Halifax’s backyard economy shows signs of going legit.

Halifax’s backyard economy shows signs of going legit.
The result may be a new way to imagine how communities and cities are built.

It’s one of the first sub-zero days of December when I decide to finally stop by The Food Wolf, a new localfare food truck that opened on Maitland Street in Halifax’s north end this fall. Word has it that owners Natalie Chavarie, Virgil Muir and Eric Gunnells make the best tacos in town, and I’ve come to find out how true that word is.

Lodged on a small grassy strip between a parking lot and a gravel lot, the white step van with a black silhouette of a wolf painted on its side is easy to spot. Today, there’s dance rock pumping from an outdoor speaker, and inside Chavarie is shivering in rhythm as she takes my order: two spicy beef and pork soft tacos with beans and Mexican rice. I’m drooling already.

Outside, a photographer from a local magazine is taking shots of the truck. “Is it cool if she takes our photo?” Chavarie asks me.

“No problem,” I tell her, though I wonder how much of a problem drawing all of this attention would have been for her a year and a half ago. That’s when she launched a supper club called “Young & Dublin” with her partner, Virgil Muir. For about four months in the summer of 2011 they served up Mexican and Korean dishes to friends, neighbours and strangers in their backyard in exchange for suggested donations. To avoid health inspectors, they didn’t publish their address or photos of their house and instead relied on social media and word of mouth to advertise. “It was an incredible example of trust,” says Chavarie.

They were part of Halifax’s muchwritten- about backyard economy, a term used for the dozen or so start-ups ranging from basement speakeasies to living room vintage clothing stores to moveable cafes operating outside zoning, taxation or health regulations. Many are run by twentysomethings living in the north end who lack the means or inclination to start a legitimate business.

Although some of these young entrepreneurs aren’t ready or willing to take their operations to the next legitimate level, others now are and they’re crediting the backyard economy with giving them the tools they’ve needed to launch successful small businesses.

Chavarie and Muir, who used Young & Dublin as a test kitchen and a way to microfinance The Food Wolf, are two of them. “Young & Dublin gave us some real insight into the food preparation process and what kind of skills and instruments we would need,” says Chavarie. “And in terms of business development, it gave us an understanding of how to manage risk and how to involve our community.”

Jess Ross is another graduate of the backyard economy. She’s the brains and the muscle behind the legitimate Gold Island Bakery, a community-supported agriculture business that sells whole grain sourdough breads at the historic Farmers Market and to bi-monthly subscribers. Before launching Gold Island the twenty-seven-year-old set up a food stand on Agricola Street with two friends. There they sold vegetables, bread, preserves, cakes and pizzas under the table and in violation of at least one health regulation.

Like Chavarie, Ross believes that one lesson the backyard economy taught her was how to connect with and understand her local community. “Having that stand was my first experience with direct retailing, where I was making things and selling them, ” she says. “That is a really crucial part of my business now—being able to connect with people and talk with them about what I make and how I make it. “

That type of direct connection with one’s local community in order to fill a need— in Ross’s case, healthy and locally-sourced bread—is at the heart of tactical urbanism. It’s a term coined by Brooklyn-based urban designer Mike Lyndon to describe the smallscale, low-risk interventions that have been replicated in towns and cities around the world in recent years.

Unlike top-down urban interventions that can start at the government level and include megaprojects like conference centres and casinos, acts of tactical urbanism start at the street level and are meant to improve the livability of neighborhoods. Like top-down urbanism, though, tactical urbanism has the potential to instigate lasting change. Think of the open streets initiatives started in Bogota, Columbia, that have spread around the world or the new seating area in the middle of Times Square that’s being replicated in other dense urban areas in the U.S.

Think of Halifax’s backyard economy and how it became an incubator for Ross and Chavarie to expand their operations. Both used that setting to test and finance their ideas, as well as understand their community’s desire for healthy and locally-sourced food— something that’s been seriously lacking in Halifax’s north end. Now they’re part of a larger movement in the community that’s trying to bring more of this type of food to northenders’ tables.

Although their businesses have been the only two to emerge from the backyard economy so far, their example has some wondering, including north end municipal councillor, Jennifer Watts, what their acts of tactical urbanism do for the community and the city as a whole.

“It says that you can have an idea and be successful about it, and I think that’s really important, ” says Watts. “Big contracts are important—they are major anchors—but small business is a huge part of our economy. It’s small businesses that actually provide the quality of services that make and strengthen local neighborhoods, that make it a livable, walkable and attractive community. “

Back at The Food Wolf, my order’s up. The photographer gets in close for a shot of the steaming tacos topped with bright red salsa, and then Chavarie closes the takeout container and presses a stamp of a wolf onto the top of the lid.

“All good things start small, ” Chavarie tells me later. “And they should start small because otherwise you lose your scope and you probably fail. “

So far, failure hasn’t been on the menu for those wanting to emerge from the backyard economy, and if the success of The Food Wolf—which does, in fact, have the best tacos in the city—and Gold Island Bakery are any indication, it won’t be anytime soon.

By Jordan Whitehouse

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