By Rene Bruemmer | Montreal Gazette
MONTREAL — Banned for more than half a century for being unsightly, unhygienic and unfair to restaurant owners, street food vendors are set to return to Montreal.
The city’s commission on economic and urban development “decided unanimously that we should say yes to street food,” commissioner and Ahuntsic-Cartierville councillor Étienne Brunet said Friday. “We wanted to bring Montreal to the same level as the other greatest cities of the world, that all have street food.”
Given the internecine street-vendor turf warfare experienced in other metropolises, however, plus the potential ire of the city’s 5,000 restaurateurs who pay rent and taxes, the commission is proceeding slowly. It is creating an advisory committee and pilot program that will see the gradual insertion of street carts and include input from Quebec’s association of restaurateurs. A regulatory framework covering all of the city’s 19 boroughs is expected by summer 2015.
Unlike other cities whose street fair consists largely of foot-long sausages, the commission has established a “no junk food” rule, promising Montreal’s vendors will mirror the gastronomic and esthetic sensibilities of the city.
“Montreal is a ‘ville gastronome,’ and an international ‘ville de design,’ ” Brunet said. “I think we can do something very good with this.”
The ban, unique among Canadian cities, dates back to 1947 when Mayor Jean Drapeau outlawed french-fry wagons on the basis they were supposedly unhygienic and beneath the city’s dignity. Attempts to revive them with public consultations in 1997 and 2002 failed, largely because of concerns over quality control and the opposition of restaurant owners who complained it was unjust to allow someone with no overhead to set up shop outside their businesses.
In June 2012, Vision Montreal proposed a motion that street food be studied again. City council agreed and sent the issue to the economic development commission for an in-depth study. With the input of the restaurant association and the handful of Montreal street vendors who are allowed to sell at special events like the Jazz Festival, a basic plan was created. The advisory committee is expected to come up with a framework of regulations allowing street food sales by 2015.
To test different scenarios, Montreal’s 19 boroughs are asked to propose spots they think could work for street vendors where they wouldn’t be in direct competition with eateries, and to grant vendors temporary permits on given days this summer. Boroughs not interested in street food don’t have to participate.
The advisory board will monitor for complaints about garbage or odour or competition and oversee quality of the food and safety regulations. Trucks or carts will not be allowed to stay at locations overnight. They also will have to move to different spots during the day to ensure variety and eliminate turf squabbles.
Most important to the restaurateurs’ association, vendors will have to prepare food in a building where they will pay rent and taxes, putting them on more even footing.
“From the comments and questions we’ve seen from the commission, we think there is going to be a system that is respectful to restaurateurs,” said François Meunier, vice-president of the Association des restaurateurs du Québec. It also lauded the commission’s promise to limit the number of trucks to avoid oversaturation.
They want to avoid situations such as those seen in Ottawa, which opened the door wide to vendors in 1994. They had 105 sign up, resulting in too much competition and physical fights over prime spots. It took Ottawa and the law of supply and demand 10 years to cull them back to a manageable 36 sidewalk carts and 15 chip wagons.
By taking two years to develop its plan, Montreal hopes to avoid that sort of unpleasantness and create a peaceful street smorgasbord.
“It would give that little extra something that Montreal is missing,” Brunet said. “People from all over the world, when they come, they say we should have it just as it exists everywhere else.
“I don’t see why we could not be able to do it just as well as the others, if not better.”