Ottawa, CAN: Boston’s Rules Spawned Mobile, Diverse Street Food Vendors

By Robin Levinson |


OTTAWA — Ottawa’s food truck initiative began in earnest Friday, the deadline for applications for the city’s 20 new vendor licenses.

But before launching the program, Ottawa surveyed nine other cities across North America to see how they ran their food-truck programs. While Boston didn’t make the list, its transition from no food-trucks to having a diverse street-food scene might best predict what’s in store for Canada’s capital.

Boston and Ottawa share many things in common: both are historical cities, both have similarly-sized downtowns and both rely on a mix of tourists and professionals to fuel their economies.

But while Ottawa’s trucks have festered in a puddle of greasy fries and hotdogs, Boston’s trucks sell everything from classic lobster rolls to foie gras baklava.

It wasn’t always such a culinary wonderland. Like Ottawa, Boston had only a handful of trucks two years ago, either relegated to private property or annexed to out-of-the way neighbourhoods. The city now has about 44 trucks in 20 public spots scattered throughout its cobblestone streets.

In the summer of 2010, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino began looking into ways to make the city’s street food scene more vibrant. By April 2011, the city had begun accepting applications for food truck licenses. Applicants had to meet certain criteria, such as promoting the local economy by using local labour and suppliers and being environmentally friendly, said Edith Murnane, a member of Boston’s food truck committee.

They also had to sell at least one healthy meal item and were forbidden to sell sugary drinks — even some juices.

Not everyone loved this requirement. David Harnik, who co-owns the Boston food truck The Dining Car, said he feels the healthy food rules impede small-business owners. Though he happily serves many healthy items — like grilled chicken sandwiches with avocado on fresh baguette — he said he resents being told what he can and can’t serve in his own truck.

“I feel like nobody is going to a restaurant and telling them what to serve on their menu,” he said.

Like Boston, Ottawa’s food truck initiative is trying to promote a street-food scene filled with diverse and healthy options. This city’s most recent call for food-truck applications gave preference to proposals that offered something healthy, unique or local.

And like Boston, Ottawa’s regulations have earned the ire of local vendors.

Dan Butler, who runs the Town Fryer truck on Preston Street, said he doesn’t like the idea of the city, and not his customers, telling him what to serve. (While he offers the Ottawa standard of fries and sausages, he gives it a boost with fresh and local ingredients. )

“You can’t force being unique and cool on someone,” he said.

Butler said he would actually prefer Boston’s method of mandating the presence of healthy food options — but leaving the actual menu up to the vendor — to Ottawa’s way of making a proposed menu part of the application competition.

However some of its truck owners feel about healthy food mandates, Boston’s program worked. Its streets are lined with delicious, affordable and — gasp — healthy food.

But a big difference between Ottawa’s program and Boston’s is that Boston trucks are truly mobile. Boston designated about 20 spaces throughout the city and vendors enter a yearly lottery to sell one meal a day at those spots, creating opportunities for about 44 trucks. Vendors like this, because it lets them balance their more residential spaces with spots downtown, where there’s lots of foot traffic. The city also likes it because it means that food trucks aren’t just restaurants-on-wheels.

“We also didn’t want food trucks to look like a brick-and-mortar (restaurant),” Murnane said.

Ottawa, on the other hand, is opening up 20 permanent spaces with year-long leases, essentially turning a mobile food truck into a stationary takeout restaurant. And it’s the luck of the draw that decides whether you get a spot in the bustling ByWard Market or in Stittsville.

Self-proclaimed food-truck pioneer Jacqueline Joliffe, who runs the popular truck Stone Soup on private property near the University of Ottawa, said that if she doesn’t get one of the spots she wants, then she’s not sure she’ll bother going through with getting the mobile licence.

“It’s a lot of risk for people, with the fixed spaces and the controlled menu,” she said.

Meanwhile Butler, who also has his truck on private property right now, said he’s not even applying.

“It’s just not worth it.”