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How hard is it to operate a food truck in Toronto?

Posted by Guest Contributor / January 4, 2013

Food Trucks TorontoToronto's food renaissance has been marching on relentlessly for the past few years--2012 saw the arrival of some truly exciting culinary talent. A great deal of hype accompanied the launch of David Chang's Momofuku at the newly opened Shangri-La, which perhaps best epitomized the direction that the food scene (both in Toronto and on a global scale) has been headed of late: a gentrification of street food.

Line-ups snaking around the block for humble tacos or mere ramen is a common sight these days, and the Toronto Underground Market became the launchpad for numerous successful businesses this year: most recently, with the 6 month-turnaround of Rock Lobster from Kensington stall to 65-seat restaurant.

Street food, some have argued, deserves to stay on the street, and it's this sort of mentality that's made it s difficult to find a quick snack in a city with no recognised spaces to serve much else other than hot dogs. Many will look back on 2012 as the year that food trucks really came into their own, but a closer inspection of the terms they operate under has the future of mobile eats hanging in the balance.

William Randolph, owner of the recently launched British food truck The Feisty Jack, has been at the heart of those trying to address that problem. In business since October, William and his partner Jessica Sinclair have formed the Toronto Food Truck Association after having come across numerous obstacles and baffling regulations. As he puts it, "I think the food truck business is glamourized by shows like Eat Street. It's a brutal business, really."

With a long history of restaurant ownership in his family, and chef schooling at Leiths in London, William has grown up in both the UK and Toronto. Upon deciding to join the burgeoning food truck scene, William opted to build his own truck rather than buy one ready-made: "Seeing food trucks going for $150,000 made me think about doing a lot of the work myself." Jessica adds, "Most of the trucks were originally Purolator or UPS trucks that have been retrofitted."

Food Trucks TorontoWhat exactly is needed to operate a food truck? "You'll find everything in our truck you would expect to find in a restaurant: a four burner oven, stove, griddle, deep fryers, fridge freezer, triple sink and water system. We're graded the same exact way by health inspectors as restaurants." In fact, it seems they're even more heavily scrutinized, with health inspectors frequently waiting at vending sites to perform checks on arrival. William is proud of the standards attained in the industry: "No food truck has failed an inspection yet in this city."

Still, with all the work in getting started and the stringent regulation applied to the trucks, it remains illegal to pull up on the street and perform transactions for food. Unless, of course, the cash transaction is happening elsewhere (like inside of an adjacent storefront). The regulation does not prevent the distribution of food itself, just the vending of it. It's a confusing situation, made worse by what happens when the City of Toronto actually does invite food trucks to sell. Toronto, William argues, is still playing catchup when it comes to embracing food truck culture: "There is no specific food truck license. It's the same license as that for a hot dog vendor."

This means holding a permit for only one area at a time, which can be enormously difficult to negotiate in the first place. Since launching in October, The Feisty Jack has only been able to sell food to the general public in Toronto on four occasions, with the truck losing money each time, especially after permit fees of $100-$2500, and paying between two or three staff per service. He doesn't have to look far for examples of more progressive approaches: "In Niagara and St. Catherine's, for example, they have a limited number of licenses for food trucks, but the trucks can park anywhere they want" However, "there's respect for the restaurants in the area," and trucks will not park close to existing restaurants.

The reputation of low overheads when operating a mobile food service appears to be a myth, too. Jessica explains: 'We don't have access to the same kind of storage and refrigeration that restaurants do. Every time we go out, we have to go and stock our fridges for that day. If we run out, we run out; if we buy too much, we lose money."

For William, much of his private events business (where the real money is) comes from being seen at public events: "People see you, and they want to have you at their birthday or office parties." With only four public services, he's been able to generate enough bookings to sell about 3 days a week. There are other revenue streams, too. A lot of Feisty Jack's business comes from delivery to various offices: food is pre-paid, and then delivered to the office.

Still, even with extra revenue streams, William wants Toronto's food trucks to become a more regular part of the urban landscape, and to be respected as a legitimate contributor to the city's marketplace: "For 99% of food trucks, our product is from local Toronto businesses. We're not running off to Costco; we are part of the Toronto economy."

