Toronto Food Truck & Street Food Movement – The Basic 411
You’ve probably seen the food trucks parked around the city. Been invited to one of the El Carnita taco & art events or Toronto Underground Market events on Facebook. Or if you’re an experienced and curious foodie, you’ve probably tasted some of the food from Toasted Tangerine, El Gastronomo Vagabundo or Gorilla Cheese. There is a huge movement hitting Toronto right now (for those in the know) and it’s the Food Truck movement.
While Toronto isn’t the original city of the Food Truck movement (one foodie I spoke with told me that Toronto is about 3 years behind the ‘movement’), cities like New York, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles trail-blazed a path for how Toronto could operate and set up shop. Shows like Food Network’s “Eat Street” put a glaring spotlight on the industry and people were becoming more and more interested in these bite-sized eats that you could grab street side that weren’t just hot dogs and french fries.
But the path to Food Truck bliss hasn’t been a very straight and narrow road to navigate. I spoke to founder of Toronto street-food advocacy group Food Truck Eats, Suresh Doss who told me “Food Trucks started to popup in Ontario about 2 years ago. Most of them are based outside of Toronto, and because they’re not allowed to be in Toronto curbside, you rarely see them. So we started Food Truck Eats as a way to bring the trucks in, to introduce them to the public.”
Street food has been a hot topic in Toronto for many months now. Because of the city’s bureacracy and an archaic set of rules (a moratorium placed by council in November of 2002), new street food vendors (trucks) are not allowed to operate in public spaces within Toronto’s downtown core. Doss told me, “The goal of Food Truck Eats is to show that food trucks can operate on private property and some spaces without creating any congestion, or being curbside. We believe, as the Ontario Food Trucks Association, that there can be a balanced approach to street food in Toronto by using spaces for street food installations.”
In Toronto, you will happen to see many events happening at the Distillery District and BrickWorks. Suresh tells me that both spaces have been incredibly supportive of the Food Truck movement since inception and ‘get’ what they are trying to do. They are also able to accommodate the trucks and lineups, thus Food Truck events will continue to pop up there.
Just recently (May 10, 2012), councillors Adam Vaughan and Kristyn Wong-Tam tabled a motion aimed at getting the city bureaucracy to start thinking about eliminating a rule that makes it hard for food trucks to operate from licensed pay-to-park lots. This could be seen a minor victory for The Toronto Street Food Project and Ontario Food Trucks Association. However there is still much more to go. The Toronto Street Food Project was launched specifically to bring these issues to City Hall and will continue to do so until everything is passed.
But regardless of all the legislation around the Trucks, it really all comes back down to the food. It’s really quite amazing what you can get from these trucks, in a small period of time, from such empowered chefs. Lobster Ceviche for $4. Chorizo Nachos for $5. Cornbread Jalapeño Buffalo Mozzarella grilled cheese with Guacamole for $5. Toasted Ravioli with fresh Tomato Sauce for $6. Maple Bacon cupcakes for $4. This is just a small sampling of what you could attempt to eat.
I was able to speak with Graeme from Gorilla Cheese (food truck owner and operator), who told me about how they deal with the crowds, “Our mandate is to provide value for our customers, and take pride in providing a filling meal at a fair price. At some of the bigger festivals, where we often have lines hundreds deep, we’ve done “festival portions”, basically a half sandwich at a reduced price. This allows us to serve the lineup far faster, and the smaller portions allow people to sample the other foods available to them, instead of getting full from one single venue, while providing a fair price-point”.
While I spoke with Tamara from El Gastro Vagabondo (food truck owner and operator) who told me that while some trucks still stick to ‘comfort-foods’, at El Gastro, they were going to push the limits of what people expected from street food: “Adam is a professionally trained chef, and he has taken what he’s learned in the restaurant industry in Australia and Canada over the past 17 years and created our globally inspired menu. We have a strong food philosophy of using as many local and sustainable products as possible. The cost of our ingredients, and the labour involved in making everything from scratch, of course factors into the price point of our food.”
When you walk into your first Food Truck event, it can be a bit overwhelming. There are hundreds of people all running from truck to truck trying to get at a little bit of everything. Some chefs from trucks screaming & singing songs to attract you to their truck. Some lineups outweigh others and you’re wondering, “Should I really wait in this line”. But I guess that is the whole thrill of attending. Tamara from El Gastro told me, “I don’t think any of the marketing tactics of trucks detracts from the food at all. At the end of the day, people will remember the food they ate above all else. Each truck works hard to attract customers and maintain a dedicated following, but it’s the food that keeps people talking and coming back for more.” Which nails it right on the head. For days, you will be talking and telling everyone about that bite-sized delight regardless of what took place around you.
So exactly how does one go about tracking down one of these Food Trucks, if you’re unable to attend one of the events you’ve heard so much about. It’s really quite simple. You can follow Ontario Food Trucks on Twitter or on their website or even better yet, you can download the mobile app called Street Food Toronto, for free.
Remember, Toronto’s relationship with street food is mired in red tape (currently), but there are signs that city hall is poised to loosen restrictions. As Graeme from Gorilla Cheese told me, “(We need) to keep making food to the best of our abilities, and to help expand food truck culture all over the province by working within the rules, and using diplomacy to change them as needed. Also, email or telephone your local Councillor to let them know how you feel.”
Food Trucks and street food are finally here and they are here to stay, whether the city is ready for it or not.
Photos by Yuli Scheidt