The Dunedin food truck scene is a worthy addition to your summer road trip stops. We chat with two vendors about the ups and downs of food truck life. Words Shelley Robinson
Betty the1984 Bedford truck was not made for the hills surrounding Dunedin. Brought out of retirement after an illustrious career as a former soft-serve ice-cream truck, her knees were more than a little creaky as she inched her way around, filled to her brim with freezers and a hot plate.
At her helm sat Olive Tabor, a fresh face in Dunedin’s burgeoning food truck scene. In her head, Olive was thinking creatively about her finances – particularly how she was going to pay the business loan that was due in a couple of days. Her debit card now had the audacity to beam the word ‘declined’ back at her and there was the tiny matter of the credit card the bank didn’t know about.
It was a scene from the dark winter of 2018, which Olive paints in such a comedic way that you will be left laughing alongside her. Yes, she will tell you that the secret life of a food truck operator is far from the Hallmark movie ideal.
“A couple of friends had started trucks at the same time and we were like, ‘Oh my god, what a bloody struggle.’ The fact you have to also make the product, prep it all too. I wasn’t prepared for how long the road would be. When you are doing it yourself it is a heavy prospect; you have to be quite ballsy to keep going,” she says.
Dunedin’s food truck scene has become a bit of an attraction for foodies. From ice cream through to fusion street foods, it is worth adding to your summer road trip map. Unlike in Portland in the United States, arguably the food truck capital of the world, there is no designated area for Dunedin’s food trucks, so many of them change locations each day, making social media the best way to track them down.
Olive may have had a bit of a rough start, but she certainly has done something right. She recently opened her first “bricks and mortar” – an ice-cream shop to complement her ever-faithful Betty. On her first Sunday with both open, non-stop lines for seven and a half hours outside the shop and a few hours with Betty at St Clair saw Olive sell 235 litres of ice cream.
Olive’s days can be long. An evening making 300 waffle cones saw her still going at 10.30pm. While the rest of us would have to slug back coffee just to put one foot in front of the other, she is almost insultingly chipper. Such a late finish is a “luxury” to her, she explains. Last year, she had to work out of a shared commercial kitchen, and it was only free at night. Often she was walking out at 5.30am, heading straight off to load up Betty the Bedford with ice cream and supplies.
“So this is sweet. I get home early and I can watch at least two episodes of Dragon’s Den before I go to sleep.”
Olive traded her designer duds as general manager of Nova Café and Restaurant for a fleece jersey, running pants and a backwards baseball cap, after a trip to Portland. It was a single visit to the iconic Salt & Straw ice-cream shop that saw her become “enamoured” with the frozen treat.
“It was like nothing I had here, and I was like, ‘Why don’t we have anyone here in Dunedin who makes it?’” she says.
Olive always saw queues outside Dunedin’s Rob Roy Dairy, well-known for its ice creams and desserts, even in winter. So she knew Dunedin people had an appetite for ice cream. She quickly went down a Google rabbit hole to figure out why there weren’t more people making ice cream.
“Back in the 1950s, every little New Zealand town had its own ice-cream place and they drove around in vans doing deliveries. But they were kinda cannibalised by the big guys. So it went from 30 to 40 independents to pretty much none,” she explains.
Those were odds Olive liked. She quit her job and set to work on her food truck concept – selling artisan ice cream crafted by her own hands.
First, there was a trip to fetch Betty from Ōamaru.
There is, says Olive wryly, a very good reason why Betty will never leave Dunedin. One white-knuckled trip at 15km/h crawling over the hills into Dunedin was quite enough for both of them.
Unfortunately, Betty wasn’t quite the young sassy thing she used to be and it took a bit to get her kitted out with freezers and a hotplate. It was February 2018 when Olive launched – the end of summer. Not ideal, but Olive is not one to be deterred, so the duo hit the road.
“I was totally petrified and not really even sure I had done the right thing. I was in a financially precarious position. It is easy to say, ‘Oh well, worst-case scenario, I’ll sell the house,’ but when you actually have to think about doing that you are like, ‘I don’t actually want to lose everything.’
“A couple of weeks after I started I sold nothing. I was parked up, got a coffee, put up a post on Instagram, got another coffee and sat there. Nothing. I was feeling like a loser.”
Olive decided to head out to St Clair beach, where she parked, set up, and promptly ran out of fuel.
“That was the worst day I ever had,” she laughs, because, well, she can now. There would be a series of bleak days where there was only $30 to be made, but a chat to a customer and a better shift than the previous day kept her going.
“I didn’t want to be defeated. I was doing everything possible, taking the truck out five days a week, plus working three nights [at a restaurant], doing anything to survive,” she says.
Olive believed in her product, with its mix of traditional and more eyebrow-raising flavours. Some of her creations include an ice cream with blue cheese and candied pear, a honey and lavender ice cream that steeps for months, and a tangy plum balsamic treat. Her latest concoction is Beer and Nuts, which has candied pecans crushed through stout-flavoured ice cream.
Seven months after she launched, the lines began to form at St Clair.
“One warm Saturday we sold more ice cream that day than I had the previous three weeks. It wasn’t much
– 30 litres – but word was spreading.”
The lines grew even longer and Olive wondered how many people saw them and moved on. In late September, she opened Patti’s & Cream The Scoop Shop on Eglinton Road, Mornington.
“It is so surreal to be standing up in the shop after all this time in the truck. It’s like living in a tent and now we have a house,” she says.
