toronto food trucks

Toronto keeps giving preferential treatment to older food trucks

Have you ever wondered why so many old-school ice cream and poutine trucks get to hang out in front of places like City Hall, while the vendors we clamour for at food truck festivals are nowhere to be found?

Toronto’s notoriously hard-to-follow food truck rules make everything from getting a permit to staying far enough away from brick and mortar restaurants confusing.

It’s a well-known fact that mobile businesses can’t just park wherever they want, whenever they want, for however long they want. 

FeasTO, for instance, can't just roll up on Queen Street and start selling dumplings. Nor can Queen Arepa, Gorilla Cheese, Kitchen Empire, La Novela, or anyone else who hit the scene after American Pie went to DVD.

Mr. Tasty Fries, on the other hand, is out in front of Nathan Phillips Square every day.

You see, this truck plays by a different set of rules — a set of rules that only apply to 23 food trucks in Toronto, all of them with a now-extinct type of permit registered before 1999. 

"It's a very two-tired system," says feasTO's Ada Mok. "I don’t believe the city treats any other industry this way... it's weird how it's just these 23 guys."

Mok explained that modern food trucks can only apply for something called an R54 permit (a "mobile truck") permit. This allows them to set up in one of a select few parking spots around the city, on a first come, first served basis.

It's not uncommon for R45 permit holders to prepare an entire day's worth of food to sell, only to have it wasted when they can't find anywhere to park.

Conversely, the older food trucks we see in front of places like the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and City Hall have R55 or "designated curb lane vending permit" permits.

These allow them guaranteed access to a stationary curb lane spot with their name on it. No other food trucks can park there, nor can regular cars — regardless of whether the truck shows up that day.

When R55 permits were cancelled, those who already had them were "grandfathered" into the existing system, meaning they — and only they — could continue to operate as curbside vendors.

Twenty-seven of these operators were still in existence as of 2014, when the City of Toronto put forth a new regulatory framework for food trucks.

At the time, officials promised to start phasing out this type of permit, eventually allowing all food trucks to compete for all spots equally.

This has yet to happen, and if a report set to go before City Council on June 26 is approved, it might not happen for quite some time.

The City of Toronto's Licensing and Standards Committee amended a motion late last week that recommends the extension of these 23 stationary curb lane vendor permits until the end of 2022 (as opposed to December 21, 2016 — one of several such deadlines that have already come and gone.)

Mok, who founded feasTO in 2014 and was present for the meeting at City Hall, finds the decision confusing.

"I understand that they've been in business for many years, but since when is 'we've been doing it for 50 years, we should be able to keep doing it' a valid excuse?"

"I owned a restaurant, and I was a 60 year old man, and my restaurant wasn't successful," she continued, "The city wouldn't help me out."

Some of the 23 curb lane vendors who were present at the meeting felt it would be unfair to take away their designated spots, claiming that they'd be unemployable after so many years of running a food truck. 

As Mok points out, these owners would still be able to run their businesses on an R45 permit — they'd just be under the same regulations as everyone else in the city.

One of the food truck owners who advocated for not a two year, but a ten year extension, spoke about how the fast-changing industry was already threatening the livelihood of R55 operators.

"Two years is not enough," said the man, who has been selling ice cream in Toronto roughly 50 years.

"Still some families, they have a mortgage to pay, and a house. Some people, they have kids in university," he continued. "If in two years you throw them out, they don't have any other support."

To that, Mok says: "I have a mortgage. I have a family. I have to pay for my kids' university. These problems are not just experienced by them."

"I'm going to be 46 in 2032," she continued. "I'm not going to wait until I'm 46 to park downtown. I won't have a food truck by then."

Ward 28 councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker pointed out during the meeting that the permits had already been extended, several times, since 1999.

The motion was amended nonetheless and will be set to a vote at City Council later this month.

"It's weird those are their reasons for keeping the permits, and that those reasons are being accepted by the Licensing and Standards Committee."

Some of the men, as part of their rationale for an extension, mentioned the fact that they are immigrants, according to Mok.

"I'm an immigrant too," she says. "I'm 31, but I'm an immigrant."

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