Will Canadian Cities Ever Get Good Street Food?

“From Bangkok to New York City, Vancouver is now joining those ranks and putting our best on the streets so everyone can sample from that,” Roberston told the Georgia Straight.

By Meri Perra | Daily Brew

Around the world, it can range from the highly acquired tastes of fried beetle pupa, or pig snouts on a stick.

But anyone who has lived in or travelled to a city where street food menus venture beyond chicken, beef or veggie on a bun knows exactly how real variety can add flavour to a city, something mostly lacking in Canadian cities.

Right now, the great Canadian street food hope is Vancouver. This summer, residents will enjoy street menu items such as fish tacos, Indian tea and gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. The city has approved 19 new vendors to its expanding street-food program, which began as a pilot project last year.

Living up to its eco and health-conscious reputation, Vancouver selected new vendors based on a point system with preference given to organic, healthy, local and fairly traded foods. Based on results from a public survey, Mexican, Indian and Japanese foods were also given preference.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson says the new street food choices places the city in the company of other great food cities.

“From Bangkok to New York City, Vancouver is now joining those ranks and putting our best on the streets so everyone can sample from that,” Roberston told the Georgia Straight.

There are few other Canadian successes. A restaurant in Calgary made news this winter when it started serving its $17 hamburgers for $5 on certain weekends, notifying its Facebook fans and Twitter followers when it would be serving the discounted, gourmet burgers.

It’s become the thing to eat burgers late at night in the alley behind the restaurant. Even Mayor Naheed Nenshi is a fan.

But in Ontario, the street food craze is fizzling. The province regulates the type of food that vendors are allowed to sell, which limits variety.

Pushing back on the limitations in 2007, Toronto began to promise an increased street food plan. In 2009, the city launched its now infamous Toronto à la carte program.

It licensed eight vendors to sell food such as Indian, Korean and Greek. But vendors were forced to use city-approved carts, costing $30,000 apiece. They also had to pay thousands in annual licensing fees. At a whopping 455 kilograms, the carts have presented a variety of health and safety issues for users.

Out of the eight, only one vendor has been financially successful, a Korean food vendor who has taken up shop in the North York area of the city.

Now the councillor who chairs the committee responsible for street food vending, Cesar Palacio, says changes are ahead for vendors in Toronto.

“We should maybe regulate hours of operation and location and, of course, health and safety, but not the menu. I’ve had discussions with staff and I think that’s the direction we’re going to go,” Palacio told the Toronto Star.

Meanwhile, vendors remain skeptical. Toronto hot dog vendor Sophia Alexopoulos says after 30 years in the business, knows she could easily expand her menu to souvlaki or chicken breast.

“Let the vendors find their own carts and decide what they want to sell,” she told the Toronto Star.

It seems the city listened.

A report presented to the executive committee Wednesday calls for the immediate cancellation of the program. Vendors will no longer be required to use the heavy, awkward carts. They will be reimbursed for  2010 fees, and not have to pay additional fees until 2013, as long as they continue to sell healthy food.

Things may be about to improve in Ottawa, where the city stopped issuing new licenses about 10 years ago. The move cut the number of vendors down to about a third, though this June, city staff is going to propose bylaw changes to create new spots for vendors in 2012.

The move offers some hope the city may go beyond hot dogs and beavertails in the future.

And, that’s an improvement from Montreal, a city which hasn’t had any street food to speak of in decades. There, city council is considering revising bylaws to start a street food pilot program this summer. While officials are looking into the matter, they are also citing health concerns as an issue.

Reluctant officials should look to Singapore, where 40,000 vendors are under tight health and safety regulations, and manage to serve a variety of food items, from barbeque to noodle soup and curries, inspired by the island’s many cultures.

If Toronto vendors think their city is expensive, they can look across the border. Vendors in New York City, another well-respected street food capital, pay thousands of dollars for coveted spots near Central Park. The minimum bid for the top spot starts at $176,925.

Hopefully, Canadian cities can start improving their street food menus at much more reasonable rates.


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