Food Trucks TorontoThe inaugural meeting of the Toronto Foodtruck Association proved to be a revelation--William and Jessica's sentiments were shared universally, and the uptake on formulating a plan of action has been extremely enthusiastic, with every Toronto-based truck on board. "We all share the same concerns and difficulties," Randolph explains.

William's plan for the TFA involves a great deal of education for both city councillors, and also restaurant associations, who he believes will benefit from understanding that food trucks like Feisty Jack are not trying to steal business away from them. "The people who go to food trucks just want a quick snack; they don't have time to sit down and order food," William says. "There's room for everyone." The lack of understanding, he argues, is causing friction that everyone in the industry is feeling.

He says that it's not uncommon for him and others to receive threats of violence and intimidation, even when they're not vending at all. Just the presence of the truck is enough to unease local business owners. Some work is needed to build relationships with Toronto's many BIAs too: "They need to understand that this is not a trend. We're not leaving."

Another aim of the TFA is to establish best practices, like implementing rules about things like making garbage and recycling facilities available, and ensuring that trucks are not leaking: "We don't want to leave a footprint behind."

When asked if he'll open his own restaurant, William replies "We've been approached to open a restaurant, but I've turned it down." Jessica adds, "Some people prefer the mobility." This mobility means flexibility, and if William and the TFA make any real progress this coming year, it means that they should be able to operate as a real part of the city, rather than as things stand now, with food trucks on the fringes, invited to be part of urban events only when it suits City Hall.

feisty jack torontoIn the meantime, The Feisty Jack will be serving food from the kitchens of El Mocambo from next week, with service from 8am-2pm, and 6pm-10pm (later on Fridays and Saturdays).

Writing by Jen Hunter. Photos by Jesse Milns



comme ci, comme ca / January 4, 2013 at 10:55 am
We've all seen enough episodes of Eat St. to know its sort of tough, but not that hard with even the slightest bit of intelligence and common sense.
lister / January 4, 2013 at 11:39 am
> Still, with all the work in getting started and the
> stringent regulation applied to the trucks, it remains
> illegal to pull up on the street and perform transactions
> for food. Unless, of course, the cash transaction is
> happening elsewhere (like inside of an adjacent storefront).
> The regulation does not prevent the distribution of food
> itself, just the vending of it.

Assuming the above is accurate, so what's then stopping the vendor from parking someplace, walking down the street from the truck, taking orders and cash, handing over slips of paper and the customers walk down the street to get their food? Or setting up a website to order ahead of time and bring a printout or your phone for the food?
SousedBergin / January 4, 2013 at 11:58 am
Who wants to buy $12 chicken wings to eat outside standing up in freezing temperatures?
Mike / January 4, 2013 at 01:22 pm

I do.

Keep your stupid comments to yourself.
Mike / January 4, 2013 at 01:44 pm
It seems to take a very organized and dedicated crew to run these trucks. As far as standing and eating, I got to sit and have a beer at the Monarch Tavern for the Gourmet Bitches and Hogtown Smoke. There are some bars/restos that support them and Monarch was first to welcome them. Good luck and let's hope the city loosens many of its archaic by laws.
cheapy cheapy / January 4, 2013 at 01:46 pm
i kind of agree with sousedBergin. I wasn't expecting some of these trucks to be so expensive. Charging the same as a restaurant without any of the perks that go with being served a sit down meal is a bit much. The food's great and all but kind of defeats one of the purposes of street food.
Bob replying to a comment from Mike / January 4, 2013 at 01:56 pm
I think you missed his point.
Lisa / January 4, 2013 at 01:58 pm
Mike replying to a comment from Bob / January 4, 2013 at 03:23 pm
OK, what was his/her point? The prices or eating outside in the cold? I think it's a niche market and people will gladly spend a few more bones for the experience.Granted, winter is winter, but we have 3 other warmer seasons.
Rob / January 4, 2013 at 04:23 pm
Not a fan of how the city and purveyors have handled this here. You eat street food in other countries because you're poor/don't have enough, but of course, in the first world, there's talk about niche markets and experience. A real street food experience is grimy as fuck and people in those areas, that can afford it, go to restaurants to avoid it. I'm not saying that I want peso pizza served out of the back of a modified golf cart by a guy who doesn't wash his hands, but $12 for chicken wings to recoup some of the city fees is definitely not a step forward.

