Issa Ashtarieh, the owner of Bahar BBQ, sells shawarma and falafel on the corner of College St. and University Ave., a rare alternative to the many hot dog and burger stands found in downtown Toronto. He is just one of three vendors left from the eight who were originally part of the city’s attempt to increase the diversity of street food in the city.
Toronto took a step toward change in 2008 with the initiation of Toronto a la Cart. The food pilot project was intended to both increase variety and allow budding entrepreneurs to start their own vending businesses using carts.
Since the program was discontinued in April, Toronto’s street food cart vendors are overwhelmed by expensive fees and the city’s strict rules on food safety. The result is a limited selection of hot dogs, sausages, burgers and fries.
Standing in the way of a solution are an excess of food safety regulations and higher investments for vendors, but Toronto’s street food landscape is gradually improving. Food trucks, which do not face the same menu limitations as carts, are becoming more popular than ever.
The city has strict policies on how food is prepared and what can and can’t be sold on the streets. Ashtarieh says selling shawarma is far too complicated and sophisticated in comparison to pre-cooked meats like hot dogs and hamburgers.
He says he was required to purchase a particular cart made for the project which consisted of a grill, refrigerator, and watering system for $31,000. Combined with other equipment, Ashtarieh’s investment was over a $100,000.
Now, plagued with maintenance fees, Ashtarieh struggles to make any profit. Most of what he earns goes directly back to the business.
He called the project a “shamble,” complaining the city sabotaged it by creating too many rules for what cart vendors can sell. Over-regulation has left him and several of the Toronto a la Cart food vendors in debt.
He says the only financial incentive the city has given them is a three-year exemption from paying any fees.
But according to Katherine Roos, manager of Enterprise Toronto, Toronto A la Cart was more of a learning experience for the city. She acknowledges Toronto may not have needed so much regulation on food safety and over-regulation may have contributed to the failure of the project.
Roos says there was an initial fear that food vendors would try to cook from scratch or with improper equipment.
“We realized that people in the food service industry are a lot smarter than that, because if one of your clients get sick, that could be the end of your business,” Roos says.
Jim Chan, manager of food safety for Toronto Public Health, says the lack of diverse street food in Toronto has little to do with what’s being served. Rather, it’s whether the food comes from a truck or a cart.
According to Chan, a food truck is a mobile restaurant which meets all the requirements of a stationary restaurant kitchen. To become city approved, a truck must have a hand-washing basin, hot and cold running water and a two-compartment sink for utensil sanitation. The truck would also need mechanical refrigeration and an adequate ventilation system.
However, the same does not apply to a food cart because the area is not fully enclosed.
Under the city’s regulations, cart vendors are only allowed to reheat pre-cooked food such as hot dogs and hamburgers from another established manufacturer which has already been inspected by Toronto Public Health. Cooking and preparing the food would have to take place in a kitchen licensed by the city.
But that’s not to say cart vendors have to limit themselves to just serving hot dogs and hamburgers.
According to Chan, food truck vendors can be really creative in how they prepare their food as long as they follow the city’s rules. Licensing, he stresses, is handled by another department.
“From a public health inspector’s point of view, as long as people meet the food safety requirements, and if the truck [or cart] is inspected regularly by my health inspector, I don’t see an issue or risk to the public” Chan says.
Marianne Moroney, 51, is one such creative vendor, and her business has helped make a difference in Toronto’s street food scene. She expanded the menu at her food cart by Mount Sinai Hospital, selling baked potatoes, corned beef sandwiches, and prime rib sandwiches.
Having recently received the city’s approval to get an extension to her menu, she has also added sweet potatoes and wild meat sausages such as bison, elk, and wild boar. Barberian’s Steakhouse acts as her supplier and serves as her commissary.
Moroney, who is also the executive director of the Street Food Vendors’ Association, was disappointed when the city focused on promoting new vendors when the Toronto a la Cart project began.
“They chose to not include the existing food industry who are already regulated, who already have the experience on the street,” Moroney says.
