Keep On Truckin’

Long Dick's Sausage Emporium is the newest food truck to open in the city. Photo by Elling Lien.

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Food Trucks

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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.”

19 comments

Sandwich shop downtown?

Thinking of opening a small sandwich shop downtown. Just a grab and go place like the ones in the UK (Pret a Manger, Greggs, etc). Would it fly or is it already overdone? Asked by

2 March 2013

  1. Erin · March 2, 2013

    Great Article! I would love to see more food trucks around the city.

  2. Erin · March 2, 2013

    Great Article! I would love to see more food trucks around the city. Good point about the tourists too..

  3. R · March 2, 2013

    Very informative article. I’ve wondered why we haven’t seen foodtrucks picking up here but hearing about the difficulties they face in terms of power and parking…well, mystery solved. I do hope things change as I think someone with a food truck could do well here and not just in the downtown sector either but at the university, near other large employers and of course, any festival around St. John’s, Mount Pearl, etc.

  4. Jon · March 2, 2013

    And it makes me wonder why the majority of Canadians don’t view this place as a good place to do business

    http://abacusdata.ca/2012/05/30/what-do-canadians-think-of-newfoundland-and-labrador/.

    It seems like the city is always making things as difficult as possible for people trying to set up shop here whether it be a guy trying to set up a small trailer to sell food or a company or developer trying to construct something bigger.

    I’m sure it is not intentional but they really have to start taking a look at their policies I think.

  5. Steve · March 2, 2013

    I have no problem with food trucks, the more the merrier, with one major caveat. I have a big problem with them occupying scarce downtown on-street parking spaces. If they can find a private parking lot to operate out of, go for it. Outside of the downtown core, there is no significant parking problem, so they can set up anywhere as far as I’m concerned. I really have a problem with the fact that our city is chipping in tens of millions of dollars in a public/private partnership to develop additional parking on the former Woolworths site as well as the Bell Street condo site (next to the old CBC building) when we are renting scarce on-street parking spaces to food vendors. Food carts are fine, they don’t take up any space. You could have a dozen food carts in the Scotia Plaza or somewhere else downtown. The last time I checked, there were vacant storefronts downtown, so why can’t budding restauranteurs rent a storefront instead of a parking space. If the answer is that the parking spaces are cheaper, why are we as a city renting out our parking spaces for this? It’s only hurting other merchants who need the parking spaces to encourage people to patronize their businesses. These trucks are quite often closed, and they’re just dead weight taking up space. There are lots of places to get french fries in this city, I”m not sure why we need to rent public spaces for that purpose.

  6. Matt · March 2, 2013

    “The Ziggy Peelgood and Winky’s trucks run on propane, which makes sense for a kitchen that just fries potatoes” yeah definitely not for someone who bbq’s lol. Figure out the permits and laws before ya buy the friggn’ truck people. (ps: 7 bucks for a hot dog is a little steep)

  7. Matt · March 2, 2013

    Long Dick’s Sausage Emporium “has to erect a six-foot-tall mast”.

    I see what you did there.

    Maybe it’s just a joke the city is playing on them. It seems that way. You can’t allow generators on George St. because of noise pollution? I hope I’m getting that wrong.

    How about just setting a decibel allowance on their generators? There are tons of quite generators out there.

  8. Matt · March 2, 2013

    “quiet”

  9. Darrell Shelley · March 2, 2013

    Excellent article Sarah! Really enjoyed it. especially this point:

    Duff told The Telegram, “We’re not in the business of providing venture capital to private enterprise.”

    so we should ask Mr.Duff “What the hell type of enterprise do you support? Business people want to make money! Or should they make a not for profit food truck???”

    What the heck is talking about…St.John’s politicians certainly make it very difficult for small business owners.

    I know at least half a dozen people who were interested in starting businesses in St.John’s but decided against it after looking into laws surrounding things like this.

    It’s time the local politicians did something useful for their pay. To start?? perhaps help local private enterprise…that’s what capitalism and economy is about…duh!

  10. Gordon Gekko · March 2, 2013

    Yet Duff is perfectly okay with allocating taxpayer money towards art projects that virtually no one cares about outside of a small clique, and which will not generate profits for anyone. St. John’s will always be a backwater as long as we have elitist snobs chasing away new business at every possible chance.

  11. newfoundland ebike · March 2, 2013

    It’s silly the city is not more interested in supporting mobile food vending.

  12. Steve · March 2, 2013

    If this was really local private enterprise, they wouldn’t require the use of a scarce public resource (downtown parking spaces) to make their business model work. Private business is always talking about getting government out of the way, yet somehow in this case they are demanding effectively a public/government subsidy – the rental of a highly coveted parking space 24 hours a day year round (even if they are only open for a fraction of that time). Also, apparently that rental has to be cheap enough to make it more attractive for the food vendor to want to operate from a truck rather than renting a vacant storefront somewhere. Apparently they also want the municipal government to customize the approval process to make it work. As in my previous post, I have no problem with trucks setting up in a privately owned parking lot, or areas outside the downtown where parking is not scarce, but no one has provided any convincing arguments as to why the City should be renting parking spaces on Water and Duckworth for this purpose.

  13. Sunny Rae · March 2, 2013

    We should only have publicly owned food carts. I’m serious. Also, all non-bank ATMs should be publicly owned. Wouldn’t you feel better if that stupid $1.50 fee was going towards schools & roads?

  14. Gordon Gekko · March 2, 2013

    The lack of parking excuse is just a lame cop-out. Parking downtown is a much bigger issue than that. What we really need are more parking garages, a couple of more food trucks won’t make a significant difference one way or the other.

    Steve this is not the same thing as a subsidy. The municipal government should be working hard to make it easier for small business owners to set up shop, instead they are fighting tooth and nail against them. It truly is a backwards way of doing things.

    The grants that people like Shannie Duff and Sheilagh O’Leary want to throw at artists actually are subsidies, they are propping up something that no one really cares about and thus will never generate revenue. I don’t buy into the argument that artists bring a significant amount of tourism dollars into St. John’s, people do not come here for the artwork, the St. John’s art scene exists solely for St. John’s art scenesters. These grants are not an investment, they are a handout to a small clique of people. I would much rather see the City investing in small businesses which will eventually go on to generate revenue, pay taxes, and otherwise contribute to the local economy.

  15. Gordon Gekko · March 2, 2013

    It seems like these food truck proprietors are just looking for a small helping hand from the municipal government while they navigate through city bureaucracy and try to get their independent businesses off the ground. Meanwhile, taxpayer subsidies are an institutionalized part of the St. John’s art scene. They expect it, demand it, and wouldn’t exist without it. For Shannie Duff to advocate art spending while making these sorts of condescending remarks towards businesspeople is hypocritical and disgusting.

  16. Gordon Gekko · March 2, 2013

    Great idea. Lets take all of the creativity and originality out of food stands by putting them in the hands of bureaucrats. Honestly, what’s so terrible about entrepreneurs being allowed to profit from their own ingenuity?

  17. Dennis hart · March 2, 2013

    Brilliantly said!

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