Truck-off: why Calgary’s food truck program works and Toronto’s doesn’t

Truck-off: why Calgary’s food truck program works and Toronto’s doesn’t

Toronto’s food trucks are not permitted to operate on public streets in the downtown core

Somehow, inventive, high-quality food served out of a truck has become one of the hottest food trends across North America over the last few years, and Toronto entrepreneurs—like Suresh Doss of Food Truck Eats, or Zane Caplansky—are doing their best to keep up. But such ventures have succeeded despite some strict regulations that keep most trucks off public streets downtown. And although we have no desire to write yet another how-Calgary-is-better-than-Toronto article, that city is halfway through an impressive food truck pilot program that has 10 new trucks roaming the streets. We called around to find out how Calgary got started and see whether the same thing could happen here.


The rules
Calgary’s food trucks can only operate between 7 a.m. and 3 a.m., and not for longer than four hours in any one place. They have free range to cruise non-residential public streets, except near restaurants, near schools in session or in business revitalization zones that don’t want them.

Calgary’s momentum is the result of a perfect storm: several new food trucks emerged from the ether—including Top Chef Canada contestant Connie DeSousa’s Alley Burger—and petitioned the city, while Mayor Naheed Nenshi was already engaged in his Cut Red Tape program, which looks at eliminating outdated or misguided laws. Nenshi took a personal interest. “The mayor asked me to make it happen,” assistant Lorna Wallace told us, “and I said I would.” As the project manager, she gathered the relevant city departments together to see what was possible within the existing laws. The solution: exploiting the special permits that the department of traffic management was already issuing for festivals and other events.


The rules
Toronto’s “motorized refreshment vehicles” cannot operate on public streets in the downtown core (the area between Bathurst and the Don River south of Eglinton) unless they apply for a permit to stay in a permanent, stationary location, like the trucks outside city hall. They cannot operate near similar restaurants or places of worship. Like Food Cabbie, they can operate out of a private parking lot, but can’t roam freely. They must comply with basically the same health regulations as any other commercial kitchen.

As a representative from the department of mobile business licensing explained, “Toronto is kind of behind the times.” Since a 2002 moratorium, the city is no longer issuing licenses to food trucks downtown. “We won’t even look at the application,” she said. The rationale? Traffic congestion, the possibility of hot oil splashing around and the feeling that there are already too many trucks on the road. Offerings on those precious few trucks used to be limited to traditional street meats, but with a 2007 amendment, people can cook up whatever they like (food carts, however, are stuck reheating hot dogs and hamburgers). “We don’t go and tell Red Lobster what kind of fish to cook,” said Jim Chan, manager of Toronto’s food safety program. He told us that the uninspired selection on existing trucks is a problem of will, not law.

All it took for Calgary to move forward was a motivated leader and a city capable of working together to bend some rules for a pilot project. Could the same thing happen here? Caplansky, owner of Thundering Thelma (and his eponymous deli, of course), told us he’s called the mayor’s office three or four dozen times and chatted with councillors John Filion and Cesar Palacio—to no avail. “We elected a mayor who ran on making Toronto more business-friendly, offering people free choice,” he said. “I don’t see why we can’t cut the red tape, be more like Calgary and get people what they want.”

(Thundering Thelma image: Caroline Aksich)