Toronto: Street Food Plan Might Go Back to Square “1”

Issa Ashtarieh, one of the few A La Cart participants still in business, stands near his Bahar BBQ cart at College Street and University Avenue. Photo by Nick Kozak/OpenFile

by Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy |

Issa Ashtarieh, one of the few A La Cart participants still in business, stands near his Bahar BBQ cart at College Street and University Avenue. Photo by Nick Kozak/OpenFile

After two years of scathing reviews for its A La Cart project, city council will consider next week whether to scrap Toronto’s street food regulations and start over. The recommendation comes from a consultant’s report [PDF] on A La Cart, which deemed the planned three-year experiment unsuccessful.

The May 17 and 18 meeting also will address how to handle the food vendors, who have paid the highest price for A La Cart’s failure. The program, which received heavy criticism for measures such as demanding that vendors shell out $30,000 for cumbersome carts and cook all their dishes ahead of time in a restaurant or catering locale, has been a bust; of the eight vendors who ponied up the cash and adhered to the strict regulations, only three are still in business.

When it was released last month, the consultant’s report was quick to spot the main problem: “Our research shows that the most successful and vibrant street food occurs in jurisdictions with the most laissez-faire approach to street food regulation,” read the report by Cameron Hawkins & Associates Inc., which specializes in the tourism and hospitality fields.

“A La Cart was a two-tier, over-regulated program, with a tremendous amount of red tape that choked the participating vendors,” says Councillor Cesar Palacio (Ward 17 Davenport), who has been a vocal critic of the project. “That kind of restriction hindered the entrepreneurial spirit of those who wanted to participate in it.”

In addition to the city’s order that vendors purchase the expensive, unwieldy carts, Palacio cites the city’s refusal to allow vendors to display their menus as an example of excessive control.

“It only makes sense to allow a vendor to display their menu so you know what they are selling,” Palacio says, adding this was especially critical to vendors who were offering unique and hard-to-find meal options such as Korean fried squid balls or Caribbean roasted pineapple with cinnamon sugar.

In an even bolder move, Palacio hopes to urge the council to rework regulations to allow vendors to choose their own locations, define their own hours, and pick their own menu, provided it adheres to health and safety regulations. If approved, the new framework would apply to all of Toronto’s food vendors, including hot dog carts, not just those who are part of a special project.

Palacio is adamant that overzealous restrictions, and not the absence of a market for street food, caused the program’s failure. Inspired by food cart clusters in places such as Portland and Austin, Palacio would like to see a similar movement in Toronto.

“One of the [recommendations] I will put forward is for the city to look at different locations as possibilities, like food courts. Torontonians would know that if you want to eat food from different parts of the globe, go to this place,” he says. “In Oregon and New York [City], food vendor programs have been extremely successful, and we have something to learn from them.”

One difference between us and our neighbours down south is operating cost: New York City street vendors pay an average of $400 a year for a permit and licence, while annual Toronto permits, even just for selling hot dogs, are closer to $5,000.

While the council debates whether to adapt the policies on street food going forward, there remains the financial burden of the vendors who participated in A La Cart, many of whom have cited significant losses or bankruptcy. Palacio endorses the proposal that the city waive location fees and allow access to free spaces for up to three years to any A La Cart vendors who still wish to operate. “Waiving the fees would be one way for the city to recognize that pilot vendors were subject to a greater level of regulation than other street food vendors,” Palacio says.

But waiving fees might not be adequate compensation for the costs that vendors put into the program. “I’ve spent almost $100,000 that I borrowed from my daughter, and I can’t pay her back. I can’t pay my bills,” says Issa Ashtarieh, who operates Bahar BBQ cart at College and University and is one of the few program participants still in business. “Plus it doesn’t benefit all the vendors, because some of them would have already packed up.”

Ashtarieh cites poor locations, the expense of storing the enormous cart in the colder months, and consistent cart malfunctions and breakdowns — not to mention the price of the cart and other costs — as amounting to a wrong that the city cannot remedy simply by promising to remove the fees.

“It’s a tragedy,” he says, describing his relationship with the A La Cart program.

What Ashtarieh would like is for the city to reimburse the vendors, at least for the price of the carts. “That would be the right thing to do,” he says.

For next week’s meeting, that motion isn’t even on the table.