If the "scene" has that type of attitude, collectively, it deserves to fail. If the city simply sees this as another way to collect fees/overregulate/deflect council from hot button issues, it deserves to fail. There is no reason why we shouldn't be able to buy $5 Halal chicken and rice or a $1 bag of pork rinds... but it looks like $12 chicken wings and $15 lobster rolls.
Rob / January 4, 2013 at 04:23 pm
* don't have enough time to go to a restaurant
The Feisty Jack / January 4, 2013 at 05:49 pm
Thanks for the comments, good and bad as everyone has a right to say what they will, but at the core of this article is the fact that street food, good, bad, expensive or cheap has a right to exist as much as a cheap or overpriced restaurant does. Many people that run food trucks are extremely capable chefs and foodies that make an outstanding product and operate in a clean well maintained commercial kitchen on wheels and the concept of sharing there food in a mobile way is something that appeals to them.

The truth is that food trucks would be free to roam if it was not for restaurants being threatened, and for the most part they do not need to be as there are so many ways to work together to promote themselves together, there is room for everyone to exist and we hope that the TFA can work towards a resolution that they and city councilors can agree upon.

evan / January 4, 2013 at 06:46 pm
Mike, what experience are we paying for? The only advantage I can see with these trucks have is that they are potentially more convenient than finding other similar quality food. Whether it's at a concert or outside someones work place... I've sought out food trucks a few times and yeah, the ratio of price to what's delivered isn't all that favourable for me. I'd still go, but not so far out of my way.
Rob replying to a comment from lister / January 4, 2013 at 07:52 pm
> The regulation does not prevent the distribution of food
> itself, just the vending of it.

They can build an app for that... you make a mobile app that you pay online it sends an SMS to the truck with your order you then walk up to the truck and they give you the food.. Would be a no brainer to implement..
Todd replying to a comment from Mike / January 4, 2013 at 10:23 pm
COOL IT MIKE! You've said enough, You're done! You had your chance don't start diggin and scratchin now...
the lemur replying to a comment from Rob / January 4, 2013 at 11:20 pm
In many first-world countries, a real street food experience is not grimy or particular cheap, nor is it about niche experiences - it's just something people are accustomed to getting from a mobile vendor instead of having a sit-down restaurant experience. This city is barely able to get outdoor food vending past the stage of nothing but hotdogs.
lol / January 5, 2013 at 12:08 am
Go to chinatown if you want REAL street food, not some douche bags making burgers while on twitter
Daw / January 5, 2013 at 12:16 am
It's pretty easy to run a food truck in Toronto. If you can cook out and handle a backyard bbq you can handle a food truck crowd. Just have to know what you're good at and perfect it, and serve it up. It's pretty easy, Tacos, Burgers, Deli Sandwiches, Pizza, Hot Dogs, Fries, Chips, Coleslaw, Perogies, Souvlaki,
Downtowner / January 5, 2013 at 12:08 pm
Mike is a douchebag! Caplanski's is the worst of the worst in the food truck game.
Hipster / January 5, 2013 at 01:11 pm
Food trucks are just another neat way for hipsters to avoid work.
6889dini / January 6, 2013 at 04:19 pm
A very insightful article. I actually had no idea of the hardships the food truck owners are up against in To. I myself will continue to support them. Thanks for the info.
? / January 6, 2013 at 06:24 pm
Your "gentrification of street food" strikes me as the bourgeoisie wanting to try slumming it up for a bit.
Food trucks suck / March 5, 2013 at 01:58 am
They should ban them not fair for restaurants at all I would be furious food trucks overhead is nothing compared to a restaurant they cost max 60k to build or as low as 40k they should be charged a lot for a permit think if you had a restaurant paying more in rent in 6 months then a food truck pays to set up there business oh ya I have a food truck lol so know first hand
Apollo / March 15, 2013 at 06:59 pm
If you're looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, look elsewhere. Starting/operating a food truck business takes a heck of a lot of work and plenty of diligence to see it through. However, operating a mobile food business can be one of the cheaper food business ventures to start because of the comparatively low overhead.

