Food trucks are disappearing from Toronto's streets
After a very, very long winter, it looks like food truck owners can finally dust off their four-wheeled steeds and start slinging some tasty meals from their concession windows in celebration of spring.
The question of whether or not these food trucks will be able to make sales of those meals, however, depends on more than just the weather.
Though festivals like Food Truck'N Friday have already kicked off and rising temperatures seem promising, Toronto's food truck industry doesn't seemed poised to reach new heights of success this year, despite having plenty of businesses willing to try.
According to the CBC, there's been a 400 percent increase of food trucks driving around during lunch hours since 2015, when the first city eased up on regulations surrounding mobile food services.
Toronto, however, hasn't been equipped to handle that growth.
With limited places to set up shop and a cap of no more than two trucks per city block, most businesses often find themselves vying for the same public food truck hot spots during the warmer months.
Add that to the overhead costs of the truck, insurance, and employees' wages, and it's no surprise that many food trucks rely on catering more than actual vending sales.
"I think the city needs to open up more spots," says Sumit Kohli, the co-owner of Kathi Roll, a fleet of three food trucks selling Indian street food.
"If you expect a truck to spend that type of money, you should give them more opportunities," he says, suggesting the stretch of the King Street Pilot as ideal real estate for food truck businesses to operate.
Formerly a brick and mortar at Yonge and Bloor, Kathi Roll just opened last year, and according to Kohli, the restaurant's move into the food truck industry has been "a smooth transition."
With both private and public permits, catering, and revenue from food festivals, Kathi Roll – unlike so many others – has been doing well, mostly because of the ex-restaurant's existing customer base.
But for the many new businesses who don't have the benefit of a legacy brand, it's much less likely they'll find success in Toronto without some adjustments to their business model.
"The market itself didn't grow," says Matt Basile, owner of the popular food truck Fidel Gastro. "There [are] too many trucks growing too quickly."
Basile has been in the food truck industry for nearly a decade, having launched his business before "the initial novelty of food trucks wore off a bit." Now he runs Fidel Gastro and Lisa Marie, the restaurant on Queen West borne of his food truck's success.
He says Fidel Gastro was able to navigate the industry's less-than-ideal environment because it defined itself as "a street food company that had a food truck", rather than just a food truck, full stop.
"I really don't see how you can make a full business case off of just that approach," he says.
With the traditional concept of food trucks – that is, the act of roaming the streets looking for customers – becoming less profitable, business owners have turned to catering as their bread and butter.
Some are also ditching the public permits completely, opting for the cheaper private permits that allow food trucks to serve customers outside of offices, breweries, and other privately owned properties, rather than trying to vend on public roads at all.
According to Basile, 70 percent of Fidel Gastro's revenue comes from catering and another 25 percent comes from food truck festivals, with only 5 percent coming from curbside services.
This business model safeguards businesses during the off season, especially since the trucks can only really function outside for six to seven months of the year.
And since it doesn't look like the city plans on making anymore regulatory changes anytime soon (unless they decide to follow in Mississauga's footsteps) there's a need now more than ever for food trucks to start acting more like actual restaurants than stalls on wheels.
"The conversation isn't top of mind anymore," says Basile. "And for us, we’re not waiting around for anything to change.”
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