Vancouver: Street Cart Judges – How Food Hit the Street — or Didn’t

Vikram Vij was one of 12 judges that selected the new food carts. Photograph by: Handout, Files

By Mia Stainsby | Vancouver Sun

Vikram Vij was one of 12 judges that selected the new food carts. Photograph by: Handout, Files

Chefs Karen Barnaby and Vikram Vij looked at the food aspect.

“It was 80 per cent following the criteria laid out and 20 per cent opinion,” Barnaby says. “Local ingredients … organic and free trade were big,” she says. “There were a lot of good people. They knew what they were doing.”

They didn’t taste the applicants’ food, she says. “We looked at menus. I don’t think it would have made a difference if we tasted,” she says. “Someone can make something fantastic once but what about the rest of the time?” Some applicants included recipes, she says.

“There will be accountability,” says Vij. “We’re told the city will make sure people will be doing what they said they’d be doing.”

She offers future applicants this advice. “Follow the criteria. Don’t complain about it afterwards if you don’t.” Have a good business plan and besides having the right kind of food, “strike the right note,” she says. “Show confidence and show passion which will come through in the application.

But don’t go on and on, verbosely, about how fabulous you are.”

Claudia Bialostozky, one of the judges, had done a study on street food programs for her masters program in planning at the University of B.C. And she has strong opinions on the topic. She worked as a social planner in Mexico for 15 years and argues for a program geared toward the new entrepreneur.

“One of my arguments has been that people who own carts should be working behind them and not hiring staff. I’ve met people who say they’d like 10 trucks. My recommendation is that vendors need to be there 50 per cent of the time. You can’t force them to be there all day.”

She also likes the organic, grassroots approach of Portland’s street food culture.

“I wrote my paper just before the Vancouver street food program started. I saw how Toronto’s program was a total disaster and how it thrived in Portland.”

Toronto officials over-regulated the vendors and mired them in red tape. “They tried to homogenize things so the carts all looked the same and they were dressed in same uniforms. They were truly trying to make a brand for the city. It was a total failure. The carts were heavy and there was no storage and some vendors spent their whole life’s savings, investing $75,000 on the carts and permits.

“In Portland, they let vendors choose sites, on empty lots, if landowners were willing. It was a very good business model for people just starting out and provided employment opportunities for people not able to own restaurants.”

Street food courts sprang up and vendors began selling in group settings. “They share tables and facilities but in Vancouver, with property so expensive where there’s lots of foot traffic, it might be harder to do,” Bialostozky says.

She also feels the Parks Board should be involved, opening up new locations for street carts. “That’s missing. We should bring them in.”

As a judge, she says, she rewarded applicants who did their homework. “There were three categories of applicants. Ones who were already in the food business, were well known and filled out very meagre applications. I gave these people zero. The permits should be earned and they shouldn’t be able to rest on their laurels.”

There were others who’d run hotdog carts and spent years trying to extend the menu but weren’t allowed to. “Usually, they had the worst applications because of language problems. They would have benefited greatly from someone guiding them,” she says.

And the third category were relative unknowns, ones with very, very good applications. “They were specific about menus and their financial plans and really put a lot of thought and work into it. You could see their passion in the application.”

Other members of the panel included a nutritionist, and individuals with nutrition, farmers’ market, sustainability, and business expertise.