Opening up a food truck isn’t an easy gig.
“A lot of people think oh I’m a chef, I can open up a truck and just sell my food, but it’s a lot more complicated than that,” says Bryan Siu-Chong, co-owner of Toronto-based food company, Me.n.u. In addition to a food truck that dishes up creative (and highly addictive) Asian-inspired street food that has developed a cult following, the Me.n.u brand caters and hosts pop-ups.
“Taste our balls. Find Out Why We’re Famous,” reads Me.n.u’s website, a cheeky nod to the brand’s signature rice balls. The menu also features a selection of Asian poutines, roti tacos and rice boxes.
Siu-Chong and business partner, longtime friend Allen Tan, started the Me.n.u food truck in 2014. Going way back, Tan and Siu-Chong grew up in Thornhill and went to elementary school, high school and McMaster University together, where Tan studied economics and Siu-Chong studied accounting. “We didn’t get our start in chef school or anything,” says Siu-Chong. “Food wasn’t our area of study – we’re both home cooks.” They did, however, share a passion for unique Asian-inspired street food, something they discovered in their three-month post-university travels to places like Thailand and Singapore. “We wanted to bring these flavours back to Toronto in a creative way,” said Tan.
“In the beginning, we came up with these rice balls with cheese inside and different flavours and started selling them at food booths in 2013,” said Tan. “We were both working our normal jobs and doing this on the side. After we started to get a lot of traction, we decided to go full on and invest into a food truck.” The timing was right: It wasn’t until 2014 that food trucks were allowed in Toronto aside from on private property. As for the brand, Siu-Chong says that they came up with the name and built around that. “Me.n.u (pronounced ‘me and you’) is a very inclusive thing, both with our team and our customers. Our team is very high energy. We make customers feel like our service is our number one priority and try to wow each of them with a great experience,” he says.
Before quitting the nine to five world to start the Me.n.u food truck, Siu-Chong worked for his family business – the once childhood favourite spot Wild Water Kingdom – doing accounting, in addition to a job as an accountant at a pharmaceutical marketing company. “But my passion has always been travelling and entrepreneurship,” says Siu-Chong. “Now, Allen is more of the chef and food side and I’m more of the business side. We both collaborate on business ideas.”
Siu-Chong says that the first step in creating a successful food truck business is, naturally, knowing the unique idea or product you want to bring forth – for them, this was creative yet approachable Asian-fusion street food that Toronto hadn’t seen before. After you create the recipes comes the often-gruelling legal part. “That’s the biggest hurdle that most people get stuck at, and what most people ask me about,” says Siu-Chong. “You read in the headlines in Toronto newspapers about how difficult it is. You just have to do your research online with the government website about what kind of licensing you require. Once you get all that paperwork settled, then you have to pay for your licensing fee and your permits.”
When it comes to permits, it may take a few visits to the City offices and a few amendments to get right. “I remember visiting the office the Toronto Civic Centre, where you have to go to apply for it. We probably went back and fourth there four times. We’d go, and they’d say, ‘you’re missing this,’ or ‘you’re missing that’ – but that’s pretty normal,” says Siu-Chong. “You need your truck and your health inspection done before you can apply for your license. Assuming you had this all, the process is a matter of going in with all of your paperwork, them approving it and you paying them the money, then you’re good to go. But may take a few visits.” Every year you have to renew your license but don’t have to go through the whole process again.
As for the truck, you can either purchase one secondhand through another food truck owner who is selling, or buy a whole brand new truck and retrofit it according to the type of equipment you need. Your truck must meet the requirements of the health department, the fire department (NFPA), standards and safety (TSSA) and electrical safety (ESA). Getting a truck up and running doesn’t come cheap. “As a start-up, you can budget anywhere from $60,000 to $120,000 to start a food truck, depending on how much you want to invest in your truck,” says Siu-Chong. “You can go crazy with purchasing equipment. The truck ranges in price, as does the equipment. With all your licensing fees, I would say that figure is accurate.” Next is a solid marketing plan and the hiring of staff, the importance of which can be historically overlooked in the street food world.
The biggest challenge at the point the company is at now, says Siu-Chong, is growing the business. “Starting is a challenge in itself, but once you get started, I feel like it’s harder to grow it after you’ve established yourself for a year or so; there’s endless opportunities as to where you want to take your business,” he says. “I think that a lot of entrepreneurs get stuck in that phase where they’re going from two years to five years surviving, and beyond five years, it’s sort of, what do you do next? How do you grow? Do you open up a storefront? Do you open more trucks? Do you do a delivery service business? Do you partner with other businesses? So, that’s a bit of a challenge.”
Tan and Siu-Chong partnered with another company and opened up a restaurant together, Pokito – a poke spot at 420 Queen Street West. Now, they run both businesses. Most recently, Me.n.u’s Instagram page teased of an up-coming secret holiday pop-up.
When asked advice he’d give potential food truck owners, Siu-Chong advises not to go into it alone. “Most food truck owners that I know they are partners because it’s a lot of work to do all by yourself. Definitely, you need to hire a good solid team you can trust and work well with – that’s one of the most important things,” says Siu-Chong. “Doing this all by yourself is tough because it’s very labour intensive; bringing the truck out, cleaning it, marketing – you’re wearing tons of hats. Legally, you need a commissary, which is kind of like a kitchen where you can prep your food. You’re not supposed to just have a truck and cook everything on there, you actually need a commissary along with your truck.”
He also reminds potential food truck owners to remember that – especially in Toronto – that the business is predominantly seasonal. “Our season is late April to early November – only eight months. Nobody wants to eat outside otherwise.”