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People line up in May, 2010, at food vendors selling hamburgers, hot dogs and other eats along Queen St. West in front of Nathan Philip Square (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
People line up in May, 2010, at food vendors selling hamburgers, hot dogs and other eats along Queen St. West in front of Nathan Philip Square (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Vendors couldn't swallow costs of street-food program Add to ...

The story of Toronto's A La Cart street-food program is a classic example of what happens when you apply the bureaucratic mindset to economic activity.

Selling food on the street is free enterprise in its purest form. Independent food vendors have been peddling their snacks for centuries. Victorian London had something like 30,000 street vendors. But when Toronto set up a program to bring more interesting food to Toronto's streets, city hall strangled the vendors in red tape.

To begin with, officials made them buy standardized metal carts that cost around $30,000 each. The carts were so heavy it took at least three people to move them, a big problem in a business where vendors, many of them women, often work alone or in pairs. When vendors complained, city hall brought in an expert in ergonomics, who helpfully informed the vendors that "cart mobility issues could be addressed with a mechanical winch, an electrical tug or administrative changes to loading and unloading procedures."

Before they could get their Cadillac carts on the streets, vendors had to submit business plans and sales projections, then cook their food before a panel of chefs to ensure it was up to snuff. To get a place to sell their food, they had to pay location fees of up to $15,000, choosing only from sites approved by an "interdivisional staff group" at city hall. Many of those sites turned out to have little pedestrian traffic, leaving vendors cooking for no one.

Souvlaki vendor Kathy Bonivento says her A La Cart experience cost her nearly $90,000 and ruined her family's finances. "We've been crushed under this cart and crushed under the regulation," she said, fighting back tears as she spoke to a city council committee chaired by Mayor Rob Ford on Wednesday. "We're bleeding to death." She is threatening to sue for her lost business.

City rules at first required vendors like Ms. Bonivento to work their carts personally at least 70 per cent of the time, a figure reduced later to 50 per cent. The same rules forbid vendors from hanging out pictures of their kebabs or pad Thai for fear of spoiling the "uniform" look of the city-approved carts.

"The program was to showcase Toronto's culinary and cultural diversity, but every cart had to be identical," says a damning consultant's report on the A La Cart fiasco. The vendors were expected to take all the risks, carry all the costs and pay full market rent, "but the City retained control over critical success factors such as equipment design, signage and menu items." To make matters worse, the program was run by public health, a department that, obviously, "had limited expertise in the business aspects of street-food vending."

The report says that if Toronto really wants its street food offerings to move beyond hot dogs and fries, "it must be prepared to accept the eccentric character of street carts." It recommends the city streamline regulation and simply let vendors sell whatever food they like, provided it meets health standards.

It works in other places. Portland, Ore., has an attitude of benign indifference to food vendors, letting them set up a variety of carts, trucks and stands in parking lots and other private areas. All they need is a health permit and a $75 licence. Of course, there are zoning and fire regulations to be met, but Portland's more liberal rules have helped make it a street-food mecca with 480 vendors.

Finally, Toronto seems to be getting the message. The city is in the process of discontinuing the A La Cart program and, wonder of wonders, authorizing vendors to display their own signs advertising their own unique menus. But don't start drooling yet. A city hall working group is to be formed to "address issues associated with harmonizing the licensing and regulatory framework" for street vending. City hall isn't done with street food yet.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

 

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