Luis and Veronika Manuel left Latin America in 2010 with the goal to create a better life for their children by bringing a taste of Venezuelan culture to Canada.
The dangerous political climate in Venezuela forced the chef and chemical engineer to give up their food empire and pursue safer opportunities overseas; the idea was to bring the same business model to Canada and slowly get their foot in the door in the diverse and competitive food industry here in Toronto.
The key to their successful migration came down to more than just a good business idea— meet the arepa, that is, an authentic Venezuelan cornmeal sandwich bun that has come to be the centre-stage ingredient at the Arepa Republic’s food truck at Hillcrest Mall.
“My idea was to start small at local food markets and to see if people like it, let them try our food, then to take a step forward… And that is what we did,” Luis said.
The arepa is not like your typical tortilla wrap; unlike normal corn tortillas, they’re made by pounding fresh cornmeal into thick patties that are either grilled or griddled instead of fried— the end result is a crusty, sweet-smelling outside and soft, fleshy interior that pairs perfectly with traditional Latin American flavours, such as pulled pork, onions, beans and loads of cheese.
Arepas have deep roots in native Venezualan and Colombian culture and continue to be a very common house-hold snack or side dish served with nearly every meal. While its exact origins are unclear, the arepa recipe has remained unchanged throughout history making it one of the few pre-contact traditions that has continued to be popular following colonization in the 1500s.
Luis learned to make home-made arepas back home in Venezuela as a young man, where he managed his own catering and restaurant business since 2001 with his wife. After successfully trialing his sandwiches at local food markets for several years here in Toronto, they decided to open up their first mobile food truck in 2015, and went on to open a second food truck and store front in 2018. Teamwork has come to be a key aspect in this family business; Veronika, formerly a chemical engineer, became a marketing alias for Luis upon moving to Canada and committed to spreading the word of their cultural cuisine.
“People here are very open to new ideas and new concepts, and we were looking for information about the city, and if people are interested in trying food from our country,” Luis said. “The market here is totally different from Venezuela, and we adapted our ideas to local ideas here.”
One of the Arepa Republic’s most popular items is a bonafide version of mozzarella cheese sticks called the tequeños— massive deep-fried sweet dough encasing gooey, inch-thick cheesiness— an item straight from Venezuela with mysterious origins much like the arepa, and one that is loved just as much here in Toronto.
“The tequeños are the most emblematic appetizer in Venezuela,” Luis said. “Every party is not good if they are not serving tequeños!”
Part of his idea to merge the arepa with Canadian culture also led to the creation of gluten-free arepas and modified sandwich ingredients that accommodate Canadian diets while simultaneously being authentically Venezuelan. Another signature aspect about the arepa sandwiches are that they’re packed-stuffed with rich and flavourful ingredients, like avocado, beef, cheese, and pulled pork that will surely satisfy your hunger.
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Luis is also starting a new sandwich concept that is made with sweet plantains instead of cornmeal buns, which has kicked-off to be well-liked amongst Torontonians at his second food truck, the Funky Patron, located at Scarborough Town Centre.
The Manuel family have certainly made a handful of loyal customers with both their food trucks, although the couple is missing the mobility of their old food truck, and are unsure if they will still be around next year due to difficult food truck regulations in the city in light of the pandemic.
“I love the mobility of the food truck, that is what I truly love,” Luis said, explaining that his goal was to bring the Arepa Republic’s cuisine all around the GTA to find new customers and bring awareness to the brand. “Unfortunately, this year is different— you are in a fixed location, it’s not bad, but the situation right now is not the best… That’s the funny thing about this business. Things change, and we are going to keep our truck here for a while, but I am not sure what we will do next year.”
Regardless of the unfavourable circumstances cast upon the food truck industry, Luis and Veronika are grateful for the name they have made for themselves in Toronto, and look forward to the surge of summer customers that lie ahead.
“Me and my family, we love Canada, and we are grateful for the opportunities we have here.”