Food and Restaurants 3094 Views by Ron Eade

Ottawa Street Food Lovers get frustrated

Street-food lovers who’d dearly love Ottawa to get on with allowing more food trucks in the nation’s capital will have to wait a while longer even for a pilot project — until at least 2013.

While city staff earlier hoped to launch even a modest test to loosen the rules next year, in fact there remains too much outstanding work to let it happen anytime soon.

At least, that’s the word from Philip Powell, Ottawa’s manager of licensing, permits and markets, who appeared recently before a Grade 11 culinary arts class at Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School in Barrhaven to explain exactly where the city is on the issue of street food.

“The good news is, we are moving to a place where we can have diverse food on our streets,” Philip told the students.

“But we can’t just say, ‘yeah, this is a great idea, come onto our streets.’ We have so many competing interests to consider.”

And so the famous phrase from the movie Casablanca pops readily to mind as we wait … and wait … and wait …

Recall I blogged about chef/instructor Kent Van Dyk’s high school class on Nov. 27 when I, among others, was invited to sit in on their presentations for street food ideas. The project involved splitting the teenagers into groups, each assigned to come up with a different food truck theme complete with props to show the class, real food to taste, and recipes to make the stuff at home. The ideas — and food — were really quite inspiring.

Barrhaven ward councillor Jan Harder was there, along with school principal Patsy Agard and Jacqueline Jolliffe, founder of Stone Soup Foodworks whose distinctive lime-green soup truck is parked at the University of Ottawa (although in Winterlude, she’ll head straight for skaters on the canal).

Above, a student street food kebab project called Seasonal Stix.

The students appear to be singular in their determination to see greater diversity and more numbers of food trucks in our city, which comes as little surprise given the many cultures from around the world reflected in the Barrhaven student population. Surely we can do better that hot dogs, sausages and poutine, they argue.

Ah, but things are never easy when you’re dealing with a) politicians, and b) the public, and c) businesses with vested interests.

There are now just 32 licensed street food spaces in Ottawa, down from roughly 100 two decades ago when the city imposed a moratorium. Among the competing interests:

1) Consumers, who may be more inclined to welcome diversity and choice;

2) Existing licensees, who may expect first crack at obtaining any new permits the city may eventually issue;

3) Existing businesses, who may sell food from fixed premises and don’t appreciate someone with a cart setting up shop only a few feet from his door, taking away business. Or, the existing business may want first crack at setting up a cart in front of his store;

4) Motorists, taxis, trucks, emergency vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists, who all have a right to pass without hindrance on public  streets and sidewalks;

5) Public health officials and nutritionists, who want to encourage more healthy food options (still, in this society you cannot force people to make healthy choices);

6) Vendors themselves, who want to sell what people will pay money to buy — and that often means salt, sugar and fat.

I think you’re starting to get the picture. Or, as Philip told the students, “welcome to my world.”

Above, a concept food truck called Sweet Flame developed by a student team at Longfields-Davidson Heights S.S.

As a general principle, city staff would like a pilot project for, say, two years to allow, say, a limited number of six carts and six street trucks selling foodstuffs that are healthy, fresh and local. And it doesn’t want to revamp the licensing system to create licence plates-for-life as we see with taxis where possession of a permit becomes more valuable than the business itself. (We see that already in government-allowed milk quotas, where the valuable quota that restricts a dairy farmer’s production itself serves to keep prices artificially high for consumers.)

“Every time we in the public sector try anything, the question becomes who made the decision and why,” Philip says

“So, while we’re slow and methodical, at the end of the day we want to do it right.”

Couple the issue of street food with myriad other licensing matters the city wants to revisit — why does Ottawa license auctioneers? what public policy does that really serve? — and you quickly appreciate the quagmire for what it is. Recall, the last time staff brought a markets bylaw before council it had 80 people lined up to speak for and against.

And that, in a nutshell, is why nothing much will happen to install a test project for more street food vendors in Ottawa before 2013 — assuming council approves it at all.

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