In the near future, the food truck scene will see a new player, pop-up sensation Fidel Gastro's. I had the chance to sit down with owner Matt Basile yesterday to chat about the newest chapter in his sandwich revolution.
The last six months have been a perfect storm of private events, pop-ups, underground markets, and countless press for Matt Basile's Fidel Gastro's brand. The ex-marketer quit his 9-to-5 job to make his dream of opening a sandwich operation a reality. Operating in pop-up format (setup, serve, disappear), FG has been operating out of studio spaces, Steam Whistle brewery for various events, local coffee shops, the monthly Toronto Underground Market, and most recently as part of the ROM's Friday Night Live series.
I had the chance to have lunch with Matt yesterday and while enjoying a burger at Holy Chuck, we chatted about Toronto's food scene, pop-ups, and Matt's latest venture, the upcoming Fidel Gastro's food truck.
Suresh Doss: You've had a crazy six months in the pop-up circuit, was the plan always to go brick & mortar?
Matt Basile: Well I wanted to open a restaurant for a while but the costs were really high. So I took the original idea and scaled it back to its simplest form. Which is, Fidel Gastro's is going to be a a creator of food experiences company.
SD: When was this?
MB: This was in October. Full throttle, business plan ready to go. Bank meetings to open a restaurant. This was before the pop-ups, my original goal was to open a restaurant. I had to scale back the idea to pop-ups because I was like, okay, I can't afford to do this (restaurant) but I don't want to let the dream die, so how can I still do what I want to do. I didn't even know about La Carnita at the time, I just wanted to find a way to make my dream work on my budget.
SD: This was last summer?
Yeah July-ish. I had come back from Italy and there I had seen plenty of street vendors here and there. I said to myself, there's gotta be more of this here in Toronto. I know we don't have a street food scene, but I wanted to find a way to make it happen. So I came back and started working on a product while working my marketing job. Then someone, an ex boss of mine, had offered me his Art space on Tecumseth for a night to do an event. So I ran with the idea, and we did a pop-up, and ended up serving something like 250 sandwiches. A lot of people showed up.
SD: Did you have your social media ready to go at that point?
Well nothing like it is now. Back then I was just tweet blasting and trying to get the word out through twitter. Now I have a formula, before I was just power tweeting. People showed up, it was crazy.
SD: If I look at where you've come in the last 6 months, you've created this enormous amount of buzz for your brand and pop-ups in general in Toronto. Do you think the timing was right for this to take off? What's Toronto as a food city right now, if you started FG five years ago...
No one would give a fuck. Because I dont think people were ready for it. A lot has happened in the last five years where people are now seeking options, they want options.
SD: High end, mid tier..
Yeah if you look at other world-class cities, they're 360 food cities. Toronto goes maybe 270 degrees. There's that huge gab there for street. People are now realizing, hey, what about this gap. I was recently in NYC and they have great street food, food trucks everywhere. San Francisco, same thing. We have hotdogs here. The attitude, and climate was right. I couldn't have picked a better time, I'm happy that I started then, now there are pop-ups everywhere. I'm getting emails all the time from people asking me about starting a pop-up.
SD: How do you feel about that? you've become a mentor for food entrepreneurs.
I always tell people that they need a plan, that goes beyond the pop-up. What's your goal for doing it? Andrew's (La Carnita) goal was to eventually open a restaurant. Mine was to create a 360 food company under the FG brand. I thought the easiest way for me to make a splash was doing pop-ups. But what's your goal? At the rate that I'm doing this, in 2-3 years I'll burn out. It's insane
SD: People have this impression that it's easier to do pop-ups. Why open a restaurant when I can become a pop-up sensation…
I do all the cooking on my own. I have staff that help at events, but I have to train guys that have never done events before. There's a whole new set of obstacles you encounter every day. I have great support from the guys at the butcher shop, Steam Whistle helping me out, I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing without this support. Collaboration is the key to my business's success. I can't be competitive, I had to be collaborative.
SD: Speaking of support, you have a business partner?
Yeah, Dom Finelli. Great guy, extremely smart business man. His background is to look at the sustainability of a business and then whether or not his company should invest in it. He's been watching me since day one, we were talking one day. We started talking about food trucks, but I had abandoned the food truck idea because of the quotes I was getting.
SD: I remember talking to you at various events, and you were floating the idea of a food truck.
This was very early on, but just like any idea, finances became the barrier. I was getting some insane quotes. $80,000 for a truck, $100,000 for a truck. wow.
SD: There is this perception that a food truck is a license to print money. Get a food truck, and you'll quickly make a killing. But in reality, trucks are expensive, kitchens are expensive, you have to pay yearly license fees with cities, and then you have the City of Toronto, that doesn't know what the fuck it's doing with street food in general.
At any point, things can change.
SD: So why a truck?
