How City Hall Screwed Up Their Own Street Food Pilot Project

3395772747_e5543f3c30_bphoto: SteffanyF

When City Hall announced that it was going to overhaul its position on mobile street food vendors (previously: “we only want it if it sucks”), I was really excited. Finally, just maybe, we’d start inching toward a town like Portland, a paradise of food trucks serving a wild array of culturally diverse dishes from the curb.

Several local restaurateurs and chefs geared up to meet the new challenge (I naturally grew hungry) but when the City explained that vendors for their summer pilot project would be decided by lottery, my enthusiasm was replaced with fear and dread.

While I’m glad the city recognised that they were unqualified to choose which food businesses would suit our streets best (their track record on this is pretty bad), they could have just asked around, perhaps even called in a couple of independent consultants who knew a thing or two about food. Better yet, they could have actually interviewed the applicants to discern whether or not they were serious. I certainly would have advised them to the best of my ability for free, as would (I’m sure) other local food writers, chefs’ associations and so on…but no. In an effort to be democratic (which can be interpreted as ‘blameless’), they basically drew names from a bingo barrel as if the vendors would be selling scarves, toques and glow sticks. This, according to Grant Woff, acting manager of street administration, was “the fairest method as everyone was given the same odds”.

Big mistake.

What they overlooked – recklessly in my view – was this: in food there are good operators and bad ones, those with experience and those with none. This fact should have been taken into consideration first and foremost, but it wasn’t. The City should have determined, on a case by case basis, which were the best applicants that would give Vancouver – to use the Mayor’s own words – “a world-class street food scene”. As a consequence of this error, the list of the 17 winning vendors-to-be is nothing if not wholly underwhelming.

Let’s see what we have…(“W” stands for Winner, “A” for Alternate)

East Side of 200 Howe St – 100 metres North of W Cordova St
(W) Wong, To Choi – Chinese Dim Sum
(A) Simkin, Karen

South Side of 400 W Georgia St – 12 metres East of Richards St
(W) Lee, Yong Sook – Korean food with meat and vegetarian options
(A) Emmott, Jenny

North Side of 700 W Cordova St – 14 metres East of Howe St
(W) Revuelta Cue, Arturo – Burritos, whole wheat, rice, beans, sauces, fillings
(A) Dhanoa, Bobby

East Side of 700 Homer St – 20 metres South of W Georgia St
(W) Yong, Ming Cheak – chicken salad with lettuce, tomato. Fruit cup with melon, kiwi and mixed fruit.
(A) Liu, Hang

East Side of 700 Hornby St – 22 metres South of W Georgia St
(W) Kaisaris, Michael – Southern BBQ, Rice, Veggies
(A) Te, Richard

South Side of 700 W Georgia St – 20 metres West of Granville St
(W) Li, Hongyu – Traditional Chinese and Japanese Cuisine
(A) Te, Maria

South Side of 900 W Hastings St – 24 metres East of Burrard St
(W) Fang, Emily – Skewers of beef and pork
(A) Chow, Benson

West Side of 1100 Burrard St – 28 metres South of Helmcken St
(W) Samaei Motlag, Babak – Greek Donair
(A) Jalalzada, Mohammad

West Side of 1100 Burrard St – 25 metres North of Davie St
(W) Yeo, Allan – Modern Satay Barbeque
(A) Thomas, Regina

South Side of 2000 Beach Av – 30 metres West of Chilco St
(W) Zhao, Mei Liing – Fresh squeezed Lemonade
(A) Rowles, Sharon

East Side of 600 Granville St – 50 metres North of W Georgia St
(W) Ip, Derek – Fresh Bakery
(A) Horsley, Melissa

West Side of 600 Granville St – 95 metres North of W Georgia St
(W) Rodgers, Katie – Healthy meals & snacks, roll ups, sandwiches
(A) Kirpik, Berkan

East Side of 6400 Cambie St – 20 metres North of W 49th Ave
(W) Yien, Alan – speciality noodles
(A), Rieche, Fraser

East Side of 1300 Main St – 12 metres North of Terminal Ave
(W) St. Denis, Jean Francois – Falafel
(A) Lurtz, Cedric

West Side of 1100 Station St, or West Side of 400 Burrard St
(W) Morra, Giorgio – Authentic Italian stone ground pizza
(A) Charach, Michael

West Side of 1200-1300 Arbutus St, or North Side of 1000 W Georgia St
(W) Duprey, David – Fresh & frozen fruits, chocolate dipped fruits
(A) Chan, Calvin

West Side of 1400 NW Marine Dr, or East Side of 800 Hornby St
(W) Kosmowski, Roman – Central European foods from Poland, Russia, using local organic products, borscht, schnitzel, kosher
(A) Edra, Imee

Hurray for us, right? Who doesn’t like dim sum, burritos, southern BBQ and Korean food? But what’s this about lemonade and chocolate dipped fruit? And what the heck constitutes “speciality noodles” [sic]? How is stone ground pizza served from a truck “authentic” if it isn’t baked in a wood-burning oven? Can you elaborate on “skewers of beef and pork”? Who mixes Japanese and Chinese food and has the balls to say it’s “traditional”? This is exactly the sort of vaguery I was afraid of, and nowhere near as “new and exciting” as City Hall described in their media mail out today. Did we really wait all this time for chicken salad and fruit cups? What if none of it is any good? What happens to the pilot project if those who’ve been chosen abjectly fail to table good, consistent products?

