Ottawa, ONT: Push for Food-Truck Variety Doesn’t Mean Nanny Statism’s on the Menu

JP’s Chips on Baseline Rd and Clyde. Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington , Ottawa Citizen

By Joanne Chianello | Ottawa Citizen

JP’s Chips on Baseline Rd and Clyde.
Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington , Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA — There’s a sense among some councillors that setting any sort of criteria or guidelines turns the City of Ottawa into a nanny state.

This was certainly the case with the new street food program council approved at its meeting last week (you can be forgiven for missing it, as it was part of the same agenda as the draft budget).

In the end, only three councillors voted against the plan — Rick Chiarelli, Scott Moffatt and Bob Monette — but a number of others voiced doubts similar to those of the naysayers, that it’s not the city’s job to legislate what food trucks should serve.

It’s true the city shouldn’t micromanage the folks to whom it gives licences and permits. But it is the job of councillors to make decisions and set policy to help deliver what the public wants — in this case, more interesting street food.

There’s been an awful lot of misinformation about what the plan to put 20 new food vendors on the streets of Ottawa is all about.

Let’s start with what the street food program will not be: some sort of laissez-faire free-for-all where vendors sell whatever, wherever. We used to have a system a little like that — it resulted in fisticuffs in the streets.

That’s why the city regulates the number of designated spaces where food can be sold on municipal property. But since the mid-1990s, because no new permits have been issued, the number of street food vendors has dwindled from about 100 to 44. (This new program doesn’t apply to food sellers on private property.)

And there’s pent-up demand not only for additional vendors, but for a wider variety of wares. I’ve been writing about this issue for more than two years, and while I have been told by existing vendors that we can’t support a more vibrant street-food scene like Vancouver’s or New York’s, the evidence says otherwise. The success of Stone Soup, TacoLot and SuzyQ Doughnuts, to name a few, prove there’s a demand for something other than hotdogs and fries sold from trucks and carts and stands — from a venue, in other words, that isn’t a restaurant. When Ribfest rolls into town each June, the lineups are forever.

So in response to that demand, the city is going to add 20 new spots by spring 2013. Locating those spots will be no easy task, as restaurants aren’t keen on having streetside sellers outside their front doors and existing vendors aren’t thrilled about the new competition. Local-area business associations have been able to say whether and how many they’d like, while none are allowed within 91 metres of public markets.

Those are huge restrictions. Are councillors raising a fuss about these? No. What has some councillors in a knot is that the 20 vendors will be chosen by a five-member “Street Food Selection Panel” that will include a member from each of the Ottawa Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Association; the local branch of the Canadian Culinary Federation; Savour Ottawa; Just Food; and the Ottawa Board of Health.

The problem, it seems, is that the city has the audacity to consider the actual food to be served as part of the criteria in deciding who’ll get the limited number of new permits.

The hope is that the five panellists will choose an array of vendors who will add locally sourced, ethnically diverse, healthy and generally interesting options to our otherwise somewhat-uniform outdoor food options. That doesn’t mean that every vendor has to fulfil all those criteria — no one is banning Coca-Cola — but an innovative menu will count for something.

What’s wrong with that?

Apparently that’s nanny statism to some. But what about the motion that council passed 16-7 to demand that the selection panel “weight the points more heavily” for qualification and experience, the business plan and other non-menu details? What business is it of councillors whether applicants fail or succeed in their new ventures?

The exact weighting of the score hasn’t been confirmed yet (although the actual food is expected to account for at least 40 per cent of it). It will be one of the first items of business when the panel meets next week. And the panel will have to decide where to put the 20 new spaces, so that prospective vendors will be able to request specific sites when the call for applications goes out as early as Nov. 9.

But even though the city plans to favour those with a solid business plan over those with no food-service experience, some of these new vendors will fail. That’s just the nature of the food-service business. And that’s OK, as long as it’s not because of the heavy burden of regulation, as happened in Toronto.

(In fact, Ottawa officials have been trying hard not to repeat the failure of other cities.)

So, yes, if a new vendor finds his business faltering and wants to change the entire premise of his menu, then he’ll need to square that with the selection committee. That’s to safeguard against what happened in Vancouver, where some vendors got street-food permits by promising exciting menus but later switched to serving hotdogs and sausages.

Despite how some councillors are trying to characterize the new program, a pulled-pork sandwich seller won’t need the panel’s permission to change BBQ sauces. Even in Ottawa, nanny statism doesn’t go that far.

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