Ottawa: You Can Eat Off the Streets

Jacqueline Jolliffe, left, stands in front of her soup and sandwich truck with employees Andrea Dixon and Kai Thomas. Her soup mobile, named Stone Soup Foodworks, normally serves University of Ottawa campus crowds, but is in Commissioner’s Park at Dow’s Lake currently for the Tulip Festival Photograph by: David Kawai, The Ottawa Citizen Read more:

By Joanne Chianello | The Ottawa Citizen

Jacqueline Jolliffe, left, stands in front of her soup and sandwich truck with employees Andrea Dixon and Kai Thomas. Her soup mobile, named Stone Soup Foodworks, normally serves University of Ottawa campus crowds, but is in Commissioner’s Park at Dow’s Lake currently for the Tulip Festival Photograph by: David Kawai

Ottawa looking at loosening up food vedor restrictions

OTTAWA — It’s not a real hardship to follow Donna Kyd’s order to “Bite This.”

Once you do — whether it’s chowing down on a “Curry It Up” mango-chicken wrap or shovelling in “Thai One On” rice noodles — it’s easy to understand why Kyd’s haute-graffiti’d food trailer has a lineup every lunch-hour.

Why “Bite This” is located in a gravel parking lot well off the main drag in Westboro is a tortured tale. But if it wasn’t for Kyd’s tenacity, Ottawans in search of fast but delicious street food might never know the joys of sinking their teeth into a “Cowboy Wannabe.”

“We combed the city for a location,” Kyd says of trying to find a perch on city streets for her mobile establishment, to no avail. “I was devastated.”

The problem? “City regulations.”

It’s true. The municipality has not issued a single new licence to sell food on Ottawa city sidewalks in 15 years. A bylaw dating back to 1996 clamped down on the chaos of more than 100 street-food vendors clogging the downtown core, mostly with hotdog carts and chip wagons. It got so raucous that 20 vendors used to show up at the corner of Bank and Sparks streets, resulting in the occasional shoving match as sellers vied for prime locations.

The city gave most food vendors a designated area in the downtown core and stopped issuing any new licences. In addition, as existing food sellers retire, so do their designated food spots. While vendors can rent spaces from private landowners, as many as 70 city-designated food spots have disappeared from the urban landscape in the last 15 years.

That’s what happened to Kyd.

Donna Kyd offers up some tasty fare, including the Cowboy Wannabe sandwich, at her food truck on Scott Street in west-end Ottawa on Friday, May 13, 2011. Kyd used to run a hotdog stand in the Glebe but now operates a gourmet food truck called Bite This in Westboro. Cowboy Wannabe includes grilled sirloin, sautéed onions, roasted peppers and goat cheese on ciabatta bread. Photograph by: Mike Carroccetto

After more than 15 years of running a successful grill cart in the Glebe, she gave up her prime location to try her hand at other things, including having children. But when she could no longer ignore the call of the street-food life, she found it virtually impossible to find a location with walk-by traffic.

It’s different in North America’s capital of exciting street food — Portland, Oregon, which Time magazine called “America’s New Food Eden.” At about half the population of Ottawa, Portland supports 600 mobile food vendors. Ottawa has 32 in the downtown core. Most of them sell hotdogs and fries.

But that may change by this time next year. The Citizen has learned that the city is considering a pilot project next spring to bring 10 new food offerings to the streets of Ottawa.

“We’re looking at a food-first approach,” says Philip Powell, the city’s manager of licensing, permits and markets. “People aren’t saying they want more sausages.”

Indeed, a petition demanding the city open up its street-food policy, started quietly a month ago by Ottawa food blogger Jon Lomow, already has 1,000 signatures.

And there’s certainly no shortage of would-be entrepreneurs wanting to offer more exotic wares.

Pascale Berthiaume parks her custom-made bicycle powered cart at the farmer’s market in Little Italy, from which she sells Pascale’s All-Natural Ice Cream Sandwiches, her own $6-concoction roughly the size of one’s head. While she does a brisk business, she’d love a city licence that would let her roam the streets.

Restaurant workers have been pushing city officials to let them have a sustainable fish-and-chips truck, a taco stand, a pulled-pork sandwich cart and even a wood-burning-oven mobile pizzeria.

Jacqueline Jolliffe started Stone Soup out of a truck a mere three months ago. Her made-from-scratch soups were a huge hit at Winterlude. And she was a success at the University of Ottawa campus, which invited her onto its property to provide students with more vegetarian options.

Now that school’s out, Jolliffe will take her soup-mobile from festival to festival. Not a bad gig, she says, but she does have to pay rent to set up for each of those events. That’s on top of the $300 per month business licence she pays to the city. (Portland’s fee for a mobile food establishment? $340. Per year.)

“Food you can get quickly may be cheap, but it’s not good for you,” says Jolliffe, whose soup-and-bread combos go for $6 or $7. She wants the city to consider ways to get better-quality food to people on the street.

“I’d like there to at least be a discussion of it,” says Jolliffe. “The complete shutdown all those years ago was a blanket solution to a problem that no longer exists.”

The city — cautiously — agrees.

Powell says there are many issues to be worked out, such as the food criteria for the new vendors — will it have to be local, or healthy, or just tasty and interesting? — and how to deal with restaurants who traditionally argue against mobile food vendors in their neighbourhoods.

“It’s very much a balancing act,” between all the parties, says Powell, who is working with business improvement areas to iron out the wrinkles between the parties by the time this is brought to council in the fall.

And the city is trying to avoid the mistakes of Toronto’s bureaucracy-heavy A-La-Carte program, which was cancelled in its third year after businesses lost thousands, and also of Vancouver’s, which didn’t have enough regulations. The west-coast city’s street-food program saw some vendors who won a coveted licence re-sell it at a profit — definitely not the program’s intended purpose

Still, there are indications that this council, which recently loosened outdoor patio rules, may be open to increasing the number of food vendors.

Councillor Peter Hume, who chairs the planning committee, remarked that perhaps Ottawa “sometimes tends to embrace the pilot project a little too much instead of just getting on with it,” but says he’s pleased to hear the city is working on a more relaxed street-food plan.

“You need to be sensitive to all the parties’ concerns, but you also have to provide some level of flexibility so it doesn’t put a straight-jacket on it from the start,” says Hume.

“We have such a short summer season to begin with, and we need to be creative with it. If it’s going to enhance the urban experience, then let’s do it.”