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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Toronto a la cart Hits the Streets

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Street Chicken Biryani.  That was my lunch today, bought from Seemab Ahmad’s shiny new Central Asian/Persian food stall in front of City Hall.  One of several pilot projects launched today by the City’s Toronto a la cart project to increase the ethnic and cultural diversity of street food, Seemab entered the fray of street food vendors parked at Nathan Phillips Square.

The cart itself is much more open that the traditional hot dog stand, with black flaps in the front and back held open as well as exposed sides, revealing a kitchen complete with a fridge, tap and sink and even a bit of a stove top.  Along with the green “Pass” stuck onto one side and the name of the cook on the other, the cart definitely gives off more of a restaurant vibe than the traditional enclosed hot dog stand.

A little further west was Blair and Kathy Bonivento’s Greek food stall (pictured above) who were serving delicious-looking souvlaki.

Although it’s great to have more choices of street food, it’s too bad the stalls themselves don’t reflect the diversity of the food being offered.  Not only were the two stalls at City Hall identical, but all the cooks were wearing the same yellow uniforms, as if they were part of one big chain.

Maybe this chain-aesthetic is only temporary as part of the pilot project.  Hopefully these vendors will be able to compete with the slightly cheaper hot dog stands (meals seem to be $5 at many carts).  Then they might be able to individualize their carts and outfits like their neighbours selling poutine, hot dogs and burgers out of a range of vehicles and sidewalk stalls while dressed in their own clothes.

Photos by Jake Schabas



  1. Does anybody else see “CArT” on the front or am I imagining things?

  2. biryani isn’t persian. you need to correct that…

  3. I’ve posted this image before on Spacing but it’s so good I’ll post it again. I think this image of street carts from Portland addresses all of the issues raised in the post above:

  4. This is a good concept food-wise, but the name really is not from a genius… “à€ la carte” VS “a la cart”…. Jee….

  5. Uh but I love puns like that!

    > Henry: I wouldn’t have noticed that, but I think you’re right.

    I hope these carts/stands can turn into something that looks a bit less temporary and like part of a cheap chain (the uniforms look kind of bleached, too). Although the carts’ new design tries to achieve this, I miss that kind of street-look uniqueness that I’ve gotten so used to with the red and yellow striped tents of the hot dog stands. To me, the new carts look more like info stands at conventions.

    Can they be locked up at night or do they need to be moved at night? And where do they go? Does anyone know?

  6. Every update about this program makes me sad and angry. I really hope it comes to be seen as the textbook example of the worst way for City Hall to involve itself in the fabric of the city (kind of like how the St. Clair ROW should be a textbook example of how not to do public consultation). Council as a whole should be ashamed for approving this program in this form.

    The cart design is awful. Sure, the “cart” graphic is cute, but it causes a big problem: from a distance there’s really no way to know what the cart serves. Maybe 50 years ago a Torontonian on his or her lunch hour might think “I’m feeling adventurous today — I think I’ll try some ‘ethnic’ food.” Today, people are more likely to be thinking, “Hmmm, I had chicken biryani last night, but souvlaki sounds good.” A big sign that says “toronto a la cart” means nothing to them.

    And at a more fundamental level, the program is supposed to highlight the diversity of food in the city. So why should the carts have the opposite: total uniformity in overhead signage, branding graphics, and staff attire? This program looks like some court-ordered infusion of token diversity into an all-white enclave. Apparently, a bunch of people at City Hall forgot that diversity is already the city’s strength, and all they needed to do was to get out of the way and allow it to shine through.

    But all is not lost. For next year, they can open up the world of street food to any vendor who can meet a reasonable set of safety standards. If the pilot’s vendors want to keep and redecorate their cart, great; if not, park the carts in and around City Hall as reminders of what not to do.

  7. It drives me crazy that people call this food “ethnic”. “Ethnic” is mainstream so lets call it so.

  8. Agree with Matt L. above. The worst is that it seems these poor vendors can’t even put up signs describing what they are selling.

    The whole debacle points towards a culture of bureaucratization at City Hall. St. Clair, the waterfront and the filthy, broken, hapless TTC are also symptoms.

  9. I’m with Scott D. and Matt L.

    This program is a another depressing example of the civic government’s pathological inability to unleash the creativity of the city.


  10. Good eye John Henry. I hadn’t even noticed the CArT front until you pointed it out.

    I also hope that if the carts aren’t removed following the pilot project’s completion that the vendors will at least be able to dress them up a bit, not to mention getting rid of those McDonaldsesque uniforms. But ultimately, aesthetics is probably the least of their worries.

    I just read this interesting article on street vendors in NYC depicting all the hoops these poor guys and girls have to jump through to get themselves onto the streets selling food: