Me.n.u food truck is all about doing ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Most folks know the wildly popular riceball vendors from their pop-ups all over Toronto in the summer of 2013, from Toronto Underground Market, to TO Food Fest, to Night it Up in Markham. But that’s not really where the story starts – and certainly not where it will end!
The tale begins with two bright, young suburbanites Allen Tan and Bryan Siu-Chong who say they watch too much Food Network, dream very big and love food more than words can say – though Allen does say plenty about it on his amusing tumblr documenting the business launch.
Instead of taking their recently-minted university degrees to Bay Street, they decided they wanted to make riceballs a household name and start the most awesome Asian-inspired food truck ever. A dream was born – and a brand that is more like a vision: “Our vision of success is travel eat share,” says Allen. “To travel the world and eat the most delicious food and bring it back to Toronto. That’s actually a life goal. That’s what we what we want to be doing for the rest of our lives.”
Using an enthusiastic combination of cool calculation and making it up as they go along, the me.n.u owners have come pretty far down the road towards their goal of being food truck owners.
They ran many successful pop-ups in the summer of 2013, and have a nascent – and fast growing – catering business. They’re enjoying every step of the way, but make no mistake, every step is also about learning. “These pop-ups we do are pretty much testing our system,” says Allen. “It’s a great way to test our ideas and knowledge before we start up a business. It’s low cost, low risk and a good way to figure things out before you buy a food truck and find out you suck.”
Before the pop-ups came the research – which is ongoing. Allen began honing his skills by helping out in the kitchen at the recently shuttered Urban Bistro, where he worked on his multi-tasking skills, trading his labour for after-hours access to the kitchen where he could research and test his riceball recipes.
Allen also emailed every food truck in Toronto, volunteering to work for free in exchange for on-the-spot mentorship. He spent time working with Food Cabbie, Fidel Gastro and others. And Mark Oliver from Hot Bunzz took Allen under his wing, mentoring him and helping him think through his goals step by step. After soaking up what he could from Toronto trucks, Allen headed to L.A. and Vancouver to look at the future of food trucking.
In L.A., he volunteered on local trucks, marveled at the epic line-ups and learned as fast as he could: “I was trying to figure out what separated the good from the great. It took me hours to figure out who has a good system, what is great branding. Efficiency is really important, but the real success comes down to the menu. I studied the menu items that they would offer. Fusion food was really, really popular.”
Next stop was Vancouver to get a feel for how trucks deal with inclement weather – not such a big deal in California. Local trucks said once you build up a base clientele of repeat customers, bad weather is less of a problem. After that, it was time to learn how to cook. What?
“I’m just your average person who watches a lot of Eat Street on TV and decided to start a food business. So, I needed to learn how to cook,” says Allen, who is nothing if not honest.
So, he went to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, where he followed the lead of local food bloggers and took tons of cooking classes, honing his skills and getting a nose for local flavours and ingredients. His goal: to create an easy-breezy Asian/west coast fusion concept.
So far, folks love me.n.u’s Pokeball (made with Chinese sausage, stuffed with mozarella ), Angry Bird ball (made with roast chicken, stuffed with mozzarella) and Porkzilla (made with porkbelly, stuffed with mozzarella.) Their freshly minted catering menu is even more adventurous. And speaking of adventure, Me.n.u’s inaugural run in a rented truck was nothing short of epic. The crew rented a food truck for Awestruck this year, and apart from a few hardware issues (“It took me quite a long time to figure out how to turn on my fryer,” says Allen, “I didn’t know where the pilot was.”) things were great.
Allen is heading to Asia this winter to learn more from Asian pop-up stores and says he hopes me.n.u will have a truck on the road for summer 2014.
Will they serve more than rice-balls? Absolutely: “People are asking me: ‘Am I going to be doing fried rice balls the rest of my life?’ No. But, it’s going to be the reason you come to me.n.u. Once it’s solidified, we’ll branch out. But people are still, always going to be able to get the fried rice ball. It’s the iconic, brand representative of me.n.u food truck.”