Curb Your Appetite: Modern Food Trucks — the New Culinary Urbanism in London, Ontario
By BRYAN LAVERY
Last year London City Council agreed to get public feedback on a proposed program to allow new-style food trucks. The current bylaw is outdated, because it was drafted to deal with catering trucks, hotdog carts and other vendors that have traditionally been confined to private parking lots and special events.
The City revised their initial food truck plan, and proposed a much less restrictive version that balances the interests of stakeholders and encourages a vibrant street food experience for the public. However, there are restrictions. There is expected to be a 25-metre buffer zone separating food trucks from existing restaurants. And don’t expect to see food trucks around the Covent Garden Market, or on Dundas or King Streets downtown. They will also be required to stay clear of schools, which have healthful-food guidelines.
There are additional concerns that we are about to enter a new phase of corporate nuisance, where fast food chains will eventually begin entering a marketplace populated chiefly by innovative independents. The food truck phenomenon — up until recently, that is — has chiefly been the domain of mobile entrepreneurs.
In the meantime, an impartial food truck advisory review panel made up of volunteer representatives (based on London's Urban Design Peer Review Panel) is being formed to provide expert opinion and recommendations regarding food truck strategy in London.
In addition, the panel will be charged with encouraging culturally diverse and original menu offerings, and endorsing the promotion of healthy eating. As such, vendors would be encouraged to be innovative and consider focusing on a variety of nutritious, seasonal, fresh and local ingredients.
We are aware that modern food truck vendors can be much more than their current limiting stereotypes. Last year, some proponents of local food trucks wanted to see the health benefits and uniqueness of prospective trucks evaluated by representatives from the city or an appointed committee. This is not something that should be evaluated arbitrarily by city officials or their proxy and the city seems to be in staunch agreement.
At the moment it appears that there will be no selection criteria based on proposed menu offerings, business plan, innovation, and level of vendor experience or overall impact to London’s food truck/street food culture. However, it is too early to try to define what that culture should look like, and consumers will ultimately determine its future and success.
Active consultation and participation in food truck and street food vending programs, in partnership with bylaw and regulatory services, will foster food safety — both in the reduction of potential food safety issues and in the promotion of healthy eating while providing advice on food safety issues.
Food trucks have their detractors in the restaurant community and there has been some special interest interference across the province. Recently, the Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association (ORHMA) got involved in discussions with various Southern Ontario municipalities, including London, on the wave of food trucks gearing up to set up operations. The argument against food trucks is that they're stealing the business of more established bricks-and-mortar restaurants. We have seen no evidence suggesting food trucks have undermined anyone’s business, restaurant or otherwise.
It is true that food trucks have some advantages over a traditional eat-in restaurant. Mobility and the ability to travel to where the customers are is a definite plus. Generally speaking, food trucks have lower overhead than restaurants, and require less staff. However, a food truck is still a labour-intensive business that requires a lot of work and attention.
Food trucks are already subject to standardized health and safety regulations and inspections. Local proponents are hoping that policies and guidelines can be developed and vetted quickly to ensure greater accessibility of food trucks/street food in a way that balances all community interests.
Modern food trucks serve a diverse variety of healthy options and cultural foods in other cities. They are positioned to incubate new businesses and become an alternative launching pad for healthy, creative food.
We like food trucks because they stimulate culinary innovation and diversity, draw culinary tourists, provide employment, and contribute revenue to the city. They help stimulate community, and are destined to become an important part of the social and culinary fabric of the city. Let’s hope to see some positive resolution in the upcoming months.