Toronto, CAN: Toronto has Nothing to Fear From Food Trucks, says Jennifer Bain

On May 15, gourmet food trucks will finally be allowed to roam Toronto, park on some streets, and sell meals from parking lots. It's about time.

By Jennifer Bain  |  The Star

On May 15, gourmet food trucks will finally be allowed to roam Toronto, park on some streets, and sell meals from parking lots. It's about time.
On May 15, gourmet food trucks will finally be allowed to roam Toronto, park on some streets, and sell meals from parking lots. It’s about time.

Don’t fear the food trucks.

That’s my fervent plea as we prepare for the dawn of Toronto’s new food truck era on May 15.

On that day, truckers can jockey for permits to sell their food across the city from parking lots and some pay-and-display parking spots. They’re already allowed to sell from private property and at special events.

Oh how delicious things may finally be.

Sure, the new street food vending rules, which city council approved last week after two days of off-and-on debate, have restrictions that are easy to mock.

And although trucks are getting all the media attention, the new bylaw covers multiple food vendors: mobile (the so-called gourmet trucks), curb lane (old-school French fry and ice-cream trucks, some with designated parking spots), sidewalk (namely hotdog stands) and coffee/catering trucks.

The biggest changes, though, apply to the roving trucks.

They’ll get to share some street parking with the rest of us. Keep in mind that only major/minor arterial roads are up for grabs — so don’t worry about trucks on residential streets.

There can only be two trucks per block, although they prefer to work in pairs or clusters. Most trucks are big and need two parking spaces, so they could take up four parking spots per block.

A truck can only park at a given street spot for three hours each day — and then it must move somewhere else to give citizens and fellow truckers a chance at the space. Three hours isn’t arbitrary. It’s the limit set for every vehicle, including mine, yours and food trucks. Some truckers wanted extra time to set up and shut down.

Much has been made of the 50-metre rule.

Trucks won’t be allowed to park within “50 linear metres” of an open and operating eating establishment, which is measured as any straight line from the centre of the front door. To prove this will be possible, the city pinpointed 582 available locations — each with an average of seven parking spots.

This particular rule aims to balance the truckers’ desire to roam freely with competition concerns from the restaurant industry and influential Business Improvement Areas.

But here’s where things get interesting. None of these street restrictions apply in parking lots.

The city has created a list of 58 surface-level, licensed commercial lots where trucks could vend if they strike deals with owners.

Who wants to bet that trucks will gravitate to parking lots this summer instead of roaming the streets trying to abide by the extra rules?

Add up all of these changes up and it feels like a win.

Of course the trucks wanted more, their opponents wanted less, and everyone is taking a kick at the city for using red tape.

But every North American city with food trucks has rules. That includes Portland, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Vancouver, Calgary and even Hamilton, our food-truck-friendly neighbour.

“The apocalypse has not come in other cities that have made these changes,” Eglinton-Lawrence Councillor Josh Colle told council. “Let’s free the food trucks and get on with this.”

The bylaw will be reviewed — and maybe even relaxed — in a year.

At least the city won’t meddle in the food. Let the people eat $9 goat rotis, $9 fish tacos, $10 burritos, $12 smoked brisket po boys, $1 maple beef bacon doughnuts and $5 Nutella bombs. (These are dishes that five trucks served in Nathan Phillips Square during the council meeting. And no, food truck food isn’t cheap.)

“We bring choice. We bring quality,” Zane Caplansky, owner of Caplansky’s Thunderin’ Thelma food truck and Caplansky’s Deli told me. “We revitalize neighbourhoods.”

A week later, I’m still ruminating about the fear, anxiety and misconceptions that permeated council’s debate.

Some concerns were valid — like trucks running loud generators, altering streetscapes, creating unwieldy lineups, and potentially stressing already stressed areas.

Many concerns were ridiculous, like speculation that truckers might hire enforcers to secure coveted spots or illegally dump used cooking oil.

Also comical were suggestions that truckers might “answer the call of nature” in suburban bushes or hog one spot for 10 hours or more if given the chance.

“You should be mobile — you don’t want to be fixed at one location,” Randy Kangal, owner of the new Randy’s Roti truck, told me: “You want to provide a service and make way for another service. Most of the time, you don’t even have five hours of food on a truck.”

Will 100-odd trucks put some of the city’s 7,000-plus restaurants out of business? Nobody could produce evidence that this has happened anywhere else.

Lining up for a quick meal that you eat (without alcohol) standing on the street is nothing like sitting down in a heated/air-conditioned restaurant for a leisurely meal with a bottle of wine.

Maybe the fast-food chains have something to fear. But likewise, these same chains could just as easily roll out corporate food trucks and snap up all the permits.

There’s a one-permit-per-person rule, but it won’t stop franchisees.

I’m curious to see what happens May 15 when the city doles out 98 of 125 permits. (The other 27 have already been given to old-school food and ice-cream trucks.)

People gripe about food trucks getting a free ride, but they have all the usual costs plus maintenance, parking, gas and city fees.

This year, truckers must pay $1,090.51 for a new business license and then $5,066.69 ($13.88/day) for a mobile food vending permit. For comparison, a sidewalk hotdog vendor will pay $383 for a new business license and $4,575.11 for a permit on a major arterial road.

One interesting footnote to this story is the plight of 27 old-school truckers, including food and 13 ice cream.

In cityspeak, they’re the “R55 curb lane vending permit holders” who’ve been working for up to three decades and been granted permits for permanent curbside parking spots. They’re fixtures outside of places like Nathan Phillips Square and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

They wanted to be “grandfathered” into the new system and hold on to their “forever spots” until they shut down their businesses. The city is giving them until the end of 2020 to join the mobile system and create a level playing field.

Ivan Tchohlev is one such vendor. He has run the Mr. Tasty Fries truck outside Nathan Phillips Square for 20 years and hopes to work 20 more.

“It’s not only the money, I enjoy doing it,” he confides on a break.

When council finally wrapped up, everybody walked away a little bit happy and a little disappointed.

“Why oh why oh why meddle and micromanage everything here?” Beaches-East York Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon had asked council.

“Let’s just grow up and put a little faith in these dynamic foodie entrepreneurs and give them a chance to exist. Let’s give those hungry Torontonians what they want.”

Let us eat fish tacos and French fries and everything in between. But let’s be on our best behaviour while we do it because the whole city is watching.