In the world of potato-based street food, you have French fries and you have poutine. And then you have the creations of Darryl Crumb.
“Everybody else was doing fries, and mashed potatoes aren’t really a good canvas to work with, so I decided to do homemade tater tots with a gourmet twist,” says the owner and chef of Tot Wheels, an Anola, Man.-based food truck now in its second year of operations. “Manitoba’s a meat-and-potatoes kind of community, so I thought, ‘How do you make potatoes cool?’”
In Crumb’s case, he’s done it by serving them up with unique combinations of meats, cheeses, homemade sauces and seasonal vegetables grown in his personal garden.
With seven or eight menu items at a time – and the occasional special – there is always plenty of options for even the pickiest of eaters. And with his “field to fork” philosophy, they are always fresh and sustainable.
“We start with the potato, add a cheese and go from there,” Crumb says. “I believe in a full meal with starch, veggie and protein. All of our meals have that, except for our vegetarian options.”
Drawing on the inspiration of his Ukrainian heritage and his grandmother’s potato pancake recipe, Crumb’s tots are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. But that’s where the traditional take on taters stops.
“We’re not a normal food truck,” Crumb says. “We have stuff no one else is offering.”
What they do offer are dishes – each around $10 – containing everything from grilled beef short ribs and braised pork to shrimp and seared pickerel cheeks. Their signature dish, Le Renault, features crispy fried frog legs with green beans, mushrooms and feta cheese.
“We brought the frog legs out for a gag at Frog Follies last year (a parade in St-Pierre-Jolys), and we sold out,” Crumb says. “Now it’s what everyone knows us for. It might not be everybody’s thing, but it makes people stop by and take a second look at the menu.”
Another reason Tot Wheels has people stopping by is that it’s one of the few food trucks on Broadway serving up breakfast. Since Crumb has to be on the street by 9 a.m. to secure a parking spot for the day, he decided he may as well make some extra money while he’s there.
“This year, instead of sitting here and not opening up the window until 11, I decided to do breakfast and try to up sales a little bit. There’s not really anywhere else to eat breakfast on Broadway, and it’s starting to really take off.”
Unlike some food truck owners, who are more entrepreneur than chef, Crumb’s experience in the restaurant industry is extensive. After attending culinary school while moonlighting in a butcher shop in Ottawa, he worked at a number of fine dining restaurants from Vancouver to Paris, France. He also finished eighth in the first season of The Food Network’s Top Chef Canada, and has co-owned several restaurants in Winnipeg.
After years of dealing with the limitations of red tape and bureaucracy, however, he yearned the freedom and flexibility of truly running his own kitchen.
“I like being able to try something new without someone telling me it won’t work,” he says. “It’s so much more liberating as a chef to make whatever I want, when I want. Working in restaurants and having business partners, you always have to listen to other opinions.
“And because of my knowledge in the food industry, it can be hard to take a back seat to people who say you’ve gotta have a clubhouse on the menu, or you’ve gotta have chicken fingers. No, you don’t.”
While Crumb entered the city’s food truck scene right around the time it started taking off, he says he isn’t too worried about competition or what the other trucks are doing.
“The restaurant scene in Winnipeg is over-saturated, and like restaurants, food trucks will come and go,” says Crumb, who still spends his winters as executive sous chef at the MTS Centre. ”Some will succeed, some will fail, some will change hands and new ones will start up. I just believe in serving a good product, and people will keep coming back.”
So far, his strategy has worked.
Crumb says that out of his 50 to 100 customers per day, a growing number of them are regulars. He also says he’s gotten more compliments on his culinary creations in less than two years of food trucking than he had in more than a decade working in brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“I don’t know if it happens in restaurants and just doesn’t get relayed back to the kitchen or what, but since starting up I’ve heard from more than one person that it’s the best thing they’ve ever eaten. That feels pretty good.”
Despite the early success of Tot Wheels, Crumb says there has been a bit of a learning curve.
“No one realizes that in a mobile restaurant, things tend to rattle and shake and a screw will come out and the next thing you know your shelf is on the floor,” he says. “It’s all those little things that add up and take time.”
He also says the city’s parking authority presents its share of problems. As it stands, food trucks on Broadway (or in any other paid-parking zones) have to feed the meter like any other vehicle. With a maximum allotment of two hours, Crumb says he has to reload the machine several times a day, sometimes right in the middle of getting slammed during a lunch rush.
“I think we need to work a little closer with the city and have a better system in place,” he says. “When we pay for our business license at the beginning of the year, I wouldn’t mind if we paid another $500 or whatever and got a sticker for our window.”
Despite the small hiccups, however, Crumb says he doesn’t regret is decision to go mobile for a second.
“I’ve been a chef for over 10 years, working every single weekend, every holiday, every evening, staring at a brick wall,” he says. “Now I’m off the street by 3 p.m., Monday to Friday. Yeah, it’s long hours and busy weekends, but the money’s good and I can have a family life.
“I’m really content with the way things are going.”
— RYAN BOWMAN, MyToba.ca