Best Food Trend St. John’s Needs
Runner Up: More ethnic choices
On the last Sunday of May, Steve Smith had to close Long Dick’s Sausage Emporium, the city’s newest food truck. He had sold out of sausage.
In two months, he’s worried that he’ll have to close for a different reason: if he doesn’t have a new power source by August, Newfoundland Power will pull the plug on his electricity.
Smith’s truck sits in a city-designated mobile vending spots, which, luckily for him, is next to a hydro pole with a meter.
“I spoke with Newfoundland Power and got the electricity arranged,” he says. “When it was time to get the permit, they said, ‘No, sorry, we don’t allow meters on poles, but we can give you a temporary permit that’s good for two years.”
Smith agreed, figuring two years would be long enough to work something out.
Then Newfoundland Power reneged and refused to give him a permit after all. Smith began calling Talkback and writing letters. Newfoundland Power relented, giving him a permit to use the pole for three months.
When that runs out, Smith has to erect a six-foot-tall mast, six feet away from the pole where he is currently. Then he has pay to install power. He’ll have to go back through the city for a permit to do so, and all of this will happen in the middle of his busy season.
“I had this business set up in Bolton, Ontario,” says Smith. “There, mobile and street food vending its part of the culture, there’s no hassle. You go into city hall and say, ‘Look, I want to set up,’ and they hand you the information and off you go. Here it seems like you’re not a significant operator to them. You’re a street vendor and they don’t want to be associated with you.”
His story is familiar. Mohamad Ali, the Middle Eastern snack counter that sets up inside The Sprout restaurant during the late weekend hours, started out in a food truck. But they, too, hit a wall when it came to sorting out power for their electric truck.
The Ziggy Peelgood and Winky’s trucks run on propane, which makes sense for a kitchen that just fries potatoes. Long Dick’s and Mohamad Ali however, want to offer more and require more equipment and continuous refrigeration. That takes electricity. The city’s noise bylaws prohibit generators, and the trucks can’t have meters. Setting up a mast or pole with a meter on it costs thousands of dollars, and the city has said it isn’t interested in helping out with that cost.
With respect to Mohamad Ali’s situation, Deputy Mayor Shannie Duff told The Telegram, “We’re not in the business of providing venture capital to private enterprise.”
But that’s exactly what a lot of cities are doing right now with food trucks.
Elsewhere in North America, gourmet food trucks are really taking off. You can get boar meat, of all things, out of a cart on the streets of Toronto. Portland’s food truck scene has been featured in Gourmet magazine, accompanied by pictures of Thai dishes purchased from converted Airstream trailers.
Food trucks provide self-employment with low start-up costs, and they provide consumers with cheap, high-quality and, typically, culturally diverse food. They bring people outside onto downtown streets and, after their meals, into downtown shops.
With that in mind, the City of Calgary set up consultations with existing food truck operators and asked what they could do to make it easier for them to operate. Out of that came their food truck pilot program which put useful information about setting up a rig on their website, and 20 more food trucks on their streets.
In Toronto, a group representing food truck and food cart operators recently launched the Toronto Street Food Project, a street food awareness campaign. They’re asking the city to work with them to reduce some of the red tape that Toronto vendors face.
“Toronto has some really complicated rules,” says Mark MacDonald, founder of TorontoFoodTrucks.com. “There’s a moratorium on street vending permits right now, and street vendors can only sell on private property. But a food truck can only be parked in a private parking lot for ten minutes.”
MacDonald, a freelance web designer by trade, got involved because he’s a food lover and he wanted more access to cheap, delicious meals. He’s not surprised to hear about Long Dick’s and Mohamad Ali’s battles.
“That’s exactly the kind of reason we organized like this,” he says. “We just need a politician to say, ‘Okay lets make this work and help these people get around these hurdles’.”
Like Toronto, St. John’s has its speed bumps. Dave Blackmore, Director of Building and Property Management is quick to mention the parking problem: each of the city’s five designated mobile vending spots downtown is a much-needed parking space, and adding more means taking away parking. He also pointed out that storefronts downtown are small, and a mobile vendor can’t block them. And, of course, a food truck can’t park near an existing restaurant.
But he says it is permitted to operate a food truck out of a private parking lot here—so long as the parking lot operator can give up that space without losing its permit.
At any rate, if St. John’s catches up with the rest of the country—as it usually does—more people will be interested in mobile food vending. “There’s a possibility of one additional spot being requested shortly,” says Blackmore. “And council will have to consider all those factors.”
Back in Toronto, MacDonald is optimistic that his organization’s efforts will be successful. “We have a few councillors on board now, and we’re making headway,” he says. One of the key steps has been for those in power to look past the traditional hotdog and fries food truck and see how much they can enhance a city’s culinary profile.
Smith couldn’t agree more.
“I think that mobile food vending here is seen as an armpit business of George Street, and that’s not where I want to be,” he says. “Quality, affordable eats are missing in this city. I’m going to do that well, and the city is ripe for it. Where are the really great fish trucks? The tourists show up here looking for them, and they find nothing.”