Meals on Wheels: Is Toronto Finally Getting Food Trucks?

Rodney Bowers poses with his soon-to-be-completed food truck, a 1960 Grumman he purchased from a California collector. J.P. Moczulski for National Post

By | National Post

Rodney Bowers poses with his soon-to-be-completed food truck, a 1960 Grumman he purchased from a California collector. J.P. Moczulski for National Post

At the intersection of Brunswick Avenue and College Street, across from Fire Station No. 315 and St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Church, Zane Caplansky runs a deli. He sells more than 80,000 smoked meat sandwiches a year. Indeed, Caplansky’s has become a destination restaurant. However, Caplansky also believes that he could be selling more liver and onions, and that’s why, on July 21, he rolled out Thunderin’ Thelma, a food truck that might just be the forefront of Toronto’s next foodie revolution.

“Getting this truck going has been an emotional and financial roller coaster, but I see myself as a pioneer — we have the first great food truck in the city,” the chef, 42, says. “The licence is restrictive and arbitrary, but when we showed up on Ossington at two in the morning and people started clapping, you realize this is what people want.”

Food trucks, portable extensions of popular restaurants or entrepreneurs selling limited offerings, have taken off in cities such as Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. Here in Toronto, signs are beginning to appear that we’re on the cusp of our own food truck explosion, even after the implosion of the city’s A La Cart program.

“We say today goodbye to the sausage, hello to the samosa,” George Smitherman, then the province’s health minister, proclaimed when the A La Cart program premiered in 2007. That initiative, designed to make Toronto’s street food reflect the city’s multicultural makeup, was shuttered last year after seven of the original eight pilot vendors opted not to renew their contracts with the city. Prohibitive location fee costs and difficult health regulations sealed its doom.

“There’s no more entrepreneurial business than street food — it’s not neat and orderly and, when you have a City-run program, they want neat and orderly,” says Cameron Hawkins, an independent food service consultant who was brought in to assess the A La Cart project in November. “There’s interest all around North America in food carts, but in Toronto no one’s going to spend $75,000 on a truck and hope that they’ll be able to find some place to park it.”

Thanks to Suresh Doss, founder of Spotlight Toronto, food trucks have been able to assemble in the Distillery District this summer. Doss, 33, inspired by a trip to Miami, launched the one-day Food Truck Eats on July 2 and told the 13 vendors to expect 750 people. He was astonished when 3,500 people showed up. As a result, there’s another event planned for Aug. 20.

“By the end of the year, you’ll have 20 operating food trucks in Ontario, and that number may double by next year,” Doss says. He adds that hot restaurateurs including Rodney Bowers, of Rosebud, Citizen and next month of Hey Meatball!, and Scott Vivian, owner of Beast, are both working on trucks.

City Hall’s current bylaws are wonky — Caplansky can anchor Thunderin’ Thelma on Queen and Ossington but not at Bathurst and Eglinton, and still really hasn’t gotten a good explanation as to why that is — and Doss has become a food truck activist. He has no problem with regulations calling for trucks to have hot and cold water and separate sinks for washing hands and utensils, but he wants to see licences ease restrictions on mobility and overhead costs brought down.

“I’m bringing a petition to the Mayor’s office,” Doss says. “The food truck craze has taken off and it’s clear that Toronto doesn’t want to be left behind.”

Even Jim Chan, Toronto’s manager of Public Health and Food Safety, believes the era of the food truck has arrived.

“You don’t want carts driving around and people getting sick, but as long as operators understand the basic requirements for food safety, mobile food vending is great,” says Chan, who has 34 years of experience as Toronto’s top food cop. “If operators have a good understanding of food safety, street food’s actually quite safe.”

This summer, food truck demand exceeds both supply and City Hall’s preparedness for enacting new bylaws. To that end, OneMethod, an advertising agency on King Street West, has found a new method for distributing street eats. Their pop-up shop’s called La Carnita, and it’s not the pulled pork tacos that people are buying from the truck borrowed from a friend in St. Catharines, but one-of-a-kind pieces of art — the tacos just come with the artwork like tasty little pulled-pork stuffed receipts.

“We haven’t heard anything yet from the City; we’re assuming that we may, but so far we haven’t and I think the Minister of Health was eating a taco here the other day,” says Steve Miller, OneMethod’s creative director. According to Miller,

OneMethod is staffed by a bunch of foodies and, eager to open a taco restaurant and promote their agency, they started tweeting the location of their portable taco stand.
So far, every taco they’ve made has been sold.

“We get people in our Twitter feed saying, ‘Are you coming up to Yonge and Bloor?’ Or: ‘I can really use a taco up here at Yonge and Eglinton.’ It’s been nuts,” Miller says. “We sell artwork, not tacos, but it seems pretty clear that the age of the hot dog is dead.”