After 11 years of bringing you local reporting, the team behind the Vancouver Observer has moved on to Canada's National Observer. You can follow Vancouver culture reporting over there from now on. Thank you for all your support over the years!

Food carts extraordinaire

Alicia Yien, daughter of Fasttrac Fusion owner Alan Yien, shows off their satay beef skewers. Photos by Benjamin Yong

Downtown, in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery, all types are milling around on this spring afternoon -- camera-toting tourists, business people out for fresh air, teens in Canucks gear. While they don't seem to have anything in common, they are all drawn to a shiny metal cart-on-wheels with a black and pink sign that says, “Re-Up BBQ.”

A line forms outside Re-Up BBQ during lunch time.

Re-Up is one of 16 carts originally selected in the pilot phase of Vancouver's expanded street food vendor program launched by the city last summer. Another 19 carts were recently given the green light during the second round of the program. Most are opening for business this month, serving up Vietnamese subs, fish tacos and even chicken tandoori burgers. And while street food is not a new concept, Vancouver's take on curbside dining included a twist.

“The idea was not to limit choice but to increase choice,” said Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer, half out of breath, as she whisked onto the SkyTrain during a busy Thursday afternoon. “People had the idea it would mean we’d all have these salads or something like that.”

The idea in question is the minimum nutritional standards (incorporating fruits and vegetables, avoiding processed, pre-packaged foods) placed on all new food cart applicants -- the first city in North America to impose such regulations.

“It was big news -- we had people calling us from New York, Los Angeles. They [either] thought it was the craziest thing in the world, or they were very interested in how they could do it there,” said Reimer, who served on the city’s food policy advisory body and also worked with staff to make the current program a reality.

Mention street food to most Vancouverites, and they think of fat, juicy smokies smothered in fried onions, hawked by a twenty-something on Robson Street. Besides Japadog -- the insanely popular vendor that offers hotdogs decorated with Japanese mayonnaise and dried seaweed – there was little else. That all changed in 2010 when Vancouver expanded its sidewalk offerings that promoted more cultural variety and less hot dogs and junk food. Vendors who were already selling hot dogs or other less healthy food before the program started are exempt.

“If you go to South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia -- almost every other continent -- it seems that a rich and vital part of their daily life is having street food available, so it’s great to see it here.”

For inspiration, the city didn’t have to look quite as far as Amsterdam or Beijing. Out east, Toronto launched a three-year pilot project of its own in 2008 called “Toronto à la cart.” While the mandate calls for healthy, diverse and locally sustainable food, Reimer said it's quite the opposite with lots of junk food offerings, expensive prices, and heavy regulatory control from the municipality. She said a significant part of the city's Toronto research told her “where we didn’t want to go.”

Just south of the border, Portland has a rich street food scene where carts are located in “clusters” and offer food representing all ethnicities. In contrast to Toronto, food is varied and government regulation is low. The caveat lies in where the carts are situated – often in private parking lots, but utilizing public sidewalk traffic which “leads to a whole whack of other problems,” Reimer said. Instead, Vancouver decided to allow carts to set up right on some of the busiest walkways, like Re-Up on Hornby Street, which seems to be working without a hitch thus far.

While nutrition is certainly a large component of the program, it is part of a larger two-pronged approach. It also aims to spur on economic development, with both large and small businesses standing to benefit, Reimer said.

Owners Briana Buckmaster and Michael Kaisaris taking a break in
the kitchen.

Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.