Thursday, August 15, 2013

Politics of Street Food


What Could Nanaimo Learn?

GUELPH, ON, Aug 14, 2013/ Troy Media/ РFoodies in Montreal got a taste of foie gras poutine and gluten-free saut̩ed gnocchi this summer served by food trucks for the first time since street food was outlawed in the city in 1947.

Like other cities, such as Ottawa and Toronto, Montreal is running a pilot program for the next two summers to evaluate whether Montrealers can stomach a drastic revolution in the city’s foodscape: the addition of the often lively and idiosyncratic food trucks. While the pilot project clearly intends to showcase Montreal’s gastronomic excellence, some are questioning the socio-economic value of the pilot and the bureaucratic immensity behind the whole approach.

On the surface, the project seems to be very successful. Not only are people lining up and waiting for 20 minutes, but some trucks are occasionally also running out of supplies. There is even a conveniently-designed website allowing consumers to know when and where their favourite trucks will be.

Similar to their counterparts in other North American cities, foodies in Montreal are uniting and embracing the food truck movement. But after two years of public consultations, recommendations to allow food trucks to roam Montreal streets are once again fraught with administrative constraints.

Food trucks are regulated by a city hall-driven bureaucracy with a vast array of rules and regulations. Some trucks may cease operations even before the pilot ends due to the nightmare of red tape. The licencing process is so lengthy and thorny that it is almost as if the city wants this initiative to fail. Montreal’s high taxes are also a challenge for many of these businesses.

This overbearing bureaucracy may have something to do with high prices as well. One thing is for certain: these food dispensers will not survive with the current price scheme. For example, the price of a somewhat sophisticated grilled cheese sandwich is $8, and a single small taco can be purchased for $6. Patrons are currently asked to spend considerable amount of cash for what should be conveniently-located, reasonably-priced food. A family of four could easily pay up to $50 for an arguably unhealthy meal on their way to a show or movie. These prices are prohibitive for the common but affordable for the elitist foodies. For consumers with less means, this option doesn’t do much to address urban food security concerns faced by many in a city like Montreal. This is particularly pertinent considering that downtown Montreal is the home of many itinerants.

Economically, food trucks have been considered as democratic instruments to support capitalism at the core. This business model offers a more accessible path to business ownership for aspiring restaurateurs who are often unable to find enough capital to finance a brick-and-mortar storefront. However, the program in Montreal is anything but open to the ambitious entrepreneur. Granting licenses to trucks which intend to only partner with well-established restaurants is a form of capitalistic discrimination.

This licensing strategy was obviously instituted to serve a pre-existing business environment. The entire project’s underlying objective involves not increasing competition for current restaurants. Understandably, restaurants don’t like competition, but our economy needs it, and consumers want it for better variety and prices. Besides, a good restaurant serving great food to its patrons shouldn’t worry much if it sees a food truck parked in front of it. But under the current program, food trucks are not allowed within 60 meters of a food service establishment. Nonsense.

In the end, Montreal’s program to offer better food to people on-the-go has merit, but this is being overshadowed by the city’s tendency to make things much too bureaucratically-convoluted. If other Canadian cities want to offer something different for their citizens, they should consider this example from la belle province. But, as it stands, Montreal’s business approach is certainly not desirable.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Associate Dean at the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

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1 comment:

  1. In today's economic environment, food trucks would compete with restaurants, to the disadvantage of both. Times are hard enough in the restaurant business.

    The places where they work best seem to be remote (from restaurants) but popular beaches, etc.. In Kauai (Hawaii) they had charming food trucks selling vegan and raw food, thus adding to a growing food niche -which might be another way for trucks to survive. In very busy areas, one-item specialty food trucks might succeed, for example, gourmet hot dogs, something for people in a hurry with no time to sit and eat in a cafe.

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