The City continues to give Toronto's new wave of food-truck operators a hard time, but it's not about public health.
A few weeks ago, a City licensing officer visited a pay-to-park lot near Queen and Church Streets and told Food Cabbie and the Caplansky’s Delimobile—two successful mobile food vendors that had been operating out of the lot on and off during business hours for months—that their presence there was against a City bylaw and that they had to leave by the end of March.
This was much to the dismay of Food Cabbie’s owners, who had grown comfortable serving their burgers and burritos from the spot. Late last week they went public, and even started an online petition to rally support. They’ve been telling curious customers—and even reporters—that they had all the City licenses necessary to serve food from the lot.
Before we go on, let’s let the bureaucrats off the hook: yes, they write many of the City’s policies, but they take direction from elected officials. If nuance is what we want out of our mobile-food-vending rules, then we need to appeal to city council.
There is some evidence of an appetite for change. In particular, Food Truck Eats, the travelling food-truck festival, has laid plain pent-up demand for more variety among Toronto’s mobile restaurant fleet. Burritos like Food Cabbie’s and smoked-meat sandwiches like Caplansky’s are different from the standard hamburger/hotdog stuff that passes for street cuisine in most of Toronto, and people are intrigued. And yet the City has made no move to reform its licensing practices since the spectacular failure of its own food-cart program, À La Cart, which suffocated participating vendors with red tape.
What’s holding food trucks back at the moment isn’t anything to do with food safety. Food Cabbie and Caplansky’s both have City-issued refreshment-vehicle licenses. To get one of those, a vehicle owner has to submit to strict inspections until Municipal Licensing and Standards is satisfied that his or her operation doesn’t pose an obvious danger to public health.
At issue in the Food Cabbie/Caplansky’s case is something far less worrisome to hungry office workers: location.
Food truck owners who want to stay in particular spots for long periods of time need to apply for a second license on top of their truck license. This second license entitles them to park on a specified part of public right-of-way—a little spot of curb to call their own. But the City is picky about locations, and in 2002 city council instituted a blanket moratorium on new licenses for spots in the downtown core. Food Cabbie and Caplansky’s thought they didn’t need to have these burdensome location permits because they were operating out of a private parking lot, outside the City’s licensing jurisdiction.
They were almost right. The problem, as it turns out, is subsection 269G of the City’s licensing bylaw, which specifically forbids owners of licensed parking lots from letting food vendors operate on their property for more than 10 minutes at a time. Trucks are allowed to operate for extended periods of time on other types of private property, though. According to Olga Kusztelska, supervisor of licensing enforcement for the city, even an unlicensed parking lot (that is, one that isn’t pay-to-park) would be permissible.
And so as far as the City is concerned, the new wave of food trucks is fine as long as they don’t operate in any of the places where their potential customers would want to find them. If anything about Toronto’s mobile-food-vendor policy could stand to change, it’s that.
Helen Antonopoulous, who runs Food Cabbie with her husband, Spiros Drossos, says Municipal Licensing and Standards initially assured them that their truck license would enable them to do business in the lot. “The only thing they said that we were supposed to worry about was if Zoning comes by,” she said. “They told us just to show them our lease that we have the people who are running the parking lot. [Food Cabbie leases their space in the lot from the lot's owner.] It was completely their oversight. They overlooked the fact that that obscure bylaw existed.”