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Toronto’s Department of Lunch

By | National Post on Apr 09 2014

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It’s not often these days that Rob Ford can be identified as the voice of reason on an issue. But when it comes to the question of whether food trucks should be allowed to operate freely in Toronto, the much-maligned mayor seems to be one of very few people talking sense. Most of council has been hyperventilating over the devastating damage that might be done if a smoked meat sandwich could be purchased from a truck within hiking distance of an actual stationary restaurant (HOW WILL THE HELPLESS RESTAURANT SURVIVE!?). In response, Mr. Ford noted how unlikely it would be for a truck selling hot dogs to sidetrack people who were on their way to a sit-down eatery where they had a reservation. Sometimes people want to grab a quick bite, and sometimes people want to linger over a four-course dinner. Rarely are people equally open to both options at the same time.

Sadly, Toronto’s city council doesn’t seem to understand this.

It recently approved new rules on food trucks that do allow more to exist (win), but impose oppressive limits on how and where those food trucks operate. For example, the trucks won’t be allowed within 50 metres of restaurants (so much for more street food downtown), and the trucks will not be permitted to park in one spot for more than three hours at a time, which will inconvenience both vendors and committed customers. Council’s cap on total trucks is still very low — 125 this year — and no more than two trucks will be able to operate on a block at the same time. God forbid consumers, who can be so easily overwhelmed and confused, should have too much choice!

But perhaps one of the saddest rules is that Business Improvement Areas will be able to designate entire zones where food trucks won’t be permitted, a clear sign that the trucks’ potential for adding real value and character to an area is being overlooked. Instead, the trucks are being treated as a threat, pure and simple.

As I wrote above, such a view neglects the important differences in demand for what the food trucks are selling and what restaurants (or even other businesses in the area) are offering. What would we say to a mall that banned food courts because they might eat into (so to speak) the sit-down restaurants? We’d say it was crazy and that mall-goers have enough of an appetite for both types of offerings to keep all the establishments hopping. Then we’d leave in search of a mall with a Taco Bell and a Milestones.

For me, though, it wouldn’t matter even if the food trucks were going to provide direct and real competition to the restaurants. It shouldn’t be the government’s job to decide which kind of food businesses deserve success. If Torontonians (or consumers in any city or town) prefer buying their eats from street vendors, then what would be the harm in allowing them to do so? We allow other businesses to fail or soar based on customer demand. Why should the food industry be any different? If street vendors are offering better food or more interesting options, they might even cause the restaurants to up their game, creating a true benefit for diners.

I think most people, if asked, would say that Toronto’s 7,000 or so restaurants do not need government protection from the 125 food trucks that have been okayed. But if they did, would it be city council’s place to provide it? No. Not unless we think council should be dictating exactly how private citizens dine when they choose to eat out. Which seems unlikely given what a bang-up job Toronto’s council has done of dictating how private citizens may get around when using public transit. Remember, it’s lunch we’re talking about here, not rocket science. We can usually handle it without an assist from an elected official.

The most likely disaster? A handful of mediocre restaurants will lose out on business to food trucks with tastier and more diverse offerings

But established restaurants and businesses have a natural interest in keeping out potential competitors. We need to remember and recognize that self-interest when evaluating the doomsday scenarios being presented about food trucks destroying neighbourhoods and leading to vendors brawling with each other in the streets. The more likely disaster? A handful of mediocre restaurants will lose out on business to food trucks with tastier and more diverse offerings; and a handful of city councillors will be exposed as fear-mongerers who tried to block progress for no better reason than their own self-aggrandizement. Which wouldn’t be a disaster at all.

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