By Josh Freed | The Gazette
MONTREAL — The good news is we Montrealers finally have street food trucks this summer, after decades when chip wagons were outlawed, like bullfighting arenas.
The bad news is the trucks are run by a city hall-driven bureaucracy with so many rules we’ll be lucky if many survive two summers.
The other night I had a great street taco at the mountain, across from my house — but when I returned for a second one at 10:01 p.m., they couldn’t sell it. City rules demand all trucks close at 10 p.m. sharp, like a camp curfew.
But that’s just the start of the endless food rules several vendors explained to me — anonymously, for fear of even more hassles.
For starters, because it’s a “pilot project” only 27 trucks are licensed for the whole city. That’s about one truck per 75,000 Montrealers. No wonder they’re hard to find.
Incredibly, the trucks can only work a maximum five-hour shift (or 3½ hours at lunch) then they must head home — unless they are granted a very rare double shift. Are these work hours based on civil servants days? Or just meant to ensure Quebecers don’t overwork?
“Me and my guys are ready to work 12-hour days all summer,” says one truck owner. “But we have to close after our shift — even if there’s a lineup waiting. It’s hard to make a living when you can’t serve your customers.”
Similarly, no truck can choose a spot based on popular demand. There are nine designated locations in the city — and every truck is told when to be where, even if it’s Place du Canada late at night, when there are almost no customers.
The 10 p.m. curfew includes weekend nights downtown, when many restaurants are closed and you’d love some street food. I guess the food bureaucrats have decided it’s bad for our digestion to eat late.
Naturally, the trucks can’t stay open past the end of September — just like city pools and tennis courts that often close when the weather’s still great.
What’s up? We’re treating food trucks like they were heroin injection sites, distributing their fix in tiny doses as if the stuff was addictive (which it might be, if we could find it easily).
I feel for the vendors: gutsy, small entrepreneurs who say they’ve spent from $50,000 to $100,000 on their trucks and equipment, but are struggling to make a living, imprisoned by rules.
They complain that trucks must be affiliated with a restaurant and do all cooking in their kitchen for a big fee.
“Why do we have to partner with a restaurant?” one vendor asked. “The truck and the menu choices were my ideas — and it’s my investment.”
It’s all so Monty Pythonesque you’d think the city wants the trucks to fail, so restaurants won’t have competition. But if that’s the goal let’s just add some more rules and guarantee their failure.
Let’s require the trucks to accept exact change only, like bus drivers. “Sorry ma’am, I can’t break that $20 — it’s $8.50 for a chicken vindaloo sandwich or nothing, unless you leave an $11.50 tip.”
Perhaps we consumers should also require permits to eat street food?
PUBLIC NOTICE: To obtain a “street food” eating license please appear at City Hall between 8 and 9 a.m. with three photo IDs and a doctor’s certificate attesting you are not overweight. Permit valid for three street food meals per month.
After that period we’d have to visit a “street food recovery clinic” and talk to a social worker about our habit.
“Look, Mr. Freed, I know you love pulled pork sandwiches — but you’ve had three in the last month. Wouldn’t it be better if you controlled your addiction — and ate some gluten free freshwater fish tacos? Otherwise, we may have to withdraw your permit.”
Yes, I understand some rules are there to protect restaurant owners worried about too much (or any) competition from street food. I agree we shouldn’t permit a steak sandwich truck to park outside Moishes, or an “artisanal hot dog” one to roll into Lafleur.
But let’s allow food trucks in parks, or on restaurant-challenged streets for as many hours as the owners choose to work. How about allowing some trucks along the Lachine Canal’s food-free bike path, or permitting a dozen to gather in the Old Port area where food is rare?
I was in Brooklyn recently where there are weekend food fairs in every second park, and dozens of vendors in small tents dish out mouth-watering fare in a festive food free-for-all. Why not here?
City hall says be patient for two years — it’s just a pilot project. But I’ve been patient for 50 years — now I’m hungry.
Justin Trudeau has boldly called for Canada to legalize marijuana, but maybe he should start with legalizing food. It’s time to end our food rules — and let food rule.