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James

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|| Founder and owner of Bar Ape gelato ||

James

We make our gelato bars $5 so that we can hand out hundreds an hour. It’s meant so that you don’t have to wait. I’ve never met someone who’s like, “I love standing in line.” Let’s be realistic. Should we be charging $6? A hundred percent. But we’re not cause it’s faster, it’s easier and it’s affordable … our packaging is just a bag with a stick. There’s no fancy box with dye on it. It’s very simple. Do I think the packaging looks great? I don’t think it’s anything special, but it’s just what it needs to be.

— James

I started making gelato by hand nine seasons ago. I went to George Brown for culinary school and worked in a couple restaurants, but I didn’t like the lifestyle and hated the hours. I was good at what I did and enjoyed the theory behind it. I always liked making ice cream on the side at home. We had a bunch of machine, so I’d play around with them. I decided to take a course at the University of Guelph; it was an interest course in ice cream technology and production.

Guelph is well known for its theory sciences, agriculture sciences and vet studies. They have production facilities to make ice cream and cured meats and everything. They have a full farm and the whole nine yards. You can actually walk through the farm on the way to school.

The course sparked my interest, then a couple of months later I went to Italy. I travelled a little bit, came back and all my friends were talking about a gelato place that had opened up. And I asked myself, do I want to go back to the culinary world? No. I’m  going to try and get a job making gelato. I walked into Gelato Simply Italian, and after a couple weeks of discussions, I got the job.

I worked there for several years. After that, the owners had a falling out. There was four of them. One had a shop in Italy but left my location and opened a place at Yonge and Eglinton. I knew if I wanted to continue my craft and continue learning, he was willing to give me that freedom. At the time, I had also gone back to school for food and beverage and hospitality management. We opened the Yonge and Eg location and a second store in Yorkville. I managed and made gelato for both. But then I reached a point where I felt like I wasn’t being treated the way I wanted to be treated. I had my [Bar Ape] vehicle that I was getting ready for what I actually wanted to do.

James in front of the Bar Ape truck (Photo: Torontofoodtrucks.com)
James in front of the Bar Ape truck (Photo: Torontofoodtrucks.com)

I bought it for a reason. I didn’t just show up and be like, “ah that’s really cool.” I had a plan for it, so it was never intentioned to be a joy vehicle. When I left the gelato place, it was the middle of summer. I decided to go back to Italy, why not? I have some family there so I just hopped on a plane and left. That was 2 summers ago. I was gone for a month. I wanted to learn a skill from people who have been doing it for generations. Some of the pizza places I visited were over 100 years old. The ovens were the same.

There’s something called Agriturismo, or agricultural tourism. It’s subsidized by the government. This lady I was staying with grew her own olives to make olive oil and grapes to make wine. She had her own livestock, fruit trees and a vegetable patch. You stay and eat her food. A lot of Italians vacation in Italy, they don’t leave the country. People come for a week and hang out on her farm. She would make pasta every morning. I have pictures where I’d walk into her meat cellar and you could see everything curring.  

The government is afraid that people aren’t paying their taxes on employees, so when they see someone volunteering they assume they’re being paid under the table. The only way around it was that I was going to pay to stay at this place, but only a couple euro a day. The government doesn’t care how much you charge, they care that you’re paying your taxes. How about I pay you 5 euro a day, to stay here, but you feed me, and I work for you; that kind of thing. As that was happening, the owner’s mother was losing her memory. And I saw her, she’d still be working, just sitting there peeling carrots, shucking things. She’d sit there in the shade with her bandana just going at it, right? She’s like four foot eight and she’d probably been doing that for eighty years. That’s what she grew up with. Even though it’s a city or small town, there’s an old world feel to it. Things haven’t changed. It’s still very independant.

So I came back. We were already at the drawing board. I really wanted to do my own gelato practice. Nick came on as a financial partner at first. We met in highschool. We start talking about it and began designing everything. I’d go to a coffee shop and just draw. Then I would check out the actual specs behind it. You know, what does it take to do the electrical? Gas? Okay this won’t work, onto the next one. Then we worked on the size, spacing, dimensions. We went to a metal worker and asked, “hey, can this be done? How long will it take?” And then we had to figure out how to power everything and make it renewable with the least amount of waste, especially when it came to things like packaging. Our packaging is just a bag with a stick. There’s no fancy box with dye on it. It’s very simple. Do I think the packaging looks great? I don’t think it’s anything special, but it’s just what it needs to be.

The city squashed my plan, but I was going to do a Vespa with a sidecar. The sidecar would have been the freezer. But that didn’t work because of the one law, and that’s the Watch for Children sign that’s required on the back of the vehicle. Things like that impede growth. The city wants different food trucks, but then they turn around and lay down the enforcement. No one is really informed. They keep changing the rules. I have to make a decision based on what I think the laws will be.

