A fan favourite in Margaret River, food truck Normal Van made its name on from-scratch burgers and good old-fashioned hospitality. Now, with the opening of a permanent venue, complete with liquor licence, things just got serious.
After establishing Normal Van, one of the South West’s most sought-after food-truck offerings, Rob Webster and Jess Waldron have finally traded up to bricks and mortar, opening Normal Van Main Street in a prominent Margaret River location.
In the space that most recently housed the down south incarnation of Toastface Grillah, it’s out with the busy street-art vibe and in with a more considered colour scheme: orange against natural wood, a splash of neon, with globe pendants giving off a warm glow come the evening. The inside space is compact, with the open kitchen taking up much of it, but the dog-friendly terrace, looking out over the main strip of Margs town, has had a spruce-up with the addition of a pergola. Perfect for al fresco summer evenings or rugging up in winter.
Expect their trademark burgers made with a from-scratch ethos, along with a small but burger-appropriate drinks program pulled together by Waldron. Normal Van faithful, too, will be happy to hear that the well-loved fried-chicken sandwich, an oft-seen special, finally has a permanent place on the menu. Contributing Editor Max Brearley caught up with Webster and Waldron to dive into what’s new, and their burger backstory.
You’ve said that you’ll have your core menu and then rotate through specials a couple of times a week. You must be looking forward to doing new things that the van wouldn’t accommodate?
Rob Webster: Yeah, for example we have the soft-serve ice-cream machine now, and we’ll change that flavour every six weeks or so. My background in everything has been that unless somebody else can do it way better than you, like an awesome cheese or something, you kind of should be doing everything yourself. So, it wasn’t even really an option to buy soft-serve powder. You get really good milk, use good eggs, great cheese, seasonal ingredients, and there you go.
People have been hunting down your food truck from day one for burgers that are engineered from the bun up to be enjoyed. That from-scratch mentality is the key to what you’ve done from the start isn’t it?
RW: I’ve done a really bad job the last few years of promoting that. But I really enjoy that whole process of like, ‘let’s make a better dill pickle’, ‘let’s make a different pickle’, ‘let’s have three different pickles’, and stuff like that. We make the dressings, we make our own ’slaw, our chips – we make it all from scratch, except for the yellow cheese. And with the meat, you know we’re always looking at what we can do. So our beef is all from Dirty Clean Food – West Australian, a great product.
Jess Waldron: We don’t have a big oven here, so we’ve worked with Rise & Co so they can make our potato brioche, but it’s still Rob’s recipe.
RW: I went in there with them and worked a lot on that. We made sure that they cook actual potatoes and fold them into the dough. I mean it’s like 40 per cent potato.
It obviously means a lot to you to make it from scratch. Do you have local farming relationships?
RW: I have all these farmers 10 minutes outside of town and they just ring me up. They might say, ‘Hey, I’ve got 20 kilos of zucchini or cucumbers.’ It’s actually cheaper for me to go through them for a better product. It’s at the peak of its season and they actually make more money. I just go deeper into that because I really enjoy meeting these people’s families, you meet their kids. They’re these cool young people that are just like, ‘Yeah, I’m just going to go grow vegetables outside town.’ If I can support that, that’s what it’s all about. I give $100 to that guy and more of it stays in the local economy than if I don’t go local.
Jess, apart from your restaurant experience, you’ve been working in the wine industry. What’s the story with the drinks list?
JW: It’s super simple. At the moment I have Dormilona’s Orenji, some LS Merchants because they supported us. Cape Grace because I like Karen and Rob [Karri-Davies], and obviously I like their wines as well. And I make a little bit of wine, so my wine’s on there as well. And we’ve got Beerfarm on tap as well; they booked us for a few events.
It’s a lot of people we worked with as we got started. It’s never going to be a big wine list. It’s fun wines that are easy drinking. I’m not going to put something absolutely crazy on the list, but I might have a couple of special bottles. And to be honest, the average wine person also sometimes doesn’t even want to think about it and have to pick from like 100 choices.
So you make your own wine. That’s Jingalup Wines, right?
JW: Yeah, it’s a fun little side project, and to be able to have that here as well is great.
RW: We didn’t want this to be a thing where it was like she’s locked in here. You know just Normal Van forever. It’s like what do you want out of this. We want to make sure that Jess has the time to do what she likes to do. It’s that work life balance which for Jess is work, life, more work.
Normal Van built a following as a truck, moving around, serving food in a super casual setting, basically takeaway. It’s quite a jump in the last few years to go from something super casual to bricks and mortar.
RW: Yeah, when we started it was like a little food stall at the Margaret River night markets. I was working at Aravina Estate at the time. And then Covid happened, everything got shut down and we didn’t know when we were going back to work. So, we were just kind of hanging on, thinking what are we going to do? I had all this gear and we pretty much set up a kitchen on my back deck doing smoked-meat sandwiches, Montreal style [Webster is a Vancouver native]. We put something up on the community noticeboard and Jess would drive them out to all over and I would stay in the kitchen and get everything ready. It all got crazy after a while.
And your reputation built pretty quickly?
JW: I think one thing we get down here is locals want more chilled-out food. So whether or not we come from a fancy-restaurant background that’s not what the bread-and-butter town always wants. Suddenly we had people who would come hang out with us every week.
The transition then to a food truck and then finally to bricks and mortar came because in a truck you can’t be solely independent, because you need a space to operate, working with a private business on private property, or the council [for public sites]. It was still a bit of the unknown, as we’d apply for these permits, but we’d only get a midweek day and we couldn’t really fight it too crazily, or we’d be working somewhere and they’d be like, ‘oh, we’re going to close,’ or ‘we’re going to do our own food’.
It was difficult, and it’s one of those things when you’re a hospitality professional, you know that our food because it is so rich needs beer, it needs wine and that means licences. Bricks and mortar just make sense.
RW: We were getting busier and busier but we were still in the same little box. So that was a big thing eventually. I’d be exhausted at the end of the week, just bringing stuff in and out, driving here and there. Logistics was a big one. It was just getting to that point where I could just see myself burning out. I had that feeling of burnout, and it was either we keep it exactly like this and everything ticks along and everything’s fine, but also where are we in five years? Do we want to be feeling this strange sense of sense of burnout then?
Normal Van Main Street, featuring the classic Normal Burger, a cornmeal fried chicken burger with green slaw (a cult favourite), a portabello version, soft-serve with waffle-cone flakes, house chips and Waldron’s list of drinks, is open now.
Photography: Ovis Creative