Toronto, CAN: Toronto’s Food Trucks Driven into the Ditch

COLIN MCCONNELL / TORONTO STAR Zane Caplansky with Thundering Thelma outside the Sony Centre, where he can operate because it is private property. (July 23, 2013)

By Zane Caplanksy  |  The Star

COLIN MCCONNELL / TORONTO STAR Zane Caplansky with Thundering Thelma outside the Sony Centre, where he can operate because it is private property. (July 23, 2013)
Zane Caplansky with Thundering Thelma outside the Sony Centre, where he can operate because it is private property. (July 23, 2013)

The announcement on Thursday that the City of Toronto will allow food trucks to operate in five city parks is a disappointment to anyone who hoped the city would allow more trucks on city streets. It seems Toronto’s food truck strategy has been driven into the ditch by political and bureaucratic bungling and special interest interference.

Food trucks, serving a variety of well-prepared, high-quality cuisine, were supposed to bring jobs, vibrancy and more good food choices to the streets of Toronto, for residents and tourists alike. It hasn’t happened.

Toronto’s politicians and city bureaucrats should be embarrassed by their inaction. Hamilton, Ottawa, Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver have all moved ahead, allowing food trucks to serve a hungry public, while Toronto dithers.

For two years I’ve been fighting the good fight, trying to work within the system to nudge things along. My goal is simple: to get the City of Toronto to allow food trucks on public streets and in private parking lots. I never imagined it would be this difficult or maddening.

When I drove the Caplansky’s Deli big blue truck, nicknamed “Thundering Thelma,” into town in July of 2011 I was full of excitement and optimism. I was a man with a mission: I was going to help change the street food culture in this city, a supposedly “world class” city that has too long settled for hotdogs carts and those old-timey chip wagons as the epitome of street food vending, many of which, ironically, are parked in front of city hall, the epicentre of gastronomic inaction.

At first things were pretty good. Thundering Thelma, parked in a lot on Queen St. East, attracted good, hungry crowds. More trucks started appearing. In fact, Thelma’s visibility caused people to reconsider the notion that the city hated food trucks.

Then I got a call from a city bylaw enforcement officer who said that bylaws prevented the sale of food in parking lots, so we’d have to stop. Who complained? None of the local restaurants, but “someone at city hall,” according to my source.

The same “someone at city hall” was insisting that all food trucks be visited and charged with bylaw infractions if our workers were not licensed by the city: the “Mobile Refreshment Vehicle Bylaw” stipulates that the operator of the truck must have a licence which costs $400 and each worker must also be licensed at a cost of $300 each. Plus, everyone has to pay $45 for a criminal-background check.

I have no idea why the city wants to know if ex-convicts are doing honest work as street food vendors; criminal background checks are not required of Toronto restaurant workers.

Some history: In the fall of 2011, I met with then-director of licensing Bruce Robertson to try to understand the food truck situation from the city’s point of view. Bruce invited me to sit on the Street Food Working Group — a committee set up to update Toronto’s antiquated street food bylaws, which last fall submitted a report that was to be sent to city council’s licensing committee before being considered by council as a whole.

And then . . . nothing happened. Until April this year when I was invited to another meeting of the Street Food Working Group, only to find that Robertson had retired in January. Worse, most of the former members of the working group were gone, replaced by new faces, and the report we did last fall had been tossed in the dust bin. The whole process of meeting and report-writing was to start again. I was outraged.

Among the new members of the working group are two people who are anything but fans of street food: one, like me, is a restaurant owner, but unlike me is an outspoken critic of food trucks. The other is Debra DeMonte, also a restaurant owner and chair of the Toronto region of the Ontario Restaurant, Hotel and Motel Association (ORHMA).

No evidence was presented at the meeting suggesting food trucks have ever adversely affected anyone’s business, restaurant or otherwise. Nonetheless, the ORHMA reps maintain their members are “worried” and want trucks as far away from restaurants as possible. What are they afraid of? A little competition? Competition is the foundation of our economy and leads to better choice for consumers.

Now, a Food Truck Pilot Project has been approved that pushes trucks to the fringes of the city and into five city parks. At the very least, the city could have included the areas serviced by the existing food trucks at city hall, on St. George Ave. at the University of Toronto and on Front St. to all the trucks. An alternative pilot study could have seen food trucks operating in municipal “Green P” parking lots and spaces. As Calgary found, that worked well.

But in Toronto, the tastes of anything more exotic than hotdogs will continue to be tough to find on the streets of this great and deliciously multicultural city.

Toronto’s politicians and bureaucrats, and some timid special interests, are keeping our taste buds and choices on hold.