There were about 800 applications for the available spaces, and there were some real gems in the bunch from tried-and-true operators, real talents with solid track records for serving quality food. Yet not a single one – as far as I can tell – cracked the list. So now the success or failure of the pilot project rests with these start-ups, companies that – to my knowledge – have little restaurant or food service experience (I suspect some have none at all). You’d think the City would have thought of that and actively sought to avoid such a scenario. Instead, they relied on a revolving plexiglass barrel filled with applicant’s names. Perhaps the psychic octopus was too busy…

As you can probably tell, I think the process was deeply flawed from the get go. All anyone needed to apply was $50 and a valid driver’s license, prerequisites that – to me at least – don’t exactly scream a guarantee of quality. And how about that timeline? The winners are required to be operational in just 22 days! In that span they’ll need to be Coastal Health approved (always fun), have a base of operations, and be ready for volume on opening day. How many of these unknowns do you think will be ready? I’d wager no more than 10. Of those 10, how many will be any good? I hate to sound pessimistic, but I’ll call it as 2 or 3, tops. I hope I’m wrong – that we get lucky – but that’s exactly the problem. This shouldn’t have been decided by luck, and it’s patently ridiculous that it was.

If any of the 17 aren’t ready, their good fortune falls to the mysterious “alternates”: concepts that are as yet unknown to the public. And what if they aren’t ready? Ah, there is no plan for that. Great. Maybe the Mayor can bring out his magic bingo machine again. Perhaps one of the applicants that has already invested thousands into their concept and are pretty much a sure thing (as far as quality is concerned) will have a chance, if indeed chance – this time – is on their side. If not? I assume we’ll see more chocolate fruit. Outstanding.

Due to City Hall’s lack of vision here (don’t get me wrong – I do applaud their enthusiasm), I can’t help but treat it as a balls-up. Using their method, we could have landed 17 falafel joints had the barrel been particularly unkind (thankfully, we got just one). It was about as well thought out as every other food and beverage plan that City Hall has touched in the past (which is to say diseased and rotten). Again, if they wanted to be democratic about it, they could have allowed a primary first, if only to separate the wheat from the chaff.

It was my understanding that this entire enterprise was an effort to better our food scene. If that was indeed the case, then the City has once again failed its diners through either oversight or undersight, incompetence or ignorance.

From the City trumpet today:

“The enthusiasm of Vancouver’s small businesses and the public interest in the expanded street-food program has been overwhelming,” Mayor Gregor Robertson said. “The popularity of this is a clear indication that people want to see a wide range of food on our streets and they want the offerings to reflect the cuisine of our culturally diverse city. We’ve got a world-class city and people want a world-class street food scene to match.”

We still do. Please call us when it’s ready, your Excellency.

  • http://toddsieling.com Todd Sieling

    > If this inaugural group of cart owners are problematic for health inspectors, are disorganized, and ultimately fail, it’s going to be hard to convince city bureaucrats to give it another go.

    There are already food carts in the city, and these things are tiny compared to inspecting a full restaurant. I’m not sure if additional staff would be needed to police the same standards as the other carts, but is that really the ‘big problem in the shadows?’

    Moreover, how are all these carts going to have quality issues so bad that it impacts the overall program? I disagree that there was some secret bias in the kvetching over this, but it really feels like reaching for hysterical what-if scenarios. We give the quality of new full service locations much less fuss, yet their impact is greater in numerous ways. Why is it food carts that create so much anguish and fear?

  • Scout Magazine

    Hi KimHo. Thanks for your comment. You asked several questions…

    What is your concept of street food? Any food served curbside from a cart or mobile food truck.

    What is wrong with yet another falafel/shawarma shop in the corner? Nothing is wrong with that, since we have – as of yet – neither. Once the green light is given, it would be great to see both and I’m glad that we will.

    On that note, can you, please, disclose your bias towards certain cuisines/restaurants/restaurants with big marketing budgets? The fact you are making a push towards “very capable chefs” makes me believe you have a preference for them. Yes, I have a bias towards very capable chefs. Quite naturally, I suppose. I don’t have a bias toward certain cuisines or restaurants, and the size of a restaurant’s marketing budget is not of any interest to me. If – with that – you’re inferring that I’m somehow “pushing” the agendas of businesses that advertise with companies that I work for, I can only say that my personal and professional integrity is my own, and I value it more than employment.