Well, everyone has always thought that I'm pretty crazy to do what I'm doing. My ex boss saying that I'm crazy for rejecting a raise and telling him that I wanted to quit my day job to launch Fidel Gastro's. I want to get into an industry while it's still in its infancy. Being mobile is important but also having a back story too. The GridTO has covered me from the very beginning, and the truck being another mobile element. Right now you're seeing lots of trucks show up, its fantastic, but I don't know who they are. There's no connection, I'm sure the food is good, but the story is important. I don't know if people love my story, but there's progression. You've seen me take my business from day one, and take it to the next chapter, chapter two, the truck. This is where Dom comes into the picture. He was looking to put some money into the company. He said tell me how I can help you financially. I came at him with two options. One was the food truck, and the other was to blow out the pop-up model. Open a central kitchen, and I manage various pop-up teams under the FG brand. He loved the idea of the truck. So we went back and forth on how this was going to work out, with my brand, and his investment. Then back in April, I came across a listing for a food truck. I contacted the guy and asked him if I can come take a look at it. Then he told me the price, and suddenly it all become very feasible.
SD: Importantly, that truck you saw is already fitted with a kitchen.
Yup it's already fitted.
SD: It's not like an empty courier truck.
Yeah, I looked at it with five groups of friends, and then thought that my financial investment would be pretty minimal. Everyone loved the truck. It's an older truck, but its got such a unique style.
SD: When you invited me to come see this truck, I remember seeing it from the right side and it looked like any other truck, but when we moved over to see the serving window…
It's fucking huge.
SD: It is perfect for your brand and energy, and we're talking just the window.
A massive window. That was such a big element. We were down in Ft. Laurderdale and I was at food truck rallies, and a lot of the trucks had really big serving windows, and speakers. I said to myself, with my brand, I need a truck with a big window.
SD: You costed it out? It was cheaper to get a truck that was already fitted with a kitchen than to start from scratch.
We pretty much saved about $60,000. We totally lucked out.
SD: You got the truck?
The Truck is mine. We're about to put in the upgrades, my dad (Mario Basile) is designing the branding for the truck. My dad is a graphics designer, he's designed everything for my truck. I was playing with the idea of whether its a Fidel Gastro's truck or under another name, it makes sense to keep it FG. But its just another chapter, its not the end goal. If I had to take three different companies that are out there right now that I look up to. Steam Whistle and their corporate culture. Everyone loves working there. The Food Dudes has a great operation, after 11 years, they have got it down to a science. Mark McEwan's group. He's just a genius with his restaurant concepts, creating different extensions of his brand.
SD: So what can people expect from the truck?
It's going to be an extension of what I'm doing right now. The sandwiches of course, but also expanding on that menu. Now I can get into side dishes. An evolving menu. Everything you can get in sandwich form, you'll be able to get in plate form. So for the gluten-free crowd. I'm working on some new dishes. One of them I'm calling a french fry pad thai. So it's Pad Thai with french fries. Chicken, sauces, bean sprouts, peanuts, lime. All with french fries. I'll switch stuff up.
SD: You're keeping yourself pretty open.
Totally open. I know I'll have the sandwiches because they've become an important part of the brand, but otherwise it will evolve.
Middle to late July, operating out of Toronto to start. This is my city, I want to operate in my city, but I'll be very mobile.
SD: When this truck launches, what happens to the pop-ups and the Toronto Underground Market?
I'm keeping my options open. The truck doesn't mean I won't do TUM or future pop-up events. It's one spoke in the brand.
SD: Biggest lessons so far on the pop-up side and with the truck?
With the truck, don't rush into it. Justify that you can spend the amount of money involved in getting a food truck. It's the same with a restaurant, don't just jump into it without a solid business and culinary plan. Cost it out properly, make sure you can see the return. With the pop-ups, I make mistakes every single pop-up. I don't know if they're obvious or not, but every single time. Let people think that your operation is a lot bigger than it is. What people don't really know is that I am spending a lot of time by myself cooking and prepping. I have event staff that help me but for every sandwich it takes about seven to eight hours to prep and cook. I spend about 10 to 12 hours at night in the kitchen.
If you want to get into pop-ups, realize that it's not easy. It's a lot harder than you think. People are going to assume that it's easy, be confident, and learn from your mistakes. Understand exactly how much time you will need for your dishes, events.
SD: Does the truck have a name?
In keeping with the Elvis Presley theme, the new truck will be named Priscilla.
For updates on the upcoming Fidel Gastro's truck, and all upcominge events, follow @fidelgastros on Twitter.
Viva la revolution, Matt.
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Written by Suresh Doss
Suresh Doss is the publisher of SpotlightToronto.com and Rickshawmag.com. Founder of the Food Truck Eats festival, Suresh has been a pioneer for the Street food movement in Toronto. In 2011, He was awarded the VQA Promoter’s Award for outstanding achievement in the Media category in the promotion of Ontario VQA Wines. Suresh is also the Global Editor for Whitecap’s StreetEats series of travel guides, which focuses on the best street food across North America.