Elias DuBose meets the owners of local restaurants putting their cuisine on the road.
From Mayangone to Daw Pone, it’s an easy observation that Yangon has a thriving street food industry. Sidewalks in every township are lined with locals buying food cooked on portable carts by local entrepreneurs on a daily basis. Traveling the length of the city, they quietly service the well-to-do looking for a quick snack or refreshing drink.
Feeling the same hunger as their local compatriots, foreign food lovers, in fear of questionable food quality, have been patiently waiting to see if food trucks, mobile restaurants popular in nearby countries, would finally grab a foothold in Myanmar. Indeed, it has been an abundant success in nearby countries, especially in Thailand, where their sidewalk cuisine is continually featured on travel documentaries.
Not to be left behind, a handful of food trucks have been regularly circling the streets of Yangon to varying levels of success. Furthermore, full-fledged restaurants are seeking their own footholds in the food truck game.
Fabian Lagendorf, business partner of Sprouts owner, Andrew Cashin, has created Wrap City, a food truck focused on creating simplistic, handheld meals using locally grown ingredients and ingenuity to bring a more health-conscious effort to the casual food market.
“We produce and cook everyday fresh, with healthy ingredients and low fat. All our dishes are a good combination of carbs, protein and vitamins,” says Langendorf. “We only have five to seven dishes on our menu to provide a perfect food consistency.”
Coming off of a month-long hiatus, Wrap City’s retrofitted van will be back on the streets this summer to expand its business with the lunch crowd. But they aren’t the only ones getting in on the action.
Espressonite will be rolling out their own crimson and black coffee van, emblazoned with their signature logo and “Coffee On the Go” branding on its sides. Running a two-man team, the company looks to deliver their premium products starting this July.
With several offerings including espresso, coffee, and tea, as well as pastries and other snacks, the coffee van looks to capitalize on the company’s early success. Open since January, Espressonite serves a unique blend of coffee, mixing Arabica and Myanmar coffee beans that have found a receptive audience in the Hledan Center. Speaking to an Espressonite spokesman, the company looks to exceed the locals’ expectations when it comes to their offerings.
“We expect power. We expect internet. We expect our food to be delivered on time. We expect it to taste good,” says the spokesman. “We expect our coffee to be good and we expect it to be good every time. If I’m going to pay you 3000 kyat for coffee, I expect it to be good. It’s not a complaining culture. It’s not about a litigious society and complaining for the sake of complaining. We expect to have the life that everyone else has and that’s a good thing.”
To be able to move the food truck conversation forward for the consuming audience, both organizations will try to include the community.
In order for customers to be able to find the truck, Wrap City will be transparent with their schedule on their Facebook page. While they are still developing their website, “There will be a Food Truck Tracker or Truck Locator,” said Langendorf in an email.
Espressonite also looks to meet their customers at regular intervals, first arriving at set locations and later returning to popular spots, depending on demand.
“We would like to get to a stage where we have a regular route. Customers are expecting us at the same time. The expectation is that, ‘Okay, the Espressonite truck is here, I’m going to have a cappuccino, I’m going to have a croissant and then at lunch time, maybe I’ll have my second cup of the day.’”
That kind of regularity, they believe, will allow them to utilize their fervent install base to supplement any early struggles.
“People get used to things very quickly. My point is they come here, they pay 3000 kyat for a cup of coffee, they get a good experience, they walk away happy, but that’s their expectation. Why should they not expect that?”
With trucks at the ready and routes planned, customers only reservation lies in how safe any food would be in a landscape where, often, the welcoming food tradition tends to be food poisoning.
“I think there’s a bit of a fallacy here because it’s a developing market that you can just come here and do it cheaply, but you can’t,” the spokesman said. “Your standards have to be global standards. It’s just training good habits. What comes naturally to people from more advanced F and B [food and beverage] environments is second nature, but it wasn’t here. The beautiful thing is because the heart and spirit is so good, it doesn’t come across as a chastisement.”
So in raising the populace’s expectations as well as quelling the fears of prospective foreign customers, the companies are trying to evolve the food culture in Yangon. Not only when it comes to customers, but for other food trucks, as well.
“People who want to go to a restaurant don’t go on the street and change their plans because there’s a food truck. It is good for events and places without a lot of food options,” says Langendorf. “There are already a few trucks in the streets and, actually, lunch time is not that easy because a lot of people bring their lunch from home or go to a tea shop. It needs time, but I think food trucks will help to improve the quality and efficiency of life and food culture in Yangon.”
Instead of creating a landscape where everyone is out for themselves, they are looking to build a cooperative relationship with other food trucks to eventually create instances where lines of food trucks can come together, like a mobile food court, where workers no longer have to order out or dash far away for that special something.
“I think we should be parking at two or three or four locations, or maybe just one location and we just stay there all day. Turn up at ten and we leave at six. And we have a coffee truck, have a taco truck, a donut truck, and whatever else,” says Espressonite’s spokesperson. “We pull our resources, buy mobile wifi, buy some nice furniture, maybe we buy access to a shared generator, we sell there for eight hours Saturday and eight on Sunday and we make it a destination place.”
So with the many possibilities out there for potential customers to choose from, one community may facilitate the other, bringing office workers from adjacent streets and buildings together creating a new, Yangon-style pop-up cafeteria.
“I want there to be that expectation that I’m going to meet my colleagues there. That sort of aspect of the water cooler life. I’d like to get to the stage to have a portable 4G wifi device for people to just come around and check the internet or even just come and talk to their friends for half an hour,” says Espressonite.
So when you’re traveling the streets of Yangon during the week, keep your eyes peeled for local crowds of office workers lined up in front of trucks; smiling workers handing out wraps, coffee, and treats; and commute neighbors laughing it up all under the open sky.