Street food should be simple to prepare

It’s not often I find myself in complete agreement with Denzil Minnan-Wong, but the way city council has managed to unnecessarily complicate what should have been a slam-dunk, the expansion of Toronto’s street food beyond sausages, has put me in that unusual position.

I have long felt, like I’m sure most of our readers, that a diverse city like Toronto should have far more food available on the street than sausages (even if there are several kinds). So I was strongly supportive when councillor John Filion started a campaign last year to loosen the provincial regulations and enable a wider variety of food to be sold from stalls in Toronto.

It doesn’t seem that it should be complicated. The province loosened the regulations last year, so all Toronto needed to do was to start licensing carts that sold stuff other than sausages. People in Toronto have been thinking about how this might be done for years, and given the wide range of cultures and inventiveness of our citizens, no doubt Torontonians would have come up with a wide variety of interesting proposals.

But somehow Filion has managed to tangle the issue up. Instead of just letting go and seeing what happened, he is trying to micromanage the whole process. First, he tried to get the city to spend $700,000 to commission special new carts it would own and lease out. When that idea was howled down, he instead put forward a proposal that the city put out a request for proposals for a single private venture or charity to design and build 15 carts that the city would license to vendors (see the Star, Globe, Post). Originally, Filion said he wanted the city to control the process to prevent “conglomerates” from controlling the carts, but of course that’s easily avoided by only allowing individuals to have one licence per person (and doesn’t his idea make the City itself the conglomerate?). Now, apparently, the city needs to control the process because suddenly the project has to achieve a broad range of objectives — including branding, diversity of food and location, social and health objectives. Isn’t “getting different street food” enough of an objective already?

The problem, of course, is that there’s no guarantee anyone will step forward to fill this request. And even if they do, it will take up staff time to manage the cumbersome process and result in only a small number of carts. So the result will be slow, complicated, and unsatisfactory, and we’ll end up not far from where we started, mostly eating sausages.

Mayor Miller also claimed that this process was necessary because the design of hygenic new carts for a wider variety of foods would be complicated. But I can think of several ethnic foods that are designed as street food, and where any meat is pre-cooked, that could easily be served out of modified hot dog carts. Jamaican patties and Indian samosas come to mind.

Back when the idea was first proposed, Denzil Minnan-Wong objected, saying “I don’t see why we have the city government trying to involve itself in business. Surely we have better things to do. We should let vendors do what they do best.” At this week’s council meeting he proposed to instead adopt a simple licencing system similar to that for hot-dog stands, but he was voted down by a large majority.

I find myself agreeing with him completely. With a simple licensing system, I expect there would be a flood of applicants within months. The city, rather than trying to negotiate its own solution, would simply have to make sure the proposals conformed to the necessary regulations. We would have diverse street foods by the summer, making our public spaces more interesting and inviting (I have often wished, as I walked around the city on an empty stomach, that I could just buy a samosa at a stand and keep walking). Why not just let our citizens work out their own solutions and see what happens? City council could always get involved later if it turned out no-one came up with practicable ideas, but I really doubt that would be the case.

I also find it amazing that city council wants to micromanage this kind of thing, when at the same time it is completely negligent in enforcing many of its current policies (e.g. outdoor advertising). Why not focus on getting the basics right? I think it’s a similar mentality to the homogeneous street furniture program — the desire to make everything “clean and beautiful” from above rather than allow diverse and potentially heterogeneous solutions to come up from below. As I’ve written elsewhere, Toronto aspires to be a “creative city” in the Richard Florida mold, but it keeps forgetting that enabling creativity requires relinquishing control.

It’s weird being out there with council’s right. Am I missing something here? It seems so obvious to me, but maybe there are actually underlying reasons for the city to get so involved? Or is this a case where Spacing’s mostly progressively-minded readership has a different take on the issue than council’s leftish majority?

Photo by Reza Vaziri.

24 comments

  1. Two things to consider, though I’m not convinced they necessarily warrant municipal government running the program:

    1. Safety. The hotdog venders often work in grossly unsafe work conditions so a generic design could contribute to a safer workplace. The City-commissioned design could also ensure that all requirements for food safety are met, too.

    2. Branding. The City sees this as an opportunity to have a single brand image all over Toronto, in the way that New York does yellow cabs. I think that’s a little ironic given that this is all about diversity of food, but, from what I gather, that’s a goal.

