The City of Toronto is cooking up new bylaws that may loosen food vending restrictions. This could mean that more food trucks will make appearances throughout downtown as early as this summer.
And supporters of Toronto’s food truck community say it’s about time.
“Toronto is a vibrant, multicultural city with a very strong and creative food scene,” says Tim Shore, publisher of BlogTO and TorontoFoodTrucks.com. “Our food truck industry does not reflect that.”
Current bylaws greatly restrict the day-to-day operations of food trucks in Toronto. Food trucks are not allowed to serve customers on most downtown streets, restricted from paid parking lots and banned from setting up shop within 25 metres of restaurants that serve similar cuisine.
The City of Toronto municipal licensing and standards division will review the bylaws and reveal its decision in March. Street food vendors were invited to attend two public meetings last month to discuss options for expanding Toronto’s street food sales and public accessibility. The upcoming changes may include allowing food trucks to operate for longer periods in specific locations and granting access to public property and parks.
Tom Antonarakis owns both Buster’s Sea Cove restaurant and food truck, he says the bylaws makes it difficult to break even in sales. He parked his trucks for 40 nights at the Live Nation music festival last summer at Ontario Place. Antonarakis says there was little profit and he would not consider participating in the festival again. On some days, he would pay up to $500 in daily permit fees to park on the festival grounds. Taking into account permit fees, staff payment, food costs, fuel, insurance and truck maintenance, Antonarakis didn’t pull enough sales to make it worth his while.
As of now, food vendors can only park and serve in the downtown core if they have a deal with private property owners, leaving it up to the vendors to negotiate rent. Most make deals with arenas, concert halls and bars, as these venues tend to draw in larger crowds.
Zane Caplansky owns Caplansky’s Delicatessen and the Thunderin’ Thelma food truck. His menu offers smoked meat and barbecue brisket sandwiches, poutine, salads and maple bacon donuts. He says renting can be very costly and hasn’t worked well for some food truck owners. He has paid up to $5,000 a month in rent to park in the King Street and Spadina Avenue area. Caplansky says he was only parked at that location for three months because “the spot was a total loser.”
Caplansky is a member of the Street Food Working Group, which meets on a monthly basis and will play a key role in the review process. The group includes representatives from the Toronto Street Food Vendors Association, the Ontario Food Trucks Association and Toronto city staff and addresses issues with food vending regulations.
Last August, the city launched a food truck pilot project that allowed food trucks to park at selected city-owned parks for two months. Twenty-four food trucks were stationed at the following five parks: Woodbine Park, Roundhouse Park, Canoe Landing, Sherbourne Commons and Allan Gardens. The food trucks rotated weekly and only two trucks at a time were stationed at each park.
According to Shore, the project “didn’t make much of an impact.”
The project failed because “the chosen locations for the pilot project did not make sense,” says Hassel Aviles, founder of the Toronto Underground Market and former Ryerson hospitality graduate. “For the street food industry to grow and thrive, it needs to be included in the heart of downtown.”
Aviles says Toronto’s street food culture pales in comparison to other cities, like Boston and San Francisco. “Toronto has all of the ingredients required to cook up a thriving and exciting street food scene but city hall has archaic regulations in place that prevent this from happening,” she says. “The supply is prohibited from servicing the demand.”
Shore says compared to other cities, the food truck business in Toronto is highly seasonal. “Most food trucks generally operate in just the summer months,” says Shore. Should the changes take effect, Shore says it would be interesting to see whether granting access to public sites would “provide better infrastructure that would allow more food trucks to operate year-round.”
Antonarakis has owned his restaurant for seven years and started his food truck business three years ago. His menu offers seafood items such as lobster rolls and shrimp tacos. Toronto is “a first-class city with second-class bylaws,” Antonarakis says. “We definitely need to open the laws up. Our hands are tied right now and we are really restricted. If we do not have something lined up or booked, our trucks are parked. If it continues this way, more trucks will go under.”
