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Why food trucks won’t destroy Toronto’s restaurant scene

Yesterday City Council voted 34 to 3 in favor of allowing more food trucks on the streets of Toronto (125 of them to be exact).

Food trucks will be allowed to roam and park in pay-and-display spots on city streets as well as in private lots. However, the total number of trucks can’t exceed 125; they’re not allowed to park for more than 3 hours in one spot; and they can’t park within 50 metres of a restaurant.

Most supporters of food trucks in this city are calling it a baby step forward. A lot of the reforms that they had been advocating for were not achieved with this vote. Frankly, I find it surprising how long this discussion has been going on for and how we’re still at the point of baby steps.

But perhaps even more surprising, is the fact that I agree with Rob Ford on this issue:

Mayor Rob Ford advocated for less regulation, arguing that people who make a date to go to a restaurant don’t change their mind and buy a hot dog when they pass a cart. “I think putting all this red tape around people, that’s not very friendly,” he said. “This is free enterprise. This is capitalism. Let them sell what they want and let the customer decide.”

The concern from the other side is that food carts are going to threaten Toronto’s restaurant industry and turn our streets into the wild west of food service–hence the 50m rule. But I actually think the opposite could end up proving to be true. I think food trucks could end up empowering entrepreneurs.

When I used to live in Philadelphia, which is a city with a thriving food truck scene (people publish food truck guides), I practically lived off the things. For breakfast I would go to this couple who barely spoke English and they would make me an egg and cheese sandwich for $2.50. And for lunch, I would go to the guy some people called the “nice little Mexican boy” for a burrito. It was somewhere around $5. And his food truck was so small that I had to duck while ordering food so I didn’t hit my head.

At first I actually found it odd to be consuming egg sandwiches and burritos from trucks that would pack up and leave at the end of the day. I kept thinking I was going to get sick. But I warmed to the idea and learned to love them. As does everybody else.

In fact, we loved our food trucks so much that when Renzo Piano–the Italian Pritzker Prize-winning architect–came to Penn to talk about how he had been retained to redesign the School of Design’s building, somebody stood up and asked: “How are you going to accommodate the food trucks in your design?” Renzo responded perfectly and said something along the lines of: “I’m Italian. Don’t worry, I will provide for the food.”

But my point of all this is to say that instead of looking at food trucks as a threat to our restaurant industry, we should be looking at them as a way to empower more entrepreneurs to take the risk on starting something for themselves–many of which could end up being new Canadians. The “nice little Mexican boy” also barely spoke English and looked young enough to be in high school. But he was a business owner.

Starting a restaurant is a risky proposition. You need to lease space, you need to buy equipment, and so on. And everybody knows the failure rate is high. But what if you could test that killer recipe of yours on a few hundred people at lunch in front of First Canadian Place? That sounds like a much easier proposition to me.

So what I hope happens is that people in Toronto start to see food trucks, not as a threat to our restaurant scene, but as an opportunity to get more entrepreneurs into it and make our city even more vibrant. Because if we do that, I’m positive we’ll end up with an even better restaurant scene than what we have today in our great city.

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