Not any more

U.S. street-food successes inspire mixed results in Canada

In Canada on August 4, 2010 at 08:43

Amid the corridors of food carts in Portland, Ore., the question isn’t what’s on the menu, but what’s not.

This foodie city of more than 500,000 residents is carving out a name for itself as a street food hub, with 600 licensed vendors so diverse, they distinguish between Thai and Northern Thai cuisine.

“We don’t have a Chilean cart but we are getting a Swedish soul food cart,” said Brett Burmeister, managing editor of foodcartsportland.com.

Mr. Burmeister attributes Portland’s food cart explosion to a lack of restrictions on what you can serve and where you can serve it. “We’re a DIY town,” he said. “There weren’t a lot regulations to say we couldn’t do it, we just needed to get a health inspection from the county and a place to put it.”

The street food tradition has thrived in big American cities for years, from Portland to New York to L.A. In Canada, efforts to expand the street-vending scene appear less organic — and less successful.

Toronto’s “A la Cart” initiative, born out of a desire to offer diverse cuisine to a diverse population, has been largely panned for layers of red tape that has the city controlling everything from new dishes to the design of a cart that cost vendors $20,000. In the end, just eight licences were handed out in 2009, and six continue on today.

Vancouver this week kicked off a pilot project to dramatically alter its street food landscape, previously confined to hot dogs, chestnuts and popcorn, and used a lottery system to award 17 sidewalk spots from 800 applications. The method drew sharp criticism from restaurateurs, including one who put his business and a cart he owned up for sale on Craigslist when he did not win the lottery.

“My biggest concern is that they are throwing it out there on the street, thinking that anybody can be a street food vendor and that is true when we talk about hot dogs … everybody can do that,” said Francois Bernaudin, a pastry chef and owner of Et Voila, a creperie on West Hastings. “But when it comes to raw foods on the streets of Vancouver, there are people who do this as a living, professional people and especially if it’s a pilot project they should be the ones who should do it.”

Vancouver city councillor Heather Deal, who spearheaded the initiative, acknowledged a lottery isn’t the right approach, but said it enabled the city to get carts on the streets this summer. It plans to learn from the first season and develop a new selection process, she said. “We want to expand the number, look at pricing, look at the locations, how we ensure that we have the variety that we want.”

She said Vancouver is eyeing Portland’s model of designating parking lots for food carts. “We want to crack it open,” said Ms. Deal, who was inspired by New York’s Green Carts program, which is pushing healthier options. It catapults aspiring food vendors up the interminable waiting list to get a licence, more than 10,000 people long, if they agree to sell fresh fruits and vegetables and set up shop in a neighbourhood that needs the supply.

Advocates say that when it comes to street food, you can never get enough. “But I would also say it’s a balancing thing for the city to incentivize carts to go where they’re needed and sell what is wanted,” said Nicola Twilley, co-founder of the Foodprint Project, a panel discussion about food and cities that was in Toronto on the weekend.

“Our perspective down here,” said Mr. Burmeister, in Portland, “is a cart is going to live and die by their customers…. Let a chef serve cupcakes if they want to serve cupcakes. They’re small businesses. You don’t need that much more regulation because that hurts them.”

Toronto city councillor John Filion admits A la Cart got off to a “slow start.” He would rather, however, talk about Young Jin Kim, who after a rough first year selling bulgogi, the thinly sliced marinated beef popular in Korea, in midtown Toronto, switched locations and modified her menu. He visited her over the weekend and witnessed a steady stream of customers, and reported that “the food is amazing.”

Success to him means “30 or 40 Ms. Kims serving authentic street food from their countries, and doing well at it financially. These are all people just starting up in business. This only works if it works for them financially.”

National Post

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