Vancouver: Cooking Up a Better Model

Young Jin Kim serves Korean food from an a la Cart stall on Yonge St. just south of Finch Ave. Colin McConnell/Toronto Star

By David Rider |

Young Jin Kim serves Korean food from an a la Cart stall on Yonge St. just south of Finch Ave. Colin McConnell/Toronto Star

The City of Vancouver is using Toronto’s “à la Cart” street food pilot project as an instructive model — of what not to do.

“What we found is that there were a number of things we could learn from Toronto, from the experience there, that we didn’t want to replicate,” said Sadhu Johnston, a Vancouver deputy city manager.

Vancouver’s street-food program, which stumbled out of the gate last summer but seems to be on track with 19 newly added vendors serving everything from panko-breaded oysters to Baja-style tacos, learned from Toronto not to be “too prescriptive” in rules and regulations.

But mostly the West Coast city learned not to force participating vendors to buy a particular cart or truck.

“We’ve got a croissant maker who’s baking fresh croissants in an old bus that he’s retrofitted with ovens. The dim sum truck has cool Chinese lanterns hanging off it,” Johnston said. “I think the Toronto program was very prescriptive and we realized very early on that we didn’t want to replicate that.”

The handful of vendors left in the final year of Toronto’s pilot project cite as the biggest factor in their failure the city-designed carts they had to buy to participate. The standard cart cost more than $30,000, weighs 360 kilograms, was designed not to be towed so vendors also had to invest in a truck, trailer or both, and takes at least two people four exhausting hours a day to load and unload.

Councillor Cesar Palacio, head of Toronto’s municipal licensing and standards committee, would like to absorb the à la Cart vendors into the existing framework for hot dog and French fry vendors, so they can continue working to pay off their investment. He also wants to start allowing all the vendors to sell what they want, as long as it meets health and safety and other basic requirements.

“The city should not be in the business of telling people what to eat and what to prepare,” Palacio told the Star Friday.

Several hot dog vendors interviewed on the weekend were skeptical that the rule changes would see healthier, more interesting foods appear on Toronto streets, saying customers are keen on dogs and fries.

Marianne Moroney, head of the association that represents the 130 vendors, said Monday she is confident that, based on how street food is flourishing in other North American cities, slicing away the red tape would get more choice simmering.

“You’re still going to get your diehard hot dog vendors,” especially in locations that cater to tourists and other one-time customers, she said.

But, she said, at spots like hers outside Mount Sinai Hospital on University Ave., relying on repeat business, vendors might offer grilled cheese sandwiches, fish tacos, Indian curries, perogies or — her favourite, bought in San Francisco — “a hard-boiled egg wrapped in deep-fried batter.”

Moroney said she personally would like to offer a healthy stir-fry.