And now that Toronto a la Cart has officially been cancelled, Moroney says the city has taken a positive step toward improving Toronto’s street food scene.
Learning from the project’s weaknesses, the city has enlisted a working group composed of city staff, vendors, and Toronto a la Cart participants to come up with ideas to relax the strict bylaws on licensing food vendors.
A plan is underway to bring back a set of street food requirements for vendors. It is expected to be presented to city council in the fall, according to Roos, who also works with City of Toronto’s Economic Development & Culture Division.
“Simple things like adjusting bylaws so that street food vendors could have more space, those are the kinds of things we are looking at right now,” Roos says.
Despite the failure of the pilot project, Roos says Toronto a la Cart was useful to the city of Toronto. “We learned some important lessons,” she says.
And now that a working group has been formed, regular street food aficionados such as Joshua Hind and Darcy Higgins feel the city should be less bureaucratic about food safety, allowing vendors to sell more diverse foods than are currently available.
According to Hind, who resides in the Parkdale area, street vendors themselves have to want to sell different foods, rather than letting the city’s regulations become a burden to their businesses.
“Too much regulation stifles entrepreneurship and too little regulation can create health and/or traffic related issues,” Hind says. “I would say that Toronto’s food vendors are lacking the incentive and the opportunity for diversity.”
Having worked 34 years in the health department, Chan has noticed the same thing.
He says from his experience inspecting several food trucks in Toronto, many of the operators stick to menu items like burgers, hot dogs and fries.
“If you’re talking about diversity, it’s up to the vendor. We don’t legislate on what they can sell anymore,” Chan says. “Because if everybody is selling hamburgers and fries, there’s not much a health inspector can say except that they have to be food safety compliant.”
Some of the most promising indications of Toronto’s expanding street food scene are businesses such as Food Truck Eats and the Toronto Underground Market, which aim to introduce the city to more gourmet styles of street food.
Food Truck Eats is Toronto’s first food truck festival, which took place in the Distillery District. Created by Spotlight Toronto publisher Suresh Doss, the purpose of the event is to showcase the variety of street food made by people from all over Ontario.
“I wanted to mimic the food truck rallies and convoys that take place in Miami and LA, to raise awareness for better street food options and to get these trucks visible in the downtown core,” Doss says.
So far, Food Truck Eats parts one and two have already taken place on July 2 and August 20. The date for part three is set for October 1st.
The Toronto Underground Market (TUM) is also set to launch this fall. TUM is a passion project that began as a small social media campaign. Forty-eight hours later, the project went viral with food lovers and home cooks all wanting to get involved.
Now, TUM has become a business. With a venue at the Evergreen Brick Works, the monthly market begins on September 24 from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. It will feature about 30 vendors showcasing different foods ranging from tacos, soup and pulled pork sandwiches to cheesecake and cookies.
TUM founder Hassel Aviles, 31, was inspired by the San Francisco Underground Market to create a smaller-scale and alternative way of selling food after seeing her husband Andrew’s frustration with how difficult and expensive it is to start a food business in Toronto.
She says TUM is a different way of sharing food with the community, helping vendors move from the underground to the public,
“As a home cook, there is no other way to showcase your food unless you invest a lot of money into renting a commercial kitchen every week and showcasing at a farmer’s market,” she says.
And while the working group continues to come up with a plan to loosen the city’s bylaws on street food, Higgins, the executive director of Food Forward, is confident Toronto’s food industry has a lot to offer its citizens, considering the variety of restaurants available in the city.
“There [are] a lot of people starting small businesses and offering really unique things. The energy is there for the city to make some changes to allow street food to happen,” he says.
However, diversifying the city’s street food is going to need more than just a change of regulations, according to Moroney.
While she says the city’s street food culture has a lot of potential to grow, Moroney says input from the people of Toronto is crucial.
“I think we’ve got really original people in this city. We’ve got a great mix of cultures [and] we’ve got the opportunity to do it. We just need the political will. We need the voice of the public.”
– graphic illustration by Jonathan Zajdman