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On the Marriage of Food and Spirits in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Our friends at El Gastronomo Vagabundo have been cooking up a storm at the recently completed Beer Shed Kitchen at Oast House Brewers in Niagara-on-the-Lake. We had a quick chat with Adam and Tamara about this and other similar collaborations happening in the area. We may have also indulged in a wicked dish or two. And maybe some beer. Interview by JoAnne Wang.

Tell us about your current partnership with Oast House.

We’ve been working closely with Oast House since well before they opened their doors.  We had an existing food-centered relationship with one of the founding partners through Les Marmitons Niagara, and we mutually reached out to each other to start planning some fun food events leading up to the brewery opening.  We began with our “Pinky and the Grain” breast cancer fundraiser event in October 2012, where Adam brewed a special pink peppercorn brew with Oast Brewmaster Kevin Somerville, and we served food to ticket holders from the truck while they had tours of the brewery under construction.  We followed that up with things like St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo in 2013, while Oast was still outfitting their “Beer Shed Kitchen” in the retail space.  Once the kitchen was fully functional, we were invited to set up for FridayNight Pints, where Oast has local music artists perform, and we take care of food service from 5 to 11pm.  We also run the “lunch counter” on Saturdays and Sundays from 12-5pm.

How does your experience at a brewery differ from your experience on the truck in Montebello Park? Do you shape your menus for the context? Does the additional interaction with your customers affect anything?

When we’re at a brewery, we plan our menu to pair well with the beer being poured, and we keep in mind what type of food guests want to eat at in a brew pub setting.  On the truck, we serve very globally inspired street food items like tacos, tostadas, and salads.  The menu is planned around what we can execute quickly and serve quickly to the people waiting in line.  In the brewery, we have heartier, heftier dishes like the Whole Hog burger and Australian-style meat pies.  We do still offer lighter options like onion bhajis and veggie spanakopita, but the focus is less on street food and more on a sit-down meal that pairs well with beer.  The service style is still casual, but we can spend some time putting together more complex dishes while customers take a seat and sip a beer.

There are several regular collaborations between mobile food vendors and local breweries and wineries along Niagara Stone Road: you and Oast, Tide and Vine and Itty Bitty Pie Co and Silversmith Brewing Company, The Yellow Pear and Southbrook Vineyards. What do you think the genesis of this is? Why the concentration in this particular part of Niagara

When we launched our truck in 2012, we did it at Flat Rock Cellars winery in Jordan.  The winery owner, Ed Madronich, wanted to be able to offer food and wine service to his guests, but didn’t want the headache of setting up and staffing an on-site restaurant.  We’ve found that’s the case for many wineries (and now breweries), and it makes sense.  They can focus on what they do best, and we can focus on what we do best.  There are a few reasons why these collaborations work, and why they’re mutually beneficial.  Firstly, mobile food vending is very seasonal, so having an indoor space to serve food during the inclement months helps our businesses with some cash flow, but also keeps us relevant in the Niagara food scene.  If we closed up shop for half of the year, we’d be behind the eight ball when the warmer weather came around again.  We’ve found that our customer base and that of breweries and wineries has a lot of overlap, but it is also an opportunity to engage customers that might not normally eat at a food truck or come to a food truck event.  They are more comfortable and familiar with eating in a restaurant setting, so it’s a good way to introduce them to our food.  Pairing it with wine and beer is obviously a bonus!

I think the venues that are embracing this collaboration tend to be progressive, innovative businesses that see the mutual benefit of having a mobile food vendor on site, even if it’s only for a few hours a week.  Mobile food vendors rely largely on social media to get the work out about their locations and menus, so we do a great job of providing exposure for these venues and products to our followers, and vice versa.

How would you like to see this type of collaboration evolve?

We would love to see the venues collaborate amongst themselves as well, and bring the food vendors into the fold.  We’re seeing that type of collaboration at places like the Supper Market @ the Village in NOTL, where food vendors, wineries, and breweries are able to offer their products in a fun, communal setting during the summer season.  It would be great to continue this type of collaboration year round, and to bring in other chefs from Niagara for special menus and events.  There’s a lot of talent in Niagara when it comes to food, wine, and beer, so it just makes sense to celebrate it all and bring some attention to Niagara as a culinary tourism destination.

What about the evolution of El Gastro? You have been going strong and fighting the food truck fight for 4 years now. What does your ideal future hold? (Other than fewer presentations to planning committees, of course!)

We have some big plans for the future, but I can’t say too much at this point without giving anything away.  We will “keep on trucking” and advocating for the industry as things evolve, and will collaborate with as many chefs and venues as possible to continue to do what we can to promote the innovative things Niagara has to offer in the food and drink scene.  We’re hoping to focus more on the actual business this year and less on street food policy, but we are still consulting for municipalities like London and Halifax, who are struggling with how to handle street food vending.  I (Tam) recently joined the steering committee for Startup Niagara, so I’m hoping my experience as a Niagara entrepreneur will help foster even more growth not just in the local food industry but in general.  We love everything Niagara has to offer, and we’re doing what we can to spread the word while we feed the community!

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