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Exotic food trucks making inroads -- despite all the rules

Vancouver made the street-food rules straightforward. Montreal and Toronto? Not so much.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

MONTREAL -- Exotic food trucks, which have long been popular staples in such U.S. cities as Los Angeles, New York City and Portland, are slowly making their way to Canada.

However, some operators in two of the country's biggest markets say municipal regulations often leave them spinning their wheels.

Montreal has banned street food for more than the last half-century. Toronto has had a moratorium on new food truck vending permits for almost a decade, although it is now reviewing its street vending bylaws.

Vancouver, on the other hand, revamped its rules and now is in the midst of a street eats boom.

Mention street food trucks to most people and they'll probably think first of the hot dog and chip vans that are so familiar on the streets of cities such as Ottawa, for example.

Poutine and sausages are a big part of their menu.

But up-and-coming young chefs are also seeing the trucks as a way to offer up more exotic fare such as Mexican and Thai food.

In Montreal, chef Marc-Andre Leclerc whips up tacos with his own twist for his Grumman 78 van. The former rescue vehicle turned mobile restaurant counter takes its name from the make and model of the truck.

"The beauty of a taco is that anything goes on it,'' says partner Hilary McGown, who says she and Leclerc got the idea to try a food truck during a trip to Mexico a few years ago.

Adam Hynam-Smith, who dishes up a variety of fare with his partner Tamara Jensen from their El Gastronomo Vagabundo truck in Ontario's Niagara region, sees only benefits to expanding the availability of street food.

He points out it's good for local businesses because people see them while they're gathering to get some nosh off the truck _ and not just locals.

Hynam-Smith says it's also good for tourism and notes that the Vancouver food trucks have been showcased on international foodie TV shows.

"It brings so much outside traffic as well as inside traffic. It creates that community feel,'' he said.

There has been little indication that Montreal intends to widen its access to food trucks, which have been banned since the 1950s.

In 2003, Montreal decided to maintain an existing ban, amid suggestions that problems with traffic, noise and policing the trucks didn't make it worth a change, says information provided by a city spokeswoman.

But McGown says there's obviously a demand and that people flocked to the Grumman 78 truck when it was parked at summer events such as the Just For Laughs Festival and the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

They were able to operate because they had been hired by the events as caterers and were in a fixed location. They can also operate on private property.

McGown bristles at suggestions that food trucks are unclean and unfair competition for the city's restaurants.

"I'm pretty sure that my truck and my production kitchen ... are cleaner than most restaurants in this city,'' she said.

She also pointed out that people going to restaurants are committing their time for a few hours while customers at a street food truck want something quick.

"If restaurants are offering quality food at reasonable prices then they have nothing to be afraid of. I don't see why you can't let the consumer make the choice for him- or herself.''

Hynam-Smith, who is based in St. Catharines, Ont., has been lobbying municipal officials there and in Toronto to get more access for the food trucks.

He said he regularly gets 30 people from Toronto per weekend coming to his city to chow down at his truck and noted that a recent street eats festival in Toronto attracted 10,000 people.

"If that doesn't tell you there's a demand for food trucks and a diversity in street food, I don't know what will,'' he said in an interview.

"People are becoming aware of street food trucks now, realizing they're not just chip wagons and hot dog carts.''

Praising Vancouver's efforts, Hynam-Smith said the Ontario regulations now are a tangle of red tape that unspools through city, district and provincial jurisdictions.

Vancouver's rules for mobile food vendors on city property are fairly straightforward -- they set the areas where the trucks can go, standards for cleanliness and operation and a distance from any brick-and-mortar competitor. There's also a fee of around $300 for a licence on top of other required permits.

Richard Mucha, Toronto's manager of licensing enforcement, acknowledged his city's regulations need the review that is currently underway.

"Depending on where it is that you wish to vend from, it is a hodgepodge of legislation,'' he said. "It's quite the challenge to regulate and enforce.''

Mucha noted that the chip trucks have been a presence in Toronto for some time and there had been some inquiries from people interested in selling specialty food.

He insisted Toronto has nothing against food trucks or street eats.

"It's a big city, it's an attractive market,'' he said. "I think we'll come up with some proposals that will fly and be of interest not only to business folk but our citizens.''

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