Toronto, CAN: Food trucks need more room to grow, advocates say

Meltdown Cheesery offers variations on grilled cheese.

By Jennifer Pagliaro  |  The Star

Victor Reinosso, owner of La Novela,  hands lunch to U of T student Brandon Renvina  on Wednesday outside city hall. There are currently  49 permitted mobile food trucks in Toronto.   (CHRIS SO / TORONTO STAR) |
Victor Reinosso, owner of La Novela, hands lunch to U of T student Brandon
Renvina on Wednesday outside city hall. There are currently 49 permitted
mobile food trucks in Toronto. (CHRIS SO / TORONTO STAR) |

Food truck operators say the city needs to create more room on the road to allow for a vibrant, growing street food scene.

But a year after council continued to relax the rules governing where food trucks can park and how they do business, Mayor John Tory says he doesn’t see the need for any more changes anytime soon.

And food truck patrons will have to wait at least another year for the debate to be revisited.

“I think that what we have to do is make sure that we have a fair chance given to the regime that’s been in place now,” said Tory, speaking to reporters at the launch of Food Truck Days in Nathan Phillips Square.

The proof that the new rules are working, the mayor said, is the growing number of trucks on the road.

Since the regulations were amended in May 2015 — most significantly reducing the distance trucks must park from brick-and-mortar restaurants from 50 to 30 metres — 44 permits have been issued, more than doubling the annual amount. Eighteen of those permits have been handed out so far this year, nearly all of them the new six-month version allowing vendors to try the road business at half the regular $5,000 fee.

There are currently 49 permitted mobile food trucks in Toronto, offering everything from sushi to tacos to grilled cheese.

“What we’ll have to see is how do they all do and what is the impact on the existing restaurant business and then it might be a fair chance at that stage to look at whether we make more changes,” said Tory, who recently ushered in changes to a different set of licensing regulations to allow Uber and similar ride-hailing companies to compete against taxis.

“For now I think the rules we have seem to be working in terms of encouraging people with new ideas and new foods to come out and give people more choice and so I wouldn’t see, for myself, any changes happening imminently.”

Food truck advocate and restaurateur Zane Caplansky says he’s disappointed by the stalled progress.

“The food truck issue has fallen off the city’s agenda,” he told the Star, saying the Uber debate has recently dominated policy-makers’ time.

The new rules, he said, were a good start. After the vote last year, he vowed they would continue to push for 15 metres and eventually no distance restrictions at all.

“That was really only meant to step in the right direction. We’re not at the finish line yet,” Caplansky said. “We scored a major victory a year ago for the birth of an industry. Now that the fears have been pushed aside by facts, let us operate.”

While the restaurant industry has pushed back on loosening food truck regulations, saying it would cripple their businesses, Caplansky said those fears have not been borne out.

“No restaurants have been closed because of food trucks,” Caplansky said. “There’s room on the city streets.”

Still, Tony Elenis, president and CEO of the Ontario Restaurant Hotel & Motel Association said while they have no hard data, some businesses are threatened by food trucks.

“We actually worked with them to bring it down to 30 (metres),” he said Wednesday. “That 30 metres should stay.”

While he said sit-down restaurants are less impacted by food trucks, he argued sandwich shops and other grab-and-go lunch spots are in direct competition with food trucks, whose owners pay far fewer fees to operate.

While food truck advocates hoped to see the issue back before council this year, staff told the Star the debate won’t return until 2017.

Word from the grill

The Star spoke with food truck owners at city hall on Wednesday to find out how business is going.


La Novela

La Novela is a Latin grill food truck.
La Novela is a Latin grill food truck.

Offerings: Latin grill, including two tacos with nachos and guacamole ($10) and a carne asada (steak) sandwich ($10).

Years on wheels: Got a mobile permit after the rules changed in May 2015

Views on the future: “It still is a little hard because the permits are so expensive,” says owner Victor Reinoso, who runs the truck with his wife Anna. He said a group of owners is working to curb competition by self-organizing on things like schedules and arranging who parks where to avoid illegal overcrowding of more than two trucks within a city block. “Right now we are still working together,” he said, adding the city’s licensing division has recently been cracking down on enforcing the rules.


Born2eat serves a variety of hand-held options.
Born2eat serves a variety of hand-held options.

Offerings: A variety of hand-held eats, including AAA beef burger and fries ($11) and “We got 3 balls” macaroni and cheese balls with kale salad ($11)

Years on wheels: Has had a mobile permit for two years

Views on the future: “On the street it’s kind of difficult,” said owner Ruben Navaratnam, because they’re fighting with other trucks and cars taking up parking spaces in prime lunchtime hot spots. He said he’s fine with the 30-metre rule, but says the city needs to step in to create more space to park.

Meltdown Cheesery

Meltdown Cheesery offers variations on grilled cheese.
Meltdown Cheesery offers variations on grilled cheese.

Offerings: Variations on grilled cheese, including with pulled pork ($10) and “The Cali” with guacamole ($10).

Years on wheels: Has non-mobile permit allowing them to work private functions since 2014

Views on the future: “It’s going to become like the Wild West,” said owner Lou Mouzakis, of the increase in permitted food trucks. He tried the mobile permit before the rules changed, but got busy with catering requests and didn’t have enough time to stay on the road. He said he’s “seriously considering” trying the new six-month permit, but said “I don’t want to be cutting the restaurant owners’ grass.”