By Staff | Torstar News Service
Ouzo-fried calamari to start, a fresh-made lobster roll, maybe a maple-bacon doughnut for dessert — not bad for a lunch served up in a downtown Toronto parking lot.
“We’re going for the trifecta of food,” said Neil Daga, holding a crispy Reuben spring roll in one hand, motioning to the trio of food trucks parked near Queen St. E and Jarvis St. with the other.
For Torontonians who’ve hopped on the food-truck wagon, this downtown intersection has, for now, become a rare reliable spot to find lunch from a four-wheeled kitchen.
In keeping with an exploding North American trend, the appetite for truck grub is increasing in Toronto: over 300 food trucks are licensed to operate, and many trendy ‘gourmet food truck’ businesses have sprung up in the GTA in the past year or two, offering everything from fish tacos to cupcakes.
Website Toronto Food Trucks launched in 2011 to monitor the city’s “developing food truck scene” and provide daily locations, and a handful of trucks were featured earlier this month on street food TV show Eat St.
But Canada’s largest city is still dogged by street food red tape that has limited menu options to “hot dog or sausage?” and led to the disastrous a la Cart program. The pilot project launched with great fanfare to propel the city’s street food offerings forward, only to collapse after three years amid complaints about bureaucracy and expensive, unmanageable carts.
For food truck entrepreneurs, the problem is simple but crippling: there’s almost nowhere to park.
“I licensed it, the city took my money, then they said I couldn’t park it anywhere,” said Tony Vastis, owner and operator of a Greek food truck, Blue Donkey Streatery. “I don’t know what the thought process was there.”
The city’s municipal code prohibits the trucks from setting up shop on city streets and limits parking on licensed premises, such as parking lots, to 10 minutes.
“It’s not a lot of time to make quesadillas or empanadas,” said Josh Colle, city councillor for Eglinton-Lawrence.
Colle put forward a recommendation to the city’s licensing and standards committee last month, suggesting the bylaw be changed to allow trucks to strike deals with private parking lots (a similar move was made by Councillor Adam Vaughan earlier this month).
He thinks the current law stifles entrepreneurial spirit and robs neighbourhoods of foods they can’t otherwise access. It’s “absurd” that trucks are being ticketed — fines start at $500, and go substantially higher for repeat offences — after they’ve struck a deal with parking lot owners, Colle said.
The recommendation, discussed at the municipal licensing and standards committee meeting Thursday, was held over until at least next month, when the licensing division will present its own suggestions for changes to the bylaw.
“We are going to come forward with a few ideas, just trying to make it easier,” said Bruce Robertson, director of Licensing Services for the city, and that includes considering Colle’s suggestion.
In the meantime, “the law is the law,” Robertson said, and officers are still enforcing it.
Those vendors at Queen and Jarvis? Not technically legal, said Robertson, and they’ve been told to move by the end of June.
According to Max Kay, chief security officer for parking lot owner The Tire Source, the company plans to move the trucks to the lot on the other side of the store.
There, they hope to set up an outdoor food court with numerous trucks; they’ve even hung a billboard advertising the lot to gourmet food trucks so they might join “a revolution in curbside food.”
Since that lot is not licensed as a parking lot, The Tire Source would not be breaking the bylaw.
Carly Dunster, a Toronto-based lawyer specializing in food law, said one of the biggest complicating factors is proximity to restaurants, which pay municipal taxes and worry about loss of business.
“But other jurisdictions have been shown to (allow trucks to park and roam) successfully, without negative impacts on brick-and-mortar businesses.”
Calgary is the latest example, she said. Recognizing the numerous bureaucratic hurdles facing food truck operators, Mayor Naheed Nenshi arranged a meeting with truck operators and local businesses to come up with a plan that works for everyone.
The city developed a pilot project that allows trucks to park not only on private lots, but on city streets, in parks, even transit traffic circles.
They are not, however, allowed to park within 25 metres of restaurants. If a business still has concerns, their area can be designated a “no roll zone,” where trucks are simply not allowed.
So far, the program has been a success, said Kent Pallister, Calgary’s chief license inspector.
“We needed to cut red tape, think outside the box,” he said.
For Toronto trucks, this summer — the prime business months — it seems the welcome may only be laid out at special events (where the host acquires an event licence and can host the trucks).
Lucky for them, there’s a growing number.
“We’ve done pretty much an event a month since last July,” said Suresh Doss, a food truck enthusiast who founded Ontario Food Trucks, which organizes the popular Food Truck Eats events. The group partnered with Toronto Underground Market to host a “street food block party” at the Evergreen Brick Works earlier this month.
“We’re trying to show, by example, to the city that we can have these types of events in certain spaces in Toronto, without congestion, without (annoying) restaurants,” he said.
Mark Macdonald, a Toronto web designer and founder of the food truck tracking website Toronto Food Trucks, thinks the events could help make 2012 “a milestone year for food trucks in Toronto.”
“Despite our bylaws, food trucks are coming out anyway, because it’s a global phenomenon now and the public demands it.”
Streetside cart conundrums
Streetside carts face their own problems when attempting to set up shop in Toronto. The notoriously unsuccessful a la Cart project — now defunct, though one Thai cart still operates in North York — failed to launch the city’s street food offering beyond hot dogs and, well, more hot dogs. Cart venders are still trying to tackle two main issues:
Moratorium: For the past decade there has been a moratorium on permits for new carts in wards 20, 27 and 28, the three downtown areas.
Toronto food lawyer Carly Dunster said that’s brought the number of vendors in the downtown from 300, 10 years ago, to 119.
More than just hot dogs: Cart vendors are unable to serve a diversity of food. The provincial legislation was changed in 2007 to allow for more options (legislation used to read “wieners or weiner-like substances” could be served) like burritos and pizza.
But city council has yet to implement that flexibility, Dunster said, in large part because of a la Cart.