Ottawa, CAN: Affirmative Action for Street Food Waged as Ottawa City Hall Seeks Greater Diversity among Vendors

Terry Scanlon serves up some eats at the corner of Bank and Laurier in downtown Ottawa. (DARREN BROWN/Ottawa Sun)

By Anthony Furey |

Terry Scanlon serves up some eats at the corner of Bank and Laurier in downtown Ottawa. (DARREN BROWN/Ottawa Sun)

The City of Ottawa is granting 20 new street food vendor licences mid-January — but only if the applicants successfully jump through some pretty ludicrous hoops.

These hoops include annual fees paid to the city ranging from $1,400 to $6,800, depending on whether it’s a truck or cart.

There’s also the various certificates: For propane tanks, for health inspections and the controversial and unnecessary food handler certificate. The font of the cart’s name is also regulated — it must be at least 7 cm.

But none of this excessive regulation should be a surprise. It’s unfortunately the way we’re heading as a society. No, it’s the moral angle that makes this process so condescending and anti-business.

“The goal of this initiative is to increase the diversity of food offered on City streets,” reads the application. In other words, the city is mandating affirmative action for food.

They’ve convened a committee of food experts as well as public health officials to pore over the applications. The applicants will be judged on their business plan, including their marketing and finances. No business should have to be judged by government on such matters.

But the best part of this nonsense is 40% of the grading is based on the applicant’s explanation of “how the menu/concept reflects the diversity of our City and will contribute to Ottawa’s street food scene.”

Who knew we had a street food “scene”?

Apparently, the committee fancies themselves the jury on a food network reality show.

There are inherent problems with this approach. What if within a few months you realize your type of food just isn’t selling? Private business would overhaul the menu. In this case, that wouldn’t be allowed, lest you disrupt the delicate ecosystem of food diversity.

Pardon the naivete, but aren’t the people operating the food carts and the people buying from them in the best position to decide what sells and what doesn’t? Isn’t that called supply and demand?

But what if, the big government crowd cries, there are suddenly 20 shawarma carts on the streets?! Well, then there are 20 shawarma carts. Some will thrive, others won’t and they’ll either close down or change their menus. Or maybe they’ll all thrive.

Gauge demand

Can City Hall say with certainty that they have gauged the demand for shawarmas? Can they say with certainty it is even their place to gauge the demand for shawarmas?

Even their own literature acknowledges the rules as restrictions. “Existing vendors and spaces will remain with no restrictions on menus,” the guidelines say. Good for those already around. Not so good for people taking a gamble with their own time and money.

Toronto’s A La Cart program was a well-documented failure precisely for these reasons.

Many councillors and the mayor have expressed their commitment to removing red tape and making Ottawa business friendly. Taxpayers fork over considerable cash for ventures like Invest Ottawa. But clearly they need to go back to basics.

When the city takes something as simple as opening a food cart and increases the financial and regulatory burden on the proprietor and also takes a swipe at their entrepreneurial spirit by nitpicking their marketing and products, you know you’ve got problems.