Nancy Senawong, serving customers at her popular cart at Mel Lastman Square in North York.
They were greeted with less fanfare than the initial four, but nevertheless almost all of the remaining Toronto a la Cart street food vendors are now open for business—just in time for summer (and, sadly, the garbage strike). Torontoist hunted high and low, tracking down the new proprietors—and reconnecting with some old ones—to see how everyone is faring one month into the pilot project. What some of these business owners had to tell us about the program turned out to be slightly more bitter than sweet.
Thai chicken satays and mango salad by Nancy Senawong.
At the launch of the first four carts on Victoria Day, Toronto Public Health inspector Anthony Nikolopoulos told Torontoist the rest would probably be operational within a week. While Nancy Senawong (Thai; Mel Lastman Square) and Young Jin Kim (Korean; Yonge and Eglinton) both cut their ribbons before May 25, Noorullah Iman at Metro Hall and Issa Ashtarieh at Queen’s Park had a bit more trouble. Iman didn’t share the reason for his slow start with us, but his stand—selling Afghani chapli kebabs and samosas—just got up and running less than two weeks ago. As for Ashtarieh, his Middle Eastern operation isn’t actually open at all because, as Rishma Govani from Toronto Public Health told us, “he was located in front of a war memorial, which some people thought was inappropriate.” Govani said the City “offered Ashtarieh three alternative locations, but unfortunately none were to his satisfaction.” So the search continues and his cart remains grounded.
Young Jin Kim, selling her traditional Korean dishes at Yonge and Eglinton.
Senawong and Kim are both doing brisk business, especially at lunchtime on weekdays. The Mel Lastman location, while far-flung from the downtown core, is situated amongst many office buildings and is bordered by plenty of benches and picnic tables, much like an outdoor food court. Yonge and Eglinton is similarly bustling with heavy foot traffic, making hungry customers easy to come by. “Business is good,” Kim was proud to tell us.
While the carts have been relatively well-received by Torontonians, it hasn’t been an easy month for the vendors. All of them must work incredibly hard to recoup the sizable investments they’ve made (as much as sixty thousand dollars per owner, depending on location and cart model), while simultaneously adhering to the City’s numerous regulations. Most expressed gratitude for the opportunity to participate in this three-year pilot, but many also shared their dismay with the City’s tight controls and unwillingness to negotiate. “All this money and all this effort…we’re just trying to run a business,” Kim’s nineteen-year-old son and assistant Simon told us. “Certain rules we will accept. But, for certain rules, it has to go our way too, right?”
Korean bulgogi, kimchee, and vegetarian dumplings by Young Jin Kim.
Most concerns are centred around logistics. The owner of each cart must be present for at least seventy percent of the time, making a twenty-four hour operation next to impossible—necessitating that the carts be hauled to and from the location every morning and night. “I have to drive fifteen or twenty kilometres to get here,” Iman told us.
On the day we visited the Metro Hall location, the Thursday farmers’ market was on and one of the growers had parked directly in Iman’s alloted vendor space. He cheerfully set up slightly closer to the road, but the incident brought another issue to light. Toronto a la Cart owners are not given any parking, so once the carts are dropped off, their vehicles must be stationed elsewhere. “My truck is so much smaller than this one,” Iman sighed, pointing to the farmer’s large cube van.
Assistant Yunus Orfan and owner Noorullah Iman, supplying Afghani chapli kebabs and samosas at Metro Hall—even in the rainy weather.
Another sticking point is the rule against external storage. The carts have limited heated space, so without extra vessels, vendors must replenish their stock many times throughout the day. “They expect us to keep going back and forth to the restaurant,” Simon said, frustrated. “That costs time and money.”
We too were curious why external storage is prohibited, so we called Toronto Public Health. Everyone at the City is mired in the throes of the CUPE strike, so the program director couldn’t be reached for comment, but Anne Marie Aikins at media relations told us she thought it was because “the vendors are only licensed to take up a certain amount of square footage.”
Chapli kebab by Noorullah Iman.
An additional difficulty, unrelated to the City, is the static from existing hotdog vendors who are situated pretty close to the a la Cart folks. “It’s not too bad for us because they’re across the street,” Simon said. “But downtown…they’re next to each other.”
Seemab Ahmad’s Pakistani biryani cart at Nathan Phillips Square is one of these, and he has had to deal with some unpleasantness since opening. “Most of these hotdog guys are are renting their locations. Some for as much as fifty thousand dollars a year. When they see us, they think they can’t make enough money. So, they call the owner, and he asks me what I am doing here.”
What is ironic is that many of these vendors hail from countries with vibrant street food cultures. “In Korea, it’s so different,” Simon told us. “They cook right on the cart, and there are shelters with places to sit. It’s more fun there, I guess.”
Metro Hall photos by Kaori Furue/Torontoist. All other photos by Ayngelina Brogan/Torontoist.