Taking Street Food from Flop to Fame

A young lady does mock exercises with two sandwiches from the Caplansky's truck at a "Food Truck Rally" at Celebration Square in Mississauga, Ontario on Sept. 30, 2011 Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

By Marcus Gee  |  The Globe & Mail

A young lady does mock exercises with two sandwiches from the Caplansky's truck at a "Food Truck Rally" at Celebration Square in Mississauga, Ontario on Sept. 30, 2011 Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

By rights, Toronto should have the best street food in North America. A city with so many newcomers should offer culinary treats from around the world.

Instead, what do we have? Hot dogs, sausages and French fries, mostly, a street menu that has hardly varied for decades. For a place that rightly boasts of its vibrant multiculturalism, it is downright embarrassing. Toronto is a street-food flop.

An attempt to spice up the city’s offerings ended in fiasco earlier this year. The city cancelled its A La Cart program, which encouraged vendors to sell varied foods from mobile carts but tied them up in so much red tape that few were able to make a go of it. Since then, the city has been looking for new ways to improve street food.

An experiment in Calgary could show the way. The city is letting 10 food trucks roam the streets offering a smorgasbord of treats. Los Compadres MX presents itself as “Calgary’s first gourmet taco truck,” the Noodle Bus offers Vietnamese food, BlamWich serves thick super-sandwiches and Fiasco Gelato makes fresh Italian ice cream.

The folks at the Gorilla Cheese truck were busy from the start of the Food Truck Rally at Celebration Square in Mississauga on Sept. 30, 2011. (Peter Power/ The Globe and Mail)

Twitter feeds and other social-media alerts tip customers about where to find their favourite grub. The trucks are so popular that 15 more are getting ready to join the business.

The project got up and running with unusual speed. When a group of entrepreneurs approached the city with the idea, Mayor Naheed Nenshi pulled together key city officials to make it work with a minimum of bureaucratic fuss. They did it in just 20 days. To get around an old bylaw against selling food from a truck on a public street, they gave the truck owners special business licences. Once the trucks passed fire and health inspections, they were ready to go.

Instead of a bureaucratic nightmare a la Toronto, the project has been an example of how a flexible city hall can bring a good idea to fruition. Mr. Nenshi is using it to show city officials how to cut through red tape. “It is a great example of how we can make things happen by abandoning our previous thinking,” he says.

Could it work in Toronto? Why not? Some food trucks already operate in the city, though many are just chip wagons like the ones that park outside city hall on Queen Street.

This summer Zane Caplansky of Caplansky’s Delicatessen on College launched Thundering Thelma, a revamped courier van that offers his signature smoked meat sandwiches. He argues that trucks are better than carts because they have sinks for washing and full kitchens for preparing a wider variety of food. Unlike the carts, which have to be packed up and towed, trucks can drive from place to place to go where the customers are.

The problem is that city rules make it hard for him to park Thelma in the central city. He is pushing city hall to open up the streets to more food trucks. “It’s such an easy win for the mayor,” he says. “To me it’s completely consistent with his mandate. He wanted less government intervention and more freedom of choice.”

Trucks aren’t a flawless solution. Toronto’s crowded downtown streets have limited space for food trucks. In other cities where they have taken off, like New York, there have been complaints about how they monopolize curbside parking spots or siphon off business from restaurants. Even in Calgary, local business groups have banned them from some parts of the city. But there are ways around these problems. Los Angeles lets food trucks park at metered spots and Miami lets them congregate in a special “street food court.”

Whatever the issues, food trucks are where the action and innovation is in North American street food. Toronto should get on board.