    Again, I’m not sure that to achieve either goal it is necessary to have the City regulate the program to the degree it intends to but I thought I’d throw those two things on the table.

    And kudos to Minnan-Wong, his “socialized springroll” comment is one of the better quotes I’ve seen recently. I don’t share the ideology behind it but the sound bite made me laugh.

  2. isn’t this the kind of situation where civil disobedience is effective? imagine that a person started selling indian curries from a cart in nathan philips square, where the cart and the business met all the health regulations that a restaurant would have to meet. wouldn’t the city have a tough time (optically, at least) prosecuting that person for failure to have a license?

  3. Indeed, there are so many important “regulated” areas that are unenforced, this seems silly. Setting this up is another case of progressives sometimes being their own worst enemy. Establish standards of food safety and worker safety, then let people do their thing.

  4. I think the real reason for all this lies in the (perverse) desire to make this a branding initiative. Lame lame lame.

  5. My only caveat is that maybe the City’s legal department suggested the City-leased carts since the City can be sued if they give out a permit to a vendor and someone gets injured on the sidewalk (City property). I have no idea if this is fact, just an idea (and possibly told to me months ago, by I’m not too clear on that).

    If that was the case, a lone cart vendor or cart model would solve this as the City would only have to approve one design. I kinda liked the idea of city leasing the stands at first, but I don’t like how its turned out. The City tripping over itself is never good.

    Sean >> yeah, I’ve never heard of a private company screwing things up. 🙂

  6. Why is this any different from all the chip trucks and all the restaurants out there? Just set up a licensing system, let the private sector run the carts and conduct health inspections to make sure that the vendors follow the rules. The city has no business setting up a municipal street food monopoly.

  7. Filion’s plan is perhaps the sillest idea I have seen come out of council in a long time. Even if it all works out as planned (a big if), all we’ll get are 15 carts… I can count that many hot dog vendors in my neighbourhood alone.

  8. I quite agree with Andrew MacKinnon.

    The operator should own the vehicle–not the city.

    Once a person has a licence, the marketplace will determine if it succeeds or fails. The marketplace
    does this every day. Just look at the closed up shops and bankrupt businesses.

    If a cart operator goes bust, it’s his fault. The city shouldn’t have to stump up any money for any facility that ends up in the hands of private licencees.

  9. This is a stupid, stupid idea. I’m all for public ownership to advance the public good (the TTC, libraries, etc.) but it’s really hard to see what public good requires municipal ownership here.

    1. Safety: as others have said, licensing is the modern approach for handling this. Yes, private companies screw things up, but so do governments. (Walkerton is one tragic example.) Licensing lets government involve itself in safety issues without being on the hook for everything else. It works for restaurants; it can work for carts.

    2. Branding: New York cabs are privately owned, mostly by conglomerates. Clearly, branding doesn’t require municipal ownership.

    3. Liability: it’s hard to debate vague legal reasons, especially when they’re second-hand and/or imagined by a non-lawyer. But, as another non-lawyer, I’d say insurance that indemnifies the city required as a condition of license could cover that issue.

    I have to agree with Shawn — this makes progressives at City Hall look like ideologues, thereby giving their opposition ammunition to use against them on far more important issues.

  10. Dylan’s article uses one small issue to sum up what is wrong with the entire approach of the City of Toronto to so many issues. This is a problem that transcends partisan politics and even who happens to occupy the mayor’s chair. It is an attitude of micromanagement, control and the stifling of new approaches and new ideas.

    As our needed public services continue to decline – the common infrastructure that makes living in a city truly civilized – council and the bureaucracy obsess over street meat and “branding.”

  11. Sean> “This is why I love the free market. Government just screws it the hell up.”

    Thats a pretty broad stroke. History shows time and time again that the Free Market tends to cut corners and rip people off (like the story about cancer pills in the paper today).

    As well, there really is no Free Market anyway, its controlled and managed not by the government but by the companies themselves; most of them in an honest fashion. The truest we have seen to a Free Market here would be the sub-prime problem in the US where the lack of oversight let greed get out of hand. Health regulations were created because of the Free Market.

    How about just saying that this is a dumb way of solving this problem, which it is and offer some other ideas.

    Sean M> You are so right. This is free ammo for the those that only look to put down but never have any ideas of their own.

