Tuesday saw an outbreak of that rarest of commodities at city hall: common sense. After a day of debate, the city's licensing and standards committee voted to overrule city officials and loosen proposed curbs on the operation of food trucks on Toronto streets.
It could be the start of a street-food revolution in Toronto. The city that claims diversity is its strength could finally move beyond the hot-dog-and-sausage cart and get a whole range of food from the curb.
The new regulations that city licensing staff took to the committee on Tuesday were already a huge leap forward for street food. They lifted many of the rules against food trucks, which have flourished in cities around North America in recent years. Trucks would be allowed to stop at pay-and-display parking spots on city streets and to congregate in private parking lots.
This was big progress after years of dithering and fumbling by city hall on the street-food issue. But restaurant owners who worried about competition from the trucks managed to get a number of restrictions put on the truck operators. They would not be able to park within 50 metres of a restaurant, they could not stay longer than three hours, and no more than two of them could park on the same city block. Worse, the new rules would have allowed city councillors and Business Improvement Areas, which represent restaurateurs and other businesses, to apply to ban or limit food trucks in "restricted zones."
"It's death by regulation," said Zane Caplansky, who runs both a delicatessen on College Street and a food truck, Thunderin' Thelma. "What you have here is BIAs being able to tell us where we can and can't operate."
Mr. Caplansky has travelled the world checking out street food and he warmed to his theme. "As a restaurant owner, I can tell you that food trucks are great for the city and competition's great for the city," he told reporters. "Restaurants shouldn't be afraid of competition. Competition gives consumers choice, value, quality and, above all, vibrancy to the city." Well, hear, hear. Caplansky for mayor!
Restaurant owners – surprise, surprise – do not agree. Their lobbyist, John Nunziata – yes, that John Nunziata, the former MP who once ran for mayor – retorted that Mr. Caplansky "believes it should be the Wild West out there. He doesn't want any rules or regulations. We don't believe that's in the best interest of the restaurant industry."
He said that if food trucks are allowed to run amok, big fast-food chains like McDonald's could get into the business and park their trucks outside city schools. Not only that, but food trucks could open the door for other kinds of retailing on wheels. He said we could even see trucks selling flowers roaming the streets at will. Yes, tha's right. Flowers. From trucks. In Toronto. It is too horrifying to contemplate.
Fortunately, city councillors saw past this fear-mongering and listened to Mr. Caplansky's plea for lighter regulation. They voted to increase the number of hours a truck can operate in a street-parking space to five hours instead of three, lift the two-truck-a-block limit and, for the first year of the new regime, take away the right of BIAs and councillors to seek to create no-food-truck zones (though the 50-metre rule stays.)
The intention, refreshingly, is to let the food trucks operate fairly freely, with all the usual environmental and food-safety checks in place but a greater liberty to set up where they want. Mr. Caplansky argues that far from stealing business from restaurants, food trucks will bring foot traffic and a general buzz to the places they park, to the benefit of restaurants and residents alike.
"I love Toronto. I want Toronto to be a world-class eating city," he says. "Food trucks work everywhere except here. Why can't we get this right?"
Perhaps, at last, we will. The new regulations go to city council for approval next month. Cross your fingers and think of fish tacos.