The Alberni Outpost is located on the Alberni Highway. (ELENA RARDON / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)

Food trucks help create community at entrance to Port Alberni

Alberni Outpost offers food, events, vendors at the top of Alberni Highway

The Alberni Valley News will be exploring the rise of food trucks in the Alberni Valley, starting with the Alberni Outpost on Highway 4. Watch out next week as we take a look at Clutesi Haven Marina.

This summer, a number of food trucks have popped up across the Alberni Valley. One of these food truck “clusters” can be found at the top of the Alberni Highway where Mr. Potato, owned by Dave and Barb Chamberlain, has made a home.

“Business is roaring today,” said Dave Chamberlain during a break in traffic on a hot Thursday afternoon in August.

The truck—which serves fries, hot dogs, fish and chips and more—has been popular this summer, said Dave. He believes food trucks are appealing to people because of the price, the quick service and the variety.

“And in the summer, it’s nice to sit outside and eat,” added Barb Chamberlain.

Food trucks are not new to the Alberni Valley; the odd one has cropped up in various locations over the years, from mobile hotdogs to crepes, fried bread to Jamaican food. Until now, most of them found temporary locations or only came out to festivals, outdoor markets or local events.

Mr. Potato has been in business for around five years. The food truck started out parked in the Canadian Tire parking lot, but the Chamberlains decided to start setting up at events up and down the Island. Their truck could often be spotted at the Alberni District Fall Fair, the Sproat Lake Regatta and at Alberni Motocross events.

“Even before COVID-19 hit, we decided we were done [with events],” explained Dave. “It was too much travel.”

They were interested when business owner Les Strachan reached out to them about a permanent location at the top of the Alberni Highway.

Les and Sue Strachan purchased the plot of land a couple years ago with plans to enter the tourism industry. Les is the owner of Timber Toybox a timber frame construction company that uses local wood products in a sustainable way, creating structures that were built to last. Les Strachan started out working in the forest industry, but said he became dissatisfied with it over the past 10 years.

“I needed to find an exit strategy,” he said. “For me, that was timberframe construction.”

His side hobby has now become a way of making a living, and he has used his timber frame craftmanship to create the Alberni Outpost off the side of the highway.

“The people driving to Long Beach, they’re looking at Long Beach,” said Strachan. “We need them to look at Port Alberni. We’re trying to create a walk-through, open air market,” he added. “That could be a garage sale one weekend, a farmer’s market one weekend. A community gathering place.”

Dave and Barb Chamberlain, he said, were the “right kind of people” for the area.

Strachan is currently working on constructing a larger, indoor building on the property that he hopes can one day house a sit-down coffee shop. In the meantime, he is looking for a “blend of businesses” to occupy the property.

“We just want to create the space,” he explained.

Dave shares a similar vision for the Alberni Outpost.

“We’re open to creating more than just a food truck,” he said. “We want it to be a place where people can go. We want to turn this into a mini community—to have events and things like that.”

He drew comparisons to the Coombs Emporium, which draws more than a million visitors to the area each year to check out the unique eateries, galleries, studios and shops.

“I want people to drive into Port Alberni and see this place and be excited to visit Port Alberni,” said Dave. “I want us to be a destination, not just a path to somewhere else. This piece of land is perfectly placed.”

Another food truck, Nachos and Tacos, has joined Mr. Potato at the Outpost (the Chamberlains have also been experimenting with a mini-donut and frozen yogurt food truck at the site). The two trucks alternate their days off so that there is always food available on the site. The owners of both trucks have become “good friends,” said Dave.

Along with the food trucks, a few part-time vendors have also joined the Outpost, including Lil’ Brick Shirthouse (a t-shirt company owned by youth Quinn Sayers), a wood crafter and a stand that sells blueberries and corn. The site is also home to a hollowed out log named Edgar that kids enjoy playing in.

“We’re always looking for vendors, especially artisan crafters,” said Dave. “Something that people can watch.”

Mr. Potato hosted one “Summer Fun Day” and car boot sale in August, with all proceeds going to the Alberni-Clayoquot SPCA, but hosting events has become difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even serving food is difficult now, said Dave, although Mr. Potato has adopted social distancing strategies and extra sanitization for customers.

“We’ve tried to do everything we can to make people feel safe,” he said.

Because the food truck is situated outside of city limits, they are not required to hold a business licence with the city, but they are still subject to the same regular inspections by Island Health.

“We follow the same regulations,” Dave said. “The same fire inspection, Island Health inspection, insurance.”

Mr. Potato is hoping to stay open throughout the winter if they can keep up the traffic. They have plans to build a structure over the food truck to keep it sheltered from the wind and rain.

“I see this as becoming a really great place,” said Dave Chamberlain. “And it’s right at the entrance to Port Alberni.”

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Edgar, a hollowed-out and decorated log, is just one of the attractions at the Alberni Outpost on Highway 4. (FACEBOOK PHOTO)

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