  12. I remember the live chickens, pigeons, and fish that resided in Kensington Market. Then the city, in its all mighty wisdom, said no live animals. The market hasn’t been the same since then.
    Same with zoning by-laws. Doctors and dentists had offices in residential buildings, which was fine by me. Then clotheslines got expelled (coming back but there are some who don’t want that). Now trees, pesticides, and food carts. The councilors want their control over them.
    They feel important if you have to come to them and genuflect before them for permission.
    All hail the councilors and kiss their rings.

  13. Idiotic – name one business venture that ever benefited because it was taken over by municipal government. Who will update the carts when they need renovating? Who will adapt to changing needs and tastes? What a nightmare. Toronto needs to stop reinventing the wheel every time it does something and learn from successful case studies in other cities. If you like New York’s street food, copy their system. Period, end of report.

  14. “As I’ve written elsewhere, Toronto aspires to be a “creative city” in the Richard Florida mold, but it keeps forgetting that enabling creativity requires relinquishing control.”

    That’s quite an ironic comment considering all the complaints on this site that the City should have more power over the private sector in determining planning.

    When things are left to the private sector and developers they always turn out best, no?

  15. “Idiotic – name one business venture that ever benefited because it was taken over by municipal government”

    The TTC? At least pre-Harris…

  16. I think Filion should be congratulated for getting this process going. It takes courage to try something new like this.

    If the implementation of this initiative is cumbersome or difficult, that’s fine. We can sort it out as we go. In any event it looks like we’ll be getting some good street food in Toronto; and that’s a good thing.

  17. Hinley> No, no irony at all. I (and it seems many) people would like certain standards enforced, but then let people do what they do. With developers and planning, I’d like certain standards enforced (building code, worker safety, and in this case, good design) and then let developers do their thing. The city is not trying to build condos, just make sure the ones that are built work for the city’s best interests.

  18. Exactly as Shawn says – the idea for both food and planning is for the city to set basic rules (e.g. zoning) that ensure the common good, and then let people come up with ideas that fit these rules, maybe in creative ways.

    The problem with planning in this city is that the rules (zoning) are systematically ignored. It’s like allowing street food vendors but not having any health regulations or licensing process to manage them.

    The irony is that the City of Toronto seems to be unable to navigate this middle ground. Either it lets people get away with ignoring the regulations, creating a destructive free-for-all (e.g. outdoor ads, development), or it micromanages projects.

  19. I feel like City staff are often thrown into exploring unfeasible ‘goose chase’ projects suggested by councillors (whether it’s this project, or perhaps the ‘fast ferry’ public transit through a harbour that’s frozen for 3 months a year, or the not legally possible tax on water bottles). People often say it doesn’t do any harm to look into these issues, but it actually does create significant additional costs. Every hour a City staff member spends researching these could be an hour spent delivering the services the City has already committed to deliver.

    Often, the best businesses have a ‘bottom up’ philosophy, that recognizes and implements ideas from the most junior of staff (because these people are the ones that deal with day to day operations). City Council seems to do the exact opposite — overcomplicating simple tasks and running around investigating ideas posed by councillors aiming to raise their public profiles rather than making sure current City policies and programs are delivered effectively or considering ideas to improve the services from those people who actually deliver those services.

    Sometimes simple is good.

  20. Just an fyi to above post: the harbour has yet to freeze and is not really a bad idea. Just needs to be a proper ferry. YOu could have a great food vendor cart on a 30-minute ferry.

  21. As Dennis said, regardless of the implementation it was important to get this going and Filion should be congratulated, not least because Smitherman did his best to hog the credit.

  22. restaurants in toronto are required to follow strict guidelines.They must provide washrooms that are accessible,sanitary facilities and are subject to constant inspections to make sure everything is in compliance.This has achieved a high degree of cleanliness and food safety that has assured patrons that they are safe to enjoy their meals.However to achieve the same guidelines with street vendors is next to impossible and it would be unfair for street vendors to be subject to “shortcuts”.As well street vendors get away from paying the higer taxes that restaurant and cafe owners muct pay.So I find it difficult to justify these roaming food dumps.I even have trouble accepting those “food vendors” in front of city hall housed in trucks, how sad to allow such vending on our streets.So city officials better think long and hard about how to continue street vending in toronto.Maybe its time the “tradition” became a memory.

  23. Shawn, Dylan thanks for the follow-up i couldn’t agree with you more. Have a good weekend

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