By WENCY LEUNG | TheGlobeAndMail.com
Just as the craze is beginning to wane in the United States, the food-truck trend is revving up in Canada. Across the country, from Vancouver to Hamilton to Toronto and Ottawa, a small but growing brigade of Canadian chefs are taking their food to the streets, following the path blazed in recent years by American food-truck vendors.
But can Canadians avoid the pitfalls of food-truck mania?
Jay Cho of Comafood truck in Vancouver says he got his inspiration to launch his Korean-Mexican-American food-truck business this spring from his years of working in Los Angeles, ground zero of the food-truck trend. Like many independent truck operators, Mr. Cho always wanted to open his own restaurant, but didn’t have the money for a bricks-and-mortar establishment.
“The leasing, buying up the space, [the cost] was ridiculously high for me to start off,” he says.
But after seeing the phenomenal success of L.A’s Kogi BBQ-To-Go, the Korean taco truck credited for starting the trend, Mr. Cho realized he, too, could roll out his kimchi quesadillas and Korean barbecue burritos. Since launching his truck about two months ago, business has been brisk in a city that, like most others in Canada, has been devoid of street-food options beyond hot dogs and fries.
“It’s been very busy,” Mr. Cho says. “I guess I’ve been doing it right.”
Strict municipal regulations have been blamed for limiting street foods. But as late adopters of the trend, Canadian cities, truck operators and diners may be able to learn from the American experience.
Jason Kessler, an L.A. writer for Bon Appétit magazine, says the food-truck craze veered downhill almost as soon as it began. In an essay last month, titled “I’m Sick of Food Trucks,” he lamented that the independent, grass-roots phenomenon has morphed into a cash grab.
“The first wave was exciting and fun, and it seemed like each truck represented a different kind of cuisine,” Mr. Kessler said by phone from Los Angeles. “But I think it probably first started to run away from the initial concept when the imitators started coming out.”
While grimy, mobile “loncheras,” or “roach coaches,” had existed in the city for years, it wasn’t until Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go emerged that eating at food trucks became an event. Diners began following gourmet food trucks on social media, and showing up in droves wherever they stopped.
Instead of focusing on quality food, however, imitators began offering franchising opportunities straight out of the gate, Mr. Kessler says. Even fast-food mega-chains such as Taco Bell and Jack in the Box began deploying food trucks, and the market became oversaturated.
“The blind grab for my food dollars makes me a little sick – possibly sicker than a crunchy beef melt would already make me,” Mr. Kessler says.
Meanwhile, cities from New York to Portland are reportedly cracking down on food trucks in busy areas and ramping up food-safety checks to control their proliferation.
In Toronto, however, the situation is quite the opposite. Regulations here are preventing what could be a flourishing food-truck scene, says Suresh Doss, publisher of Toronto’s food and cultural events site SpotlightToronto.com. Mr. Doss is organizing the first of three food-truck festivals in the city’s Distillery District on July 2 to showcase gourmet street food and convince city hall to relax its regulations.
So far, he says at least five food trucks from various parts of the province will participate, and several more are expected to join by the second and third dates, which Mr. Doss has yet to confirm.
“I think there’d be enough noise that the city will realize there’s enough interest in gourmet street food, but also food that is a lot healthier than the hamburgers and hot dogs that you see,” he says.
Contrary to what many believe, however, there are actually few restrictions on what food trucks can serve, says Jim Chan, manager of Toronto Public Health’s food-safety program.
“Food trucks, because they’re fully enclosed, they actually [can offer] so many more options than a cart,” Mr. Chan says. “If they are in full compliance with the food-premises regulation –namely that they have mechanical ventilation, hoods … mechanical refrigeration, they have sinks and basins, they have water heaters – we treat them just like a restaurant.”
Food-cart vendors are allowed only to reheat pre-cooked food because they prepare it in open air. But food trucks that have his department’s approval can serve anything a restaurant can, Mr. Chan says, noting that several trucks have been operating in the city for years.
The biggest hurdle for new food trucks in Toronto is the restrictions on where they can operate. The city has a moratorium on new vending permits on streets in the already congestedcity centre. Trucks, however, can operate on private property with proper zoning, says Pat Thornback, acting supervisor of the city’s licensing services department. They can also sell food at special events, where streets are closed. Otherwise, truck operators can apply for licences outside of the downtown core.
Zane Caplansky, of Caplansky’s Deli in Toronto, says he expects he’ll be able to operate happily within those restrictions when he launches his first food truck this month. He plans to be open seven days a week for lunch and late-night snacking, and at special events.
Already, his truck has garnered an enormous amount of attention online, on Twitter, food blogs and local media, and Mr. Caplansky says he hopes it will help him build a following of customers.
Mr. Caplansky’s answer to avoiding a food-truck backlash is simply to keep customers happy. “I believe in the free market,” he says. “If you serve schlock, people will reject you.”