Antonarakis says the restaurant lobby is the main barrier to loosening the food vending bylaws in the city. “Restaurants don’t want to see us. They think we will drive up, pay a one-time fee and take away from their business,” says Antonarakis. “But I also own a restaurant; I wouldn’t discourage other businesses from setting up near to me. I think competition is good.”
Caplansky says the restaurant lobby has stopped the city from updating the bylaws earlier. “This shows how ridiculous the restaurant lobby is in Toronto. If food trucks destroyed restaurants in all of the other cities, then they would ban them.” He says other cities embrace food trucks because it enhances the street culture and street life. “There is no detriment to the city.”
Aviles says allowing food trucks to sell in more areas of the city would greatly benefit Toronto by “enhancing culture, raising the calibre of street food, attracting tourism and contributing financially to the small business economy.” However, to do that, she says city hall would have to “lift the moratorium” on food truck bylaws and make permits available for public property.
Food truck operators in Toronto have few options in regards to sales opportunities and are forced to participate in events like Live Nation. Ideally, Antonarakis would prefer to park and serve on public streets. He hopes that the bylaws change this spring, so vendors will not have to commit themselves to events that result in little profit.
Caplansky says there will be changes this spring and he seems quite confident that the food truck bylaws will loosen up. But the main question is what the proximity restrictions will be to brick and mortar restaurants.
Restaurant lobbyists want food trucks to be at least 250 metres away from brick and mortar eateries, which would “pretty much banish food trucks from the entirety of the city” says Caplansky. “There is a restaurant within 250 metres of everywhere in Toronto, so that would be ridiculous.”
The current bylaws state that food trucks must be parked at least 25 metres away from restaurants that serve similar cuisine. Food truck owners want to maintain this rule, while also gaining privileges to serve on public property.
Caplansky says that one proposal from the city is to move to a lottery based system that allows only five food trucks access to public locations downtown. There are more than 50 specialty food trucks currently operating in Toronto. If this proposal moves forward, the remaining trucks will have to continue negotiating deals with private property owners.
Aviles calls the proposal “a shy attempt to solve massive problem.” She says the idea of five permits does not provide enough of an opportunity to explore the city’s real potential. “The people that live in Toronto want more street food options, not less,” she says. “A larger solution needs to be applied to grow the number of permits for street food vendors and food trucks to beyond five.”
Shore says: “It’s all speculation at this point. No one knows what will happen, but clearly an approach like this would not be fair.”
Tammy Robinson, senior communications co-ordinator for the city says Toronto is looking at granting access to public property such as parking spots, curbs, city parks and other public spaces. But there has been no determination on the number of licences that would be granted.
Robinson says the food truck industry is emerging and the city understands the public’s desire to access these diverse food choices. During the review process, the city will look at creating a “harmonized, city-wide street food-vending bylaw that balances the interests of all stakeholders and encourages a vibrant street food experience for the public.”
Antonarakis is hopeful that the city will flip its views on street food vending. He expects food trucks will be granted access to public property to serve freely.“We want to provide more than just hotdogs and french fries to people. Toronto needs more than that.”
Shore says Toronto has a great group of food trucks in terms of variety and food quality. “It’s growing every month and we are hearing about new food trucks launching despite the uncertainty in terms of where the city is going with the bylaws.”
A final report from the city, based on research from last year’s pilot projects, the practices of other cities, public consultations and online surveys is expected to go to the licensing and standards division this spring. The city anticipates the new bylaws to be in place in time for the 2014 summer vending season.
“I don’t see how growing the local food industry with talented local entrepreneurial chefs cooking and serving delicious food out of their trucks could pose a detriment to the city,” Aviles says. “ I believe in supporting small businesses. I don’t agree with the argument that food trucks take business away from restaurants. The customer experience is completely different and I believe customers should be offered that choice.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on January 28, 2014.