The Drive Canteen in Vancouver is taking the convenience store concept to new heights

A tray of braised beef nachos with cilantro cream, and Chicago and Medellin hot dogs at The Drive Canteen, in Vancouver on Aug. 4.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/The Globe and Mail

The Fried Chicken Crois-Sando, a collaboration between Vancouver’s Beaucoup Bakery and DL Chicken Shack, was an over-the-top taste sensation of epic proportions.

Featuring a fat, crunchy chicken thigh sandwiched between a flaky croissant that had DL’s medium spice folded directly into the butter, the cross-genre mashup was laminated with bright-red stripes, smeared with creamy sauce, popped with sweet-and-sour pickles and chin-dripping delicious. For those who dared, there was also an ungodly sweet-n-spicy version, filled with schmaltz-infused pastry cream instead of chicken, coated in grim-reaper sugar dust.

Much like a limited-edition sneaker drop, they were only available for one day last month (July 6) at three pop-up locations and sold out within an hour.

Yes, it stinks that I’m just telling you about it now. Such is the nature of novelty marketing, one of the most intriguing food trends to emerge from the pandemic – especially as we’re seeing it in Vancouver, with an emphasis on boosting community.

Doug Stephen and Lindsey Mann, with two-year-old son Boe, at The Drive Canteen.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/The Globe and Mail

But with Doug Stephen and Lindsey Mann as the city’s unofficial king and queen of cross-restaurant collaborations, you can bet that there will be plenty more FOMO-inspired (and food-coma-inducing) creations cooked up from their growing fast-casual-food empire, which includes DL Chicken, DownLow Burgers, Vennie’s Sub Shop and The Drive Canteen.

The couple’s creative output in recent months has been dizzying.

On the day the Fried Chicken Crois-Sando dropped, Mr. Stephen, Ms. Mann and Colin Staus (a friend and former partner at Big Day BBQ) had just wrapped Sunday Pies Pizza Co., a 10-day pop-up at Luppolo Brewing. While ostensibly filling in when the main pizzaiolo went on vacation, their takeover grew into a collective carnival with at least six guest chefs from diverse backgrounds – food trucks, fine-dining restaurants and patisseries – coming in each day to generate wider buzz and put their stamp on surprise pies.

The next week, DL Chicken and Juke Fried Chicken brought back their popular Juke’N on the DL collaboration for the second year running at New Westminster’s Steel & Oak Brewing.

Around the same time, they began experimenting with Chinatown’s Pizza Coming Soon on a teriyaki burger and okonomiyaki hotdog, which were showcased at last week’s Bastid’s BBQ.

The Drive Canteen is an urban convenience store on Commercial Drive.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/The Globe and Mail

Since the start of the pandemic, Mr. Stephen and Ms. Mann have developed more than a dozen co-branded collaborations, including the Quesa-Hot Chicken Taco with the Top Rope Birria food truck, the DL Hot Duck Confit Wings with White Rock’s Barrique Kitchen and Wine Bar, the Hot Schnitzel Sando with fine-dining Published on Main and the Lee’s Honey Dip Fried Chicken Sando with the Granville Island donut shop.

While it all certainly helps the Down Low brand with top-of-mind marketing, the impetus came from a more altruistic desire to help other restaurateurs survive the darkest days of the provincially mandated shutdowns.

In March, 2020, when restaurants were first closed, DL Chicken Shack was one of the few that remained open for takeout.

“Everyone was doing the 14-day countdown,” Mr. Stephen recalls. “We got to Day 14 and a lot of our friends were getting worried. Some didn’t even have it in their head that they could do the takeout model. I said, ‘Why don’t you? I’ll collaborate with you. I’ll do whatever I can to draw attention to your space and help showcase how great you are.’ ”

The Drive Canteen features the largest supply of non-alcoholic bottled spirits, wines and cocktails.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/The Globe and Mail

Collaboration comes naturally to Mr. Stephen, a self-professed sneakerhead and hip-hop aficionado. “It’s like, ‘I’ll go on your song and you go on my song. We’ll come up with something new and interesting and get exposure to each other’s markets.’ ”

As the former owner of Merchant’s Oyster Bar, which later became Merchant’s Workshop, he was host of a non-stop rotation of collaborative dinner series. Big Day BBQ, a roving Southern-style tailgate party, was a collaboration among several partners. And in its current iteration, Down Low Burgers is a permanent pop-up at The American, a sports bar.

But in his view, the pandemic exposed the fragility of the restaurant, creating a stronger desire for co-operation and sustainability. “In the past, it was me against you. But now, with everything going on, this city has almost taken on this us-against-the-world mindset.”

Or at least that was the thinking behind his latest venture, The Drive Canteen, which takes the traditional neighbourhood convenience store to the next level with locally made snacks, nacho bar, tricked-out hot dogs, community gallery space and a sneaker section with curated streetwear, a sneaker-cleaning service, bespoke sneaker customization and student pricing.

A display of sneakers at The Drive Canteen.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/The Globe and Mail

Before launching last November, Mr. Stephen and his friend Adam Chandler from BETA5 Chocolates were commiserating over an Oreo cookie collaboration with Supreme, a leading streetwear brand.

“They were selling a three-pack of Oreos for $6,” he says. “And what was wild about them is that they were inferior Oreos because they were made with red food colouring. Part of what made Supreme so big at the beginning was that it was always high quality. Adam and I were like, man, this is wrong.

“So, I talked to my partners and told them what I’d really like to do is turn Vancouver on to all the things that are wonderful and local. Instead of spending $6 on a subpar Oreo or a KitKat that’s been flown halfway around the world, why not spend it on a Scarlito’s Way cookie, made by a VCC culinary industry instructor who’s been in the industry for 25 years? Or a bar from Adam at BETA5, who is making his chocolate with great morals and ethics and paying his staff properly and doing it all locally?

“I don’t know whether it’s because I’m getting older or I have a kid now or what, but I have this immense love affair with our city and what we’re doing and I just want to scream it from the rafters.”

The front store display at The Drive Canteen features products from a dozen different businesses.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/The Globe and Mail

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