My advice, whether you're in Toronto or elsewhere - the first thing you should do is look in to health code requirements and get that nailed down before you do anything else.
Scott / March 25, 2013 at 12:31 pm
To reply to "food trucks suck" you are drastically ill informed. Your estimate on cost to build a food truck may apply to a basic chip truck. However the trucks we are talking about here are full restaurants on wheels. We have well more than triple your numbers in our truck. We pay taxes, outrageous permit fees to multiple cities and unlike brick and mortar restaurants our truck depreciate while property tends to appreciate here in Toronto. Our location expenses ( which included massive rents to the owners of the private property we park on) equal or exceed the percentage of sales of most restaurants pay for rent. You say you own a food truck. My guess is it failed as your head is up your ass when it comes to the realities of this segment of the industry.

Yours smokingly.

Matt / April 3, 2013 at 07:27 pm
Wow, I can't believe the ignorance and negativity some of these people have towards the food truck industry? It's completely unwarranted and inaccurate. Assortment and choice is one of the best parts of being a consumer in this economy, and it appears the city of Toronto is short sighted in regards to this opportunity. As a customer, wouldn't you like the opportunity to have the choice of consuming food from different styles like vegetarian, organic, latin, etc?

I agree and food trucks and restaurants are completely different segments/markets. If I want to go to a restaurant and have a sit down meal, a food truck will not deter me from doing so. I can see this really catering to the work and the on the go consumer and in the city, this represents a large demographic. The restaurants have an old school mentality on the issue and just require some education on the matter. That is obviously easier said then done. The growth/decline of the restaurant market is not dictated nor influenced by food trucks.

I am a prospective entrepreneur and I'm curious to understand the estimated start-up cost for staring your food truck. Can anyone provide an estimate? I understand their is a cost for the truck, permits, licenses, etc.

Would any of the food trucks owners be open to discuss and share some of the learnings of starting a food truck business?
Tom Richard / April 19, 2013 at 12:41 am
Its true that food truck have more facilities than the restaurant because its a movable restaurant and you can move it any places. But need to train your cooks to follow various safety rules besides keeping your Lunch truck equipment functioning optimally. Safety valves and thermostats are helpful to avert overheating and it keeps tanks from rupturing. Hence you must always take good care of your lunch truck parts or other food truck equipments.
Bethesda movers / April 19, 2013 at 06:52 am
Today, while I was at work, my cousin stole my iphone and tested to see if it can survive a forty
foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation.

My apple ipad is now broken and she has 83 views. I know this is completely off topic but I had to share it with someone!
David Lebar / May 4, 2013 at 10:12 am
The Stuft Gourmet Sausages truck pictured in this article was built at Silver Star Metal Fabricating in Mississauga. You can see a few interior photos at the link below:

We have been building custom mobile food equipment since 1984.
Nickilou replying to a comment from Bethesda movers / June 12, 2013 at 12:34 am
Wow 83 views, that's it? Sorry about your loss .
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Agile Offices / February 14, 2014 at 04:29 pm
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Apollo / May 9, 2014 at 06:02 pm
So I see that some of these comments are a bit off topic but just wanted to follow up on a couple things about the food truck industry in general.

First, I don't see food trucks/carts as competing with traditional restaurants. If you want a place to sit down and be served, a food truck isn't what you're looking for. However if you're in a rush and want something quick, that's where food trucks come in handy - I'd say they compete more directly with typical fast-food style restaurants.

The second thing is that instead of traditional restaurant owners being angered at what they perceive as the increased competition in food truck prevalence, they should look at diversifying into that market as well. Out here on the west coast where we build our food trucks, we've seen traditional, sit-down restaurant owners integrate their business model with more express, cost-efficient food service through the food truck business. They use their existing restaurant's name on the food truck, but add something like "Express" at the end of it. It increases their brand presence and markets itself during the process. Just something for traditional restaurant owners to think about if they want to reach a larger market.
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