When Is a Food Truck More Than a Food Truck? When It Helps City Dwellers Imagine Ways to Renew Public Spaces- Tactical Urbanism
WHEN Charcut Roast House, one of Calgary’s most celebrated new restaurants, opened in early 2010, it took an idiosyncratic approach to fine dining. Meats were cured in house, the menu changed daily, and the food arrived at the table potted in Mason jars or splayed across cutting boards. The atmosphere was refined but relaxed, like a neighbourhood gastropub. Its co-chefs, Connie DeSousa and John Jackson, wanted Charcut to be a pillar of the community, but it occupied the ground floor of a swank downtown boutique hotel, stranded on a sterile corner across a busy commuter artery from the Calgary Tower, a poured concrete, nine-to-five sort of place. How could they connect with diners in a location that seemed so inhospitable?
The chefs came up with a simple idea: “Something underground and foodie” is how DeSousa described it. They would make a snack version of their colossal signature Share Burger, wrap it in foil, and sell it for five bucks out the kitchen’s back door. They only announced the project on Twitter and Facebook, summoning in-the-know burger lovers to gather in the alley behind the hotel in the afternoon or late evening. Once the crowd was large enough or the hour late enough, the kitchen staff announced a cut-off point, took a head count, and then made only enough—one per customer—to feed the anointed. And that’s how the word-of-mouth Alley Burger was born.
By the spring of 2011, as many as 350 patrons packed the narrow lane behind Charcut on Alley Burger nights, and one of the event’s first fans by then occupied the mayor’s office. Naheed Nenshi had occasionally used the late-night burgers for campaign sustenance and the gatherings themselves as impromptu voter meet-and-greets. As in most big Canadian cities, local bylaws to regulate restaurant licensing, street vending, and outdoor café seating were a tangled mess of contradictory requirements and overprotective restrictions; aside from a couple of hot dog stands, Calgary had no street food to speak of. Nenshi figured that was the best place to begin making changes. Setting aside the knotty legislation for later, he launched a pilot project outside established boundaries—something that would, he hoped, get his city hall staff and average citizens alike as engaged and hungry for more as the Alley Burger’s acolytes were. He chose an instrument that was already riding the fat part of a continental wave of breathless hype. That summer, Calgary would have a new fleet of food trucks.