British Columbia·Opinion

How Vancouver's food trucks were stalled by regulations

Vancouver was eager to embrace food trucks in the city a few years ago but the hype appears to be waning. The Early Edition's About Here columnist Uytae Lee explores why roadside food may no longer be all the rage.

The Early Edition's About Here columnist Uytae Lee says the city is losing vendors

Food trucks near Robson Square in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Trendy food trucks took Vancouver by storm not too long ago thanks to a big push in 2010 from the city to add variety to the street food scene beyond hot dogs and roasted chestnuts. 

In the following years, Vancouver added nearly 60 new street food vendors and was voted the third best street food city in North America by Travel + Escape TV in 2013.

But today, that momentum appears to have stalled. Downtown Vancouver hasn't added any more street vendors in recent years — in fact, we've been losing them. There were 96 vendors downtown in 2015 and 92 today.

This didn't happen by accident. I took a look behind the street food scene and found a complicated and restrictive web of regulations that I think are ultimately stifling the industry.

Put simply, you need a permit to sell food on the streets of Vancouver. And for downtown Vancouver, the number of permits has been capped to 100.

It is illegal to sell street food in Vancouver without a permit. (Uytae Lee)

Getting that permit is not a simple process. There's a hefty application where you have to demonstrate a business plan, a food safety plan, as well as oddly specific details around whether your food is locally sourced, organic, fair trade and aligned with the Canada Health Food Guide.

If you get past the applications and finally receive your permit, you can't just set up your food truck anywhere. Every single one of those permits is tied to a specific location.

Locations of street vendor permits in downtown Vancouver. (Uytae Lee)

Where your permit is located ends up becoming a huge deal.

Some locations are just much better than others — they're located across from big office towers or in areas with lots of foot traffic, for example. But other locations are pretty quiet and many of the food vendors no longer consider them to be viable places to do their business.

So, right now, all the good spots are taken and nobody really wants to claim the ones that are left.

To an average person like myself, it feels we're micro-managing our street food scene for really no reason at all. So I dug into the issue — and found two compelling reasons.

The first reason is to avoid conflict. Street food vendors can be very protective of their spaces. In New York, vendors have reportedly used intimidation tactics like threats and even slashing tires to scare off new vendors, leading to possibly my favourite quote of all time: "I should not have to carry a baseball bat in my truck in order to sell cupcakes."

Having permits that designate specific spots for each vendor really helps to avoid those conflicts.

But the more compelling reason for me is a lot more political.

Food trucks are pictured near Robson Square Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, July 15, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A threat to others

Street food vendors are perceived as a threat by one major industry: restaurants. For restaurants, street food vendors are unwelcome and even unfair competition, stealing potential customers from their brick-and-mortar establishments.

There's an open letter from the Ontario Restaurant, Motel and Hotel Association that summarizes these sorts of concerns really well. It reads, in part: "[Food trucks] have an unfair advantage over the restaurants that pay high property taxes and premium rents."

This is where it makes sense to me.

Restaurants in Vancouver pay thousands and thousands of dollars every month in property taxes and rent but food trucks and vendors downtown pay just over a hundred dollars a month for their permits.

So, it makes sense that the local government would prioritize restaurants' interests first.

But I'd like to end on a more tasteful note. I think this narrative about street vendors being in direct competition with restaurants isn't exactly right. It's a lot more nuanced than that.

A poll by Vancity Credit Union found the majority of people who ate at a food truck were most likely to seek out fast food or skip a meal than sit down at a brick-and-mortar restaurant. (Uytae Lee)

I came across a 2015 poll by Vancity Credit Union which found that the majority of people who ate at a food cart or food truck were people who would have otherwise eaten from home, eaten fast food, or skipped the meal altogether. Just 15 per cent of respondents said they would have eaten a sit-down meal at a restaurant instead.

This shows that food trucks and restaurants can work side by side — and, instead of restaurants seeing street food as a threat, it could be seen as an opportunity.

CBC columnist Uytae Lee indulges in food truck fare in downtown Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

With files from The Early Edition

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