveston off the schedule would be a costly loss
Selling their adobo fries, crispy fried Spam-and-egg sandwiches, and lumpia filled with Filipino-style spaghetti in Steveston has been part of Shameless Buns' pandemic-era success story, and is a commitment on the books for the business through September - the busiest time of year in the food truck biz.
Taking Steveston off the schedule would be dire for Shameless Buns; the food truck turned down other bookings to keep their Richmond dates this summer, and those are bookings that are no longer available to them, since schedules are confirmed weeks and months in advance.
"If we lose these Steveston days we’re going to have to scramble [or] go find work elsewhere," said Brennan. "That's frustrating considering we planned ahead."
The Shameless Buns team said they regularly draw a long line in Steveston, and that guests are coming from all around the Metro region since it's their only location in Richmond that's open to the public and there are no restaurants like them in the area.
For Romero, whose childhood in the Philippines is largely what inspired the couple to launch Shameless Buns in 2019, one of the key rewards to having the chance to operate in Steveston has been hearing from members of the Richmond Filipino community, who are able to enjoy foods they don't see much elsewhere in the municipality. The food truck is giving many people a chance to experience a bit of a cultural touchstone in their own backyard.
"In Richmond there’s barely any Filipino food," noted Romero. "It’s a nice representation of our culture," she said of Shameless Buns parking in town, and the chance they also have to introduce "people to our flavours, food that they never would have exposure to otherwise."
Shameless Buns customers spending money at other Steveston businesses, too
Standing out from other Richmond restaurants, and in particular bringing something wildly different to the table when it comes to what's available to eat in Steveston, is something Shameless Buns is proud to offer. But they have also been emphatic supporters of other local businesses, often telling guests explicitly when there may be a delay in getting their order up for them to take a walk in the village and shop from local stores or buy drinks or snacks from other cafes and food businesses.
This week Shameless Buns put a call out on social media for Steveston customers to share what the truck means to them and how it's brought them - and their money - to other Steveston businesses.
"We make a day out of our visit! Shameless, Timothy’s frozen yogurt, a walk in the park and checking out some of the local shops. Shameless is just the driving force for us to visit but we stay for the whole Steveston experience!" shared one customer.
"It’s all about having options! I’m glad that you guys put Richmond on your rotation, it provides a safer option [for] your patrons to stay in Richmond," attested another supporter.
"[Y]our presence in the area was great because for those who already know about you guys, it gave them a reason to visit Steveston and see what else is around (after getting their Sinigang Fries)" another customer told Shameless Buns. "As for the fresh faces, I’m sure it felt good discovering something new while in Steveston. I would love to see more of you in the area. You add more character and diversity in the community with your delicious menu and your rockin’ jeepney, so I hope the city sees all the good things about having you in Steveston."
Dozens of other responses pointed to the spirit of supporting all kinds of small businesses, the food trucks drawing people to Steveston who otherwise would not be visiting the community - and spending money there - and that Shameless Buns has followed all the rules in order to set up there.
While Brennan and Romero are aware that bringing food trucks to Steveston has "ruffled a few feathers," they believe that the City of Richmond is as pleased as they are to see what kind of vibrancy the mobile restaurants bring to the community.
"The buzz, the crowds, that’s what’s so great about this, breathing life into this little town," explained Brennan, regardless of "a few disgruntled business owners" who don't want competition from food trucks.
What happens next?
They said they've since spoken with a bylaws department representative, who urged them to present their case at the next council meeting on Monday, April 26. Possible outcomes include having their licence for Steveston cancelled but with notice that could see them continue through the summer, or, more likely, is to see them re-located to a nearby park, away from other restaurants.
While the food truck-ers acknowledged this is a tough time for restaurants in general, "it's not affecting the town as much as they say," added Romero. "It's not a complete negative. I understand, [Steveston restaurants] are also struggling as well."
"All the locals who do eat with us, most haven’t experienced our food before, and they end up coming back again and again," added Brennan. "For us, it’s been a very positive experience."
We reached out to the Steveston Merchants Association for comment and will update if and when a response is provided.