We can pay ourselves a bit of money for what we earned this year. It’s not much for the amount of hours we put in. It’s like a dollar an hour; we did the math. But we also want to buy a soft serve machine in case we open a store front. That’s the next move. Do we pay ourselves $2000 for the whole summer or buy a soft serve machine? If we buy it, we could either sell it off and lose a bit of money, or we use it for a store that we’d open. We’d do a pop up. But I also have to store all of this [product] in the winter.

I wanna show people that just because you open a business, and people like it, it doesn’t mean that it’s good. Toronto has a big problem with that. Some of the best restaurants in the city… there’s no line up. You can walk in any time of day and get a seat. Maybe not on a Friday. But just because there’s no line, or no hype, it doesn’t mean it’s not good. I could pay people to just stand here and feed them ice cream.

We make our gelato bars $5 so that we can hand out hundreds an hour. It’s meant so that you don’t have to wait. I’ve never met someone who’s like, “I love standing in line.” Let’s be realistic. Should we be charging $6? A hundred percent. But we’re not cause it’s faster, it’s easier and it’s affordable.

If I opened a store, would I have to charge more? Yeah, most likely. But the service would still be fast and good. That’s another thing, people will wait in a line and get questionable service which gives them even less of a reason to want to wait in line again. In my opinion, Toronto service is very hit or miss. Some of the best service comes from those Chinese restaurants in Chinatown. You sit down, they’re at your table with tea, water, menus they are fast. They are good at what they do. Always. The hardest part about any restaurant is consistency, be it service or food. That’s the true key to any hospitality industry.

That’s what we’re trying to do here. We take time to figure things out. We discuss what we do and go from there. Sometimes Nick’s ideas will trump mine. Sometimes when I say, “we’re making this flavour. This is how it’s going to be.” He says, “no you can’t say that.” Okay fine. We negotiate. There’s just the two of us doing everything.

Business starts in the spring. We have to order everything from Italy ahead of time. The hazelnut butter, pistachio butter, the dip products, the oils, the sticks come from the U.S. cause they’re custom made. So we order it all and it takes time for it to get here. It’s not like the average person who calls their supplier and says, “I need potatos for tomorrow please” and they say, “okay here you go, you have 30 days to pay.” Meanwhile, I call and say, “I need hazelnut paste.” It’ll be six weeks and they say, “before you get it, I need the money.” So it’s like here’s the lump sum capital and sometimes that means a surplus of all these goods. It’s just pure nut butters that are completely sealed. They won’t go bad. It’ll last until next year, but it’s a capital risk that you have to take a chance on. Say it’s five grand. It could have been used for something else. It’ll still go to use, but not right now. It’s invested in capital and that can be troublesome.

If we choose to shut down everything, what am I going to do with $5000 of hazelnut products? No one’s going to pay for that quality price of ingredient. If I walk up to you and say, “here’s hazelnut butter from Italy, this jar here is $150” Are you going to buy it? Who’s going to use that much? That’s where it becomes difficult.

We bought our own machine to make gelato and that was a huge investment. But it will last. Will it have a resale value? No, but it’s a good quality piece of machinery. We did our research. I learned about this vehicle. I do a lot of the fixing myself in my backyard. My mechanic is a three hour drive away. If the car doesn’t run, it gets towed or I deal with it in my yard. A couple weeks ago it broke down so I disassembled the vehicle, drove up there, brought it back, reassembled. So that’s like 15-18 hours of my time. That pulls you off the street for that period. If this doesn’t work, we can’t make money. Food trucks are hard to profit from, it’s not easier than a restaurant. Your restaurant will always be there. But I have an extra entity on wheels. Also, when it rains, I don’t make money. We’re going to keep going and see what happens.

Any interesting interactions with a customer?

On the first full day of service I met a girl. I ended up going into a relationship by chance. It ended poorly. Some girls ask me out on behalf of their friends. “Oh I think you’d be a really great match for my friend,” and i’m like, “well where’s your friend?” You can’t ask me out on your friend’s behalf. If you do, at least show me a picture so if they come to the truck I can say something.

She was the first girl I ever fell in love with, but the truck and business go on.

Is there a place in Toronto that’s significant to you?

I know the city very well from driving and biking around when I was a teenager. I’m just used to the west side, because i’m from the west side. I was born and raised in Saint Clair west.

Other thoughts?

If I have something in my mind, I keep going until I do it or fail miserably at it. I dive into things and keep going until I figure out how it works. There are times in the winter where it’s minus 30 and i’m lying on a piece of cardboard in the snow, in my backyard, underneath the truck. I can barely fit underneath it, but I still try to fix it.

I always pose in photos. I wanted to have masks in the truck so when people take a shot of our vehicle, we’d whip them out.

This business is a part of who I am, but I am still my own person. They are two very different things. Sure, sometimes they interact, but it’s just like I wouldn’t hang out with a girlfriend in the truck. There’s truck time and there’s “her” time.

I also don’t want the recognition for what I do unless it’s on a note of, “he makes good gelato,” not, “oh there’s the guy with the funny truck.” Anyone can have a funny truck, but not everyone can learn how to make good gelato, right?

Portrait photos: Toronto skyline on Danforth and Riverdale park


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