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A customer holds a taco in front of a food truck at Celebration Square in Mississauga on Sept. 30, 2011.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Mississauga is trying to do something Toronto couldn’t – turn city parks into popular food-truck hubs.

The year-long Mississauga project, set to begin May 1, allows a variety of food trucks to operate in nine parks across the city during regular park hours – 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Currently, food trucks can only appear in parks during special events.

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“The whole food-truck industry has grown, and we were at the point where we felt like it was the right time to try a pilot in Mississauga to see what the best fit would be,” says Gavin Longmuir, manager of parks operations for the city. “If you look at other communities, like Toronto or Hamilton, they have already implemented programs so we thought just now is the right time and the right season to start this.”

Five years ago, Toronto tried a similar experiment, opening five city parks to more than 25 food trucks. But at the time, many of the participating operators complained that the parks weren’t busy enough for them to succeed.

“It was just a flop – it sounded like they set us up to fail,” recalls Tom Antonarakis, owner of the Buster’s Sea Cove food truck which participated in Toronto’s pilot. “They’ve missed the point of having food trucks showcase the city of Toronto.”

Mr. Antonarakis says buying the permit was a waste of money because he didn’t end up going to any of the parks after hearing from other food trucks that they weren’t making any money.

“If I’m going to go out there and lose money, I’d rather just stay at home,” Mr. Antonarakis says.

More than 10 of the food truck owners who took part in Toronto’s pilot didn’t pay their full share of the two-month rental deal. One year later, the event planner who steered the project was left with an outstanding $36,000 bill to the city.

Caplansky’s Deli participated in the project for a couple of weeks, but didn’t end up paying for rest of the season.

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“We paid our fee for all of the events we went to,” says owner Zane Caplansky, who is the president of the Toronto Food Truck Alliance. “Why would we pay for things if we didn’t use them?”

Mr. Longmuir says Mississauga will prevent this from happening by having participating food trucks prepay for their permits and license fees, which will be non-refundable.

“Buyer beware, because if trucks are forced to pay up front for spots that don’t work, they’ll find themselves with food waste and wasted money on people if nobody shows up,” says Mr. Caplansky.

Sid Friedman, founder of Ontario Street Food, says these fees are too high in comparison to cities like Hamilton, where a park permit only costs $200.

“Thousands of dollars for a license for one park seems to be expensive,” says Mr. Friedman. “You’d need to sell a lot of tacos or hot dogs or whatever you’re selling to recoup that cost and make it worthwhile.”

Graeme Smith, who owns the Gorilla Cheese food truck, says that while the parks plan is a step in the right direction, it’s also a way for cities to address complaints from restaurants about food trucks competing on their turf.

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“It was just like, ‘Here you go – here’s a place for you to park, now leave us alone,’” says Mr. Smith regarding the Toronto parks project, which he participated in. He adds that instead of keeping food trucks in parks, cities need to either allow them to roam the streets in search of business, or create designated food-truck zones where customers have easier access to them.

“I think it’s time that the municipalities start getting over this kind of thing and allow the food trucks to just operate,” says Mr. Smith.

Mr. Longmuir says there will be no restaurants near the food trucks in Mississauga because the city has chosen sites that would be receptive to a food truck being located with no impact on existing business owners.

Participating parks include Jack Darling Memorial Park, Erindale Park, Mississauga Valley Park and Meadowvale Sports Park.

Mr. Caplansky doubts the parks will become popular food destinations. “The idea that if you put a food truck there then people would come to it is backward thinking,” he says. “It’s a half-hearted attempt to bring a wonderful food innovation to Mississauga that I fear is not going to work.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated one vendor at each of nine Mississauga parks would be awarded a free permit. In fact, there will be just one permit awarded FOR EACH PARK and the owner will have to pay the total annual permit fee of $1,658.05.
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