A dozen food trucks could be up and running “quickly” in London but city councillors will have to get off the brakes first.
After about two hours of debate the five-member Community and Protective Services Committee voted Monday (April 28) to refer a staff report nearly a year in the making back for further debate at a special meeting before full council convenes next Tuesday (May 6).
At the meeting the committee will consider three revisions to the bylaw that would limit to 12 the number of food truck licences issued in 2014, would see those licences distributed through a lottery (not an auction as was suggested by Ward 4 Councillor Stephen Orser) and would require the program be reviewed in the fall so changes can be made for 2015.
The debate bounced between councillors such as Bill Armstrong, Harold Usher, Denise Brown and Orser who are concerned about putting existing restaurants in the downtown core at risk by flooding the market with unfair competition, and those such as Matt Brown and Nancy Branscombe who cringe at the prospect of losing another food selling season mired in micromanagement, like approving individual menus.
Branscombe could see the green in the grass on both sides of the fence: she said when she travels abroad she “always” eats street food and is eager to see a similar experience in London. But the Ontario Progressive Conservative candidate for London North Centre has no appetite for rushing into an approval and putting pressure on existing businesses.
“I would be feeling very bad in a year if businesses closed because of this.”
Both city bylaw enforcement manager Orest Katolyk and a city solicitor advised the committee that enforcing a menu standard enshrined in a bylaw would be troublesome at best.
Armstrong was more blunt, arguing the politicians have no business telling consumers what they want to eat.
“I find it hard for us to sit here and say let’s decide the menu,” he said. “Who are we?”
Whether councillors decide to wade into menu vetting or not, where they will be allowed to set up shop and how much they will pay the city for the right to do so is up to them.
More than 220 parking spots around the downtown core were recommended for food trucks with rules forbidding them from parking within 100 metres of schools or festivals (as in Victoria Park) or 25 metres from existing restaurants or residential buildings.
That number gave Denise Brown pause; she’s concerned after removing parking spots last summer for outdoor patios, there will be another reason to avoid the downtown if even fewer spots are available.
John Stobie, owner of two Stobie’s Pizza locations downtown, said he welcomes competition as long as there’s a level playing field. After some coaxing he revealed he pays more than $100,000 on the leases for his two locations – a lot more than the $1,225 licence fee a food truck owner would pay.
“I’d love that $1,200 fee.”
He said the first parking spot on Dufferin Street to the east of his restaurant was approved for a food truck in the staff report, and that spot is fewer than 25 m from his door.
“How does that affect the 20 staff I have if there isn’t a level playing field?” he asked. “We put a lot of money back into the city and we don’t know if the food trucks will stick around or come back. I’m not afraid of competition, but if you don’t have enough people to support the businesses around, you’re going to shut down everything.”
Chris Bunting, who has operated his Gastro Truck on private property on Queen’s Avenue since December, said he’d love to be able to take his truck elsewhere and set up where the action is.
“I think food trucks can contribute to the city,” he said. “The big difference is mobility: with a restaurant you have to bring people to you. It’s working (for us) but ideally I’d rather be able to move around and take part in events.”
Bunting wouldn’t be alone. Katolyk said he’s had about a dozen serious conversations with prospective food truckers, and he assumes many of the 27 food vehicles operating on private property would want to apply to work on city property as well.
More than 1,000 people have signed an online petition calling for food trucks in the Forest City.
As the debate dragged on in chambers the discussion spread to social media, with a hunger for street food threatening to boil over on Twitter.
“Food trucks? I want food trucks!” tweeted @JelenaBelieveIt, while @MandyPenny assured councillors “it will be OK” if they approve them and Pints n’ Politics convener @late2game asserted anyone watching the debate would “have to question how (business)-friendly we are.”
And hungry or not, some were just irked councillors spent so much time on the issue.
“The Supreme Court took less time to decide the fate of our Senate than council is taking to decide the fate of food trucks,” provincial Tory candidate Ali Chahbar tweeted.