But Betty won’t be retired. Olive loves the crowds out at St Clair, and she enjoys the food truck scene culture.
“It is really friendly; everyone does know everyone, which is what I love about it. You get to be collaborative, which is different from restaurants.”
When she hears we are interviewing Tom from Hussey & Laredo next, she is full of praise.
“He’s so cool. He’s been around longer than me. I’m at the uni today with the truck and he is just around the corner from us – he’s just lovely,” she says.
But she won’t get there on time if she doesn’t get off the phone and finish making biscuits for ice-cream sandwiches. And hopefully tonight she will have time for a few more episodes of Dragon’s Den.
No doughnuts today, Tom Richardson from Hussey & Laredo admits. Usually on a Monday he is arms-deep in dough, but daylight saving got the better of him this time around.
His food truck is a collaborative effort; he co-owns it with Sarah and Patrick Hussey from The Perc Café, while his best mate Jed McCammon, from the Body of the Year Bakery, supplies the bagels. Tom makes all the tasty jams, sauces and relishes and, of course, the doughnuts that have enticing flavours like Nutella and banoffee, while Vanguard supply his coffee.
His food truck is a 1974 Zephyr caravan, not unlike what you would have seen rambling around the country on Christmas holidays as you hoped and prayed for a passing lane.
Like Olive’s Betty, his also comes from Ōamaru, which makes you wonder if the town is a haven of sorts for old food trucks and caravans waiting to be plucked out of obscurity by food truck vendors from Dunedin.
He “cluelessly” bought it for the yellow paint job and faced fierce negotiations with an “eccentric old dude” who owned it.
“He was almost like a biker, but then, as soon as we started talking to him, he was giving us the hard sell like, ‘Would you look at the patina of the yellow’ and all this. He was real eloquent,” he chuckles.
Tom put the brakes on studying to be a pilot after having a “what-the-heck-am-I-doing-with-my-life” moment, but then stumbled onto the idea of having a food truck. He was mopping the floors while closing The Perc Café when Sarah asked him what he “wanted to do with his life”.
“I had already been thinking about doing a food truck, but I really wanted to go travelling for a year or two. But they knew we should get into it now if we were going to do it. I’m glad because it [the food truck scene] blew up just after that so we got in early enough at all the good spots, like the farmers’ market and the university,” he says.
Like Olive, he has had his fair share of mishaps. At his first event, the South Island Surf Championships, he had a “sketchy drive” to the beautiful beach out at Aramoana
and then discovered they had forgotten the water – and when you are making coffee, it is a pretty crucial detail,
“We needed 100 litres so we had to go around all these bach houses to use their tank water. We filled it up with these random little drink bottles we had and ran back and forward to the tank like a human chain,” he says.
He’s also played a fierce game of hide and seek with parking wardens and done some “evasive” manoeuvres in the middle of the street, including stopping traffic to “180 the caravan”.
“I crashed it in ice in our first winter. I was towing it and it was a jack-knife situation – that was a pretty bad day. I was like, ‘Why am I doing this, why didn’t I just become a pilot?’ Better to crash a caravan than a plane though,” he says.
He was disheartened, but then he got a great spot at Otago University and then came the Otago Farmers’ Market, with a deal that if he made his own bagels, he was in. Fortunately, his flatmate Jed was a dab hand at making them.
“Now he is doing a really successful sourdough bakery. It all started in conjunction with this so we have grown at the same time, which is cool because he is one of my best friends,” he says.
It was all a bit “surreal” at the start, he says.
“I just couldn’t believe people wanted to buy stuff off me, that was a weird feeling. That first-day, thinking, ‘Is anyone going to show up? Why would they come to us?’
“But it’s been great. I get to make coffee and have good yarns with people. I’m really lucky that I get to cook for a living because I really have fun doing that. You’d think, who wouldn’t want to be a pilot? It sounds cheesy, but I feel like this is what I am meant to be doing – there is something that feels right about it.”
We wouldn’t call it a definitive list, but we’ve done our best to hunt down as many food trucks as possible. Their locations and hours vary, so check out their social media pages.
Citizens: On the road for a while now, they’re still serving up fine offerings of bao buns, burgers, tacos, loaded fries and heaps more.
Churros Olé: With delicious sauces, who could say no to these fried pastry treats? Bite-sized or full-sized, or even available as a cheeky churro sundae.
Chinese Crepe: Bag yourself a ‘bing’ – a crunchy thin Chinese crepe served with a choice of eggs, onion, veges, bacon, home-cooked beef and a homemade spicy chilli sauce.
Falafel Mate: A modern take on authentic Middle Eastern food.
Fritz’s Wieners: Smoked bratwurst on a baguette bun, served with lashings of onions or sauerkraut with mustard.
Kenty’s Southern Style BBQ: Exactly as the name says, American-style low and slow-cooked barbecue, alongside deep-fried chicken, hushpuppies, loaded fries and burgers.
NomNomz: Gourmet sourdough split muffins and waffles derived from a 100-year-old recipe come in a variety of combinations, including the popular breakfast split muffin.
So Bao: Street food classics with a twist, including galbi beef short rib taco, Taiwan-style pork belly bao and kimchi/cheesy loaded potatoes.
The Dumpling Lady: World famous on the Otago University campus for their dumplings, sushi and steamed buns.
The Hungry Tui: Fusion street food, including tacos, burgers and vegan roti.
Tikka Truck: Old favourite Indian dishes, like butter chicken, are available alongside some soon-to-be-your-favourites, like the Naanwich.