They're supposed to be freewheeling culinary alternatives for hungry city dwellers, but in too many municipalities food trucks are instead being stalled by reams of red tape, according to Canada's competition watchdog.

"There's a patchwork of regulations out there," said Julien Brazeau, associate deputy commissioner of the Competition Bureau, on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

"Some of the regulations seem to favour bricks and mortar restaurants, which is not surprising, because food trucks are somewhat new to the scene. Some cities have done what seems to be a better job than others in terms of opening up that sector. But most cities are taking careful attention of the issue, and trying to put in place regulations that work."

The Competition Bureau analyzed how cities regulate their local food truck industries, and found that some made it difficult for food trucks to compete, with high operating fees and long minimum distances from other establishments.

Julien Brazeau

Julien Brazeau is the associate deputy commissioner of the Competition Bureau. (CBC)

Brazeau said the bureau took a close look at Ottawa's street vending program for food trucks, which began in 2013 to attract different types of culinary offerings.

"They've put in place what is now about 20 spaces that are available for food trucks. My understanding is that as of 2017, 11 of those spaces have been taken up, so it's not a fully subscribed program," he said.

Buffer zones

"There are distance limits as well, so they have to be 46 metres from another food establishment. And the space that you're given is your space for a year, so you can't roam, which is one of the benefits of food trucks is their ability to roam and get to different parts of the city at different times of the day. So they can't do that in Ottawa."

'One of the benefits of food trucks is their ability to roam and get to different parts of the city at different times of the day. So they can't do that in Ottawa.'
- Julien Brazeau, Competition Bureau

The Competition Bureau is urging municipalities including Ottawa to take a "softer approach" to food trucks by diminishing buffer zones and relax other rules that inhibit competition. Brazeau points to cities like Toronto and Vancouver as ones that have taken "good steps" toward allowing food trucks and restaurants to coexist.

"The message we want to send is, municipalities ultimately have the responsibility of balancing a variety of public interests. And so in some cases it's traffic and noise abatement that's a concern," said Brazeau. 

"But we want regulators to take a careful look, because sometimes things like distance requirements seem to really want to favour restaurants who might be fearful of the competition that could be brought by a food truck. And we think the restaurant industry and the food truck industry can serve two different types of clienteles."