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Seed of an idea grew fast into couple's plant-based food truck side hustle

'It doesn’t matter if you are strictly vegan or you’re just wanting to dabble here and there, we wanted to make it easier,' say the owners of a new food truck called VeganCo.
VeganCo.'s mission is to make delicious, plant-based food accessible to everyone.

A Collingwood couple has set out to prove that plants can be delicious… and not always all that healthy. 

Elise Gilbert and Richard Gillis are the cofounders of VeganCo., one of the newest additions to Collingwood’s food scene, and their mission is to make delicious, plant-based food accessible to everyone — regardless if you are vegan or not.  

“We aren’t here to turn people vegan if they don’t want to be,” said Gillis. “But we want to prove that you don’t have to sacrifice flavour to do it.”

Gilbert added: “We really just want to open people’s minds up to what’s possible.” 

Both Gilbert and Gillis have a background in hospitality, but neither of them started out thinking they’d open an establishment for themselves. VeganCo. started as a pipe dream earlier this year, with no real plan as to what it would turn into, and the couple said they still find it hard to believe their dream has become a reality. 

A Collingwood native, Gilbert has a background in arts and education and works full time in administration. She’s been vegetarian on and off since high school, and prior to meeting Gillis, said she “only cooked to survive.”  

Gillis, on the other hand, went to culinary school and spent years working in the restaurant industry in Toronto. He was known as a grill master and goes as far as to say he was “anti-vegan” until two years ago, when he quit eating animal products cold turkey — no pun intended. 

Shortly after, Gillis left the restaurant industry and decided to go back to school full time. But he loved experimenting with plant-based foods, attempting to recreate all of the meals he used to cook — just vegan. 

When the two got together, Gilbert quickly realized how easy it was to eat a plant-based diet when the food was so delicious. They also learned firsthand how difficult it can be to find vegan options at events or going out to eat. 

“As a vegan, you always have to be prepared,” said Gilbert. “We know that struggle, so we wanted to do something to make it easier for people. It doesn’t matter if you are strictly vegan or you’re just wanting to dabble here and there, we wanted to make it easier.”

Feeling inspired, they began toying with the idea of creating a meal delivery service or local food box when a friend suggested they start a food truck. The next day they found a trailer for sale on Kijiji. 

It needed a lot of work, but it was cheap, so they purchased the trailer in May and planned to spend the summer gutting it and transforming it into a portable kitchen. 

One hot summer day shortly after, the couple was sitting at the Collingwood Brewery, scheming up different ideas for their new endeavour. They were looking at the beer garden and thinking how nice it would be to park the trailer there. Later that evening, they went to dinner at a Low Down and the owner suggested they do a pop up on the patio and see how it goes. 

“It was still very, very new at the time,” said Gilbert. “We had just purchased the domain name… But we didn’t even know what would be on the menu at that point.”

But, by the time they got their drinks, they were decided. 

They held their first pop-up at Low Down on July 4 and sold out of almost everything they cooked within the first hour. After that, things started to snowball. With the help of family members, they purchased a tent and a deep fryer and started piecing together the business. 

“We just kept saying yes, and we’d figure the rest out,” said Gilbert. 

Then, almost serendipitously, they were approached by Collingwood Brewery and asked to be a vendor in the beer garden throughout the summer. 

“It kind of all fell into place,” said Gillis. 

They retired the original trailer and moved into a fully-equipped food truck, established a permanent menu and have found a temporary home at the brewery. They continue to do pop-ups and events around Southern Ontario as well. 

While the two are still learning how to be both business and life partners, they are starting to find their groove. Gillis does all of the cooking, and Gilbert runs the “front of house,” coordinating all of the pop-ups and events and running VeganCo.’s social media channels. They both still have full-time gigs — between work and school — but have big plans for VeganCo. As well. 

“As a chef, it’s a really exciting time to be in the vegan industry,” said Gillis. “All the new products are coming out and there are a lot of cool things that people are doing… So being on the forefront of that, it feels pretty revolutionary.”

“I love seeing him in his element and seeing how far his vegan cooking has come. And getting feedback from people…” smiled Gilbert. “It’s just so telling of his talent.”

The inspiration for their menu came from Gillis’ time working at gastropubs in Toronto. 

“I am not reinventing the wheel as far as bar food goes, but it’s vegan,” said Gillis. “We don’t want you to feel like you have to sacrifice something you used to eat.”

Sourcing products has been one of the biggest challenges, but it's also meant lots of experimenting.

“We’ve had some very interesting meals over the years…” laughed Gilbert.

They love working with local suppliers, such as Ma Masita for their artisan tortillas, Cobb’s Bread, and the County Bounty, but they are always looking for new products and companies emerging in the vegan space. 

The best part for Gillis and Gilbert is that they feel like they are making a difference in a community they love so much. 

“I get goosebumps every time I think about this…” said Gilbert. “But in the summer when the beer garden was packed and we’d look out at the crowd, I would just think to myself… All of these people are eating plants. And maybe they didn't plan on it or they don’t realize it, but we made a difference.”

For more information about the menu or to learn about upcoming events, visit VeganCo. on Instagram

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Maddie Johnson

About the Author: Maddie Johnson

Maddie Johnson is an early career journalist working in financial, small business, adventure and lifestyle reporting. She studied Journalism at the University of King's College, and worked in Halifax, Malta and Costa Rica before settling in Collingwood
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