City Hall scared of a food truck revolution

Toronto’s politicians are doing what they can to ensure the food truck revolution doesn’t make its way to Toronto.

Yet again, Toronto’s City Hall is doing whatever it can to stop a good thing when it comes to the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene – this time the target is food trucks. The winners in this case are politicians who continue to maintain their grip on what types of restaurants are allowed in the city, while the losers are consumers who suffer from less choice in dining options and entrepreneurs who are blocked from starting new businesses.

The recent decision by City Hall to allow food trucks to operate in five city parks does little to alleviate the disappointment of foodies and entrepreneurs across the city who want to see Toronto join the food truck revolution happening in a host of other North American cities. Whether it’s the “taco wars” in Los Angeles, the so-called “pods” that congregate in sprawling parking lots in Portland, Oregon or the growing fleet of food trucks that have taken over the U.S. capital, the so-called food truck revolution across North America is no longer a passing fad.

It’s good business, too. Food trucks generate around $650 million in revenue in the U.S., or about 1 percent of total restaurant sales. One study expects that figure to increase to about $2.7 billion by 2017 and amount to as much as 4 percent of total restaurant sales.

It’s also a hotbed of entrepreneurship and creativity, as food trucks can be opened on a lean budget and small staff. One estimate puts the startup costs for a food truck at $55,000 to $75,000 – well below the $250,000 to $500,000 or more needed to open a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant. Food trucks are also able to get to market more quickly and they easily move into new neighbourhoods to match growing demand.

Food trucks have also shown a willingness to move into low-income neighbourhoods, providing energy and activity in areas that are often devoid of fresh food options.

And consumers, as evidenced by long lineups at many food trucks, can’t get enough. One survey showed that more than 90 percent of respondents rated food truck quality as either “excellent” or “good.” In short, this just isn’t another hot dog stand.

Yet Toronto is falling behind its North American urban counterparts by restricting food carts to just a handful city parks – most of them in spots that will not be able to cater to the downtown core’s lunch crowd  – rather than allowing them to set up shop wherever they can find a suitable parking spot and there’s demand. Current bylaws in Toronto block food trucks from operating on city streets or commercial parking lots.

Zane Caplansky, the operator of the popular Caplansky’s Deli food truck, breaks down a few of the many undue costs imposed by city hall on food trucks:

…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.

Sadly, it has taken the city more than two years just to get this far. After establishing the Street Food Pilot Project in April 2011 – whose aim was to find ways to offer a wider range of street food in the wake of the disastrous a la carte program – Toronto’s elected officials have repeatedly failed to ensure that food trucks could operate freely in the city. Even this haphazard rollout for food trucks is only a pilot project and will end in October.

City Hall is ensuring that the city’s restaurant sector and growing ranks of foodies are being hampered by political interference and bureaucratic roadblocks. Why is City Hall afraid of a little revolution?

Brady Yauch is an economist and Executive Director of the Consumer Policy Institute (CPI). You can reach Brady by email at: bradyyauch (at) consumerpolicyinstitute.org  

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