Saskatchewan, CAN: Dining a La ‘Cart’ Downtown

Redneck Hot Dogs

By David Hutton | The StarPhoenix

Redneck Hot Dogs

Why street eats are limited

The career change that led Larry Kuan to sling street meat on Saskatoon’s sidewalks was born on a trip to Toronto.

Kuan, owner of Redneck Gourmet Hot Dogs, left a job as a salesman for a large bakery 12 years ago and was searching for a new start. He went to a Toronto baseball game with his son and was struck by the long lines at hot dog carts outside the stadium. He imported the idea within months, buying his first cart, setting up downtown and slowly building up a fleet of five carts during the last decade.

Kuan has watched as hot dog cart competition moves in each year “like flies,” but with little staying power.

“It’s quick and easy,” Kuan said, sitting on a downtown bench as a line formed behind him at the cart manned by one of his workers. “You can walk down the street and eat it in your hand. You don’t have to sit down for an hour.”

As the street food craze rages across North America, punctuated by a number of TV series, Saskatoon’s street eats remain limited to hot dogs and smokies. In a city with an long-standing diversity of restaurants, a popular summer food festival and a growing number of amateur and professional cooks with imagination, many wonder why the street food scene hasn’t flourished beyond the ordinary.

Only 11 licences were issued for carts in 2010, a similar number to the past decade, city officials say. Of those 11, five were for mobile ice cream vendors while six were for hot dog carts. The city’s few lunch trucks are limited to industrial areas and construction sites. Bus Stop Refreshments, the iconic double-decker bus across from the Delta Bessborough, isn’t mobile so it’s licensed as a restaurant.

“For the size of community we are that embraces new restaurants from different cultures and ethnicities, it does beg the question as to why we don’t have more,” said Coun. Charlie Clark.

The street food tradition has thrived in big American cities for years, from Portland to New York to L.A.

Like patios, food carts and trucks bring life to the sidewalk and can revive vacant or abandoned lots, Clark said. In other cities, the carts entice diners with everything from spicy masala shrimp to vegan tacos, grilled cheese sandwiches, shawarma and Swedish meatballs. Many food truck owners, including corporate behemoths such as Taco Bell, are using social network sites such as Twitter to let customers know where they’re going to be each day.

Some of the noveau food carts have taken over vacant or abandoned lots in busy areas, setting up tents with DJs and live music to add to the truckborne food. Many of the cities where the carts have flourished have added dozens of community gardens to supply the thriving cart business.

The street cart mecca is Portland, a city of more than 500,000 that boasts around 500 licensed vendors who form food plazas in parking lots. Vancouver is attempting to mimic Portland’s success. It recently ditched restrictions limiting street-food carts to hot dogs, popcorn and chestnuts, and approved dozens more licences. Vancouver now runs a lottery system that gives points for local, organic items to award sidewalk spots.

In Canada, efforts to expand the street-vending scene have been less organic -and less successful. Toronto’s “A la Cart” initiative, born out of a desire to offer diverse cuisine to a diverse population, has been largely panned for layers of red tape that has the city controlling everything from new dishes to the design of a cart.

The lacking scene in Saskatoon is a product of a number of factors, said Terry Scaddan, executive director of The Partnership, the downtown business association, which sets out where vendors can operate in the city centre.

The harsh winters don’t support year-round business for the carts, limiting the ability to make a living. At a maximum vendors get six months of business minus windy and rainy days. Startup costs are high and public health regulations are strict, Scaddan said.

Vendors must get approval from public health, a $100 licence from the city and location approval. Raw meat isn’t allowed but limitations that once only allowed hot dogs and smokies, precooked hamburgers, cotton candy, ice cream, popcorn and packaged food have been updated to include anything that is “ready to eat.” The carts must have a base of operations, a source of water, pass a battery of other health checks, including restrictions on their design and construction and how condiments are kept.

The deadline to get a spot in the downtown is the end of March each year.

“The mobile vending rules are fairly stringent in Saskatoon,” Scaddan said. “And believe me I think they should be. There’s too many opportunities for abuses. If you put it too wide open you suddenly would have people selling everywhere and who’s going to monitor it?”

There’s also a need to consider the owners of the city’s bricks-and-mortar restaurants, Scaddan said. There are a prescribed number of locations where the carts can be set up, allowing only one per block and none within a prescribed 65-foot distance from any restaurant. A number of business owners have also requested no carts around them because of odour issues. There would be few spots for mobile trucks, which tend to move around, Scaddan said.

“(Food trucks) wouldn’t be allowed in the downtown to move around and there’s good reasons,” Scaddan said. “You have a pretty strong group of established restaurants that are paying a lot of tax and a lot of other things and some would complain vehemently if someone set up a hot dog stand right outside.”

Cody Ng, the 35-year-old owner of Saskatoon Mobile Hot Dog Co., sports large aviator sunglasses as he stands behind his hot dog stand downtown. This year, he joins Kuan downtown after landing a prime spot on 21st Street a block from Midtown Plaza and another near the provincial courthouse. Ng has been selling hot dogs year-round outside bars and nightclubs for around 10 years, battling unlicensed vendors, but is in only his second year on the day shift.

The market is ripe for more variety, Ng says, but nobody has stepped forward to promote it and loosen restrictions on what you can serve and where you can serve it. He sees new vendors as inevitable and possibly lucrative given it would bring more people to the street.

“It’s not necessarily that the authorities don’t want it, it’s that nobody is actively trying to promote it and improve it,” Ng said.

Blair Martin, a 60-year-old musician and the owner of Canteen Royal, a startup lunch truck that stocks a wide variety of pre-made lunches for businesses in the north industrial area, says he originally considered the downtown but found there were “too many hoops to jump through” in too short a time period.

“Getting (food trucks) will depend on if people are open-minded about it or closed-minded about it,” Martin said. “I understand there are concerns because there are restaurants and I don’t want to take business away from anybody. But I’m sure people out there wouldn’t balk at having a little more variety. The more that this kind of thing is available, the more the public will welcome it.”

Kuan and others say it may just be Saskatoon lags a few years behind the trend.

“We’re always the last to change, but it’s happening all over the place and it’s going to come,” Kuan said. “When? I have no idea.”

dhutton@thestarphoenix.com

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