    Why everybody keeps comparing Vancouver with the street food in Portland? Because they have lots and we have none.

  • http://www.buycheese.com jc

    A lottery is fair. It levels the playing field and that means everyone who applies has an equal chance of getting the opportunity to run a food cart.

    Imagine taxi licenses for example. If they only give them out to pre existing companies, how can someone have a hope in hell of starting their own taxi business?

  • KimHo

    Probably here is where we disagree: In other cultures, street food isn’t meant to be some fancy type of eats. It is something that you can, as the name implies and you have agreed, something that is served on the curbside. However, the part that I would like to make emphasis – and probably different from your perspective – is that it is usually cheap, simple eats, prepared quickly and something you would eat on the run (often) or standing beside the said cart/truck. Having said that and I apologize if this might sound like beating the dead horse but…

    Any food served curbside from a cart or mobile food truck.

    So, basically, if some “casual dining” restaurant were to set up a mobile food truck, that would, technically, fall under your definition?

    Yes, I have a bias towards very capable chefs.

    I will be nitpicky on this one… Chef or cook? This falls back to the question above, by the time you need an actual chef (as in the head cook) I think there you are overthinking the concept (of course, my understanding) of street food. In fact, why not simply open a restaurant? But, still true, I will prefer that such operation be ran by somebody who can cook well but, given the (physical) size of the operation, I would rather this be limited to a handful of dishes that share a similar background.

    Why everybody keeps comparing Vancouver with the street food in Portland? Because they have lots and we have none.

    Not true. What Portland has is what they describe as pods, i.e., a street literally lined up with food trucks. If they weren’t set up in such setting, I doubt it would be as sucessful. Had people said NYC, OK, that might be different, given they have a huge street food of its own (and some interesting eats I might add). And, just for comparison purposes, people might want to check these posts from local food blogger (as in located in Vancouver) Mijune Pak of Follow Me Foodie who wrote some posts on a trip to Asia, which includes street food in Korea and China. Sure, different cultures, but it shows the simplicity behind what some of us expect from food being sold on the street…

  • Scout Magazine

    Hi again KimHo.

    Regardless of whether a ‘casual dining’ restaurant went into business on the street or some random dude started selling falafels, I’d patronize whichever one offered better food. To me, this isn’t about class or cost, it’s about quality.

    There were several local chefs with good track records and very interesting concepts in the mix for the lottery. I’m not sure why their training/experience makes them moot in your estimation. I’d sooner eat good food than bad.

    As far as the Portland comparison is concerned, I’ll concede the semantic point. I’d just like to see our own city be as permissive for once.

  • http://www.shotinvancouver.com/ Alex

    >Imagine taxi licenses for example. If they only give them out to pre existing companies, how can someone have a hope in hell of starting their own taxi business?

    If taxi licenses were distributed by lottery like the food cart permits, you wouldn’t even need to know how to drive to be in the running to get one. How does that make sense?

    I don’t think anyone is arguing that you need to be an existing, successful business to apply, but that maybe you should have some sort of business plan as an example of due diligence and perhaps there should’ve been a qualifying round to make sure there is a fair distribution of saleable food types in the final draw.

  • pablopicante

    to all you folks who still believe city hall handled this the right way i say:

    chicken salad with lettuce, tomato. Fruit cup with melon, kiwi and mixed fruit

  • http://toddsieling.com Todd Sieling

    Anyone go out to the demo lineup of the new vendors in Stanley Park this eve? I’ve read good reports on the bbq on twitter, but nothing else yet.

  • Anthony

    Kim HO,

    No one is arguing that these carts need to be Thomas Keller level food cart’s nor that Earl’s should have won (if earls is your idea of good food then we are already coming from different worlds) what we are asking for is good food and, as is the case with most successful food carts, executed simply. Using deductive logic I am assuming you do not work in a kitchen, or food cart and have no idea how difficult executing “simple” can be after 600 plates.

    Taco trucks kill it in New York, so do espresso trucks, fruit stands… not so much, lemonade… HA!

    This all being said those with money will probably end up buying the license that the lemonade stand/fruit stand has because they can’t come up with the $100,000 it will cost to get those sorts of operations running.

  • fmed

    NYC – which has a great street food scene – has been offering street food by lottery for decades. That’s how a real world class city handles street food licensing.

  • Scout Magazine

    Care to substantiate that? I get that NYC is world class (it’s freakin’ New York, right?), but I don’t see its municipal government as above reproach on a wide number of issues. Their record on street food isn’t all that rosy. Impeachable members of NY City Council introduced legislation against their mobile vendors just last month (http://tinyurl.com/27hejy8).

  • fmed

    NYC hasn’t given out “new” licenses since 1979. There are a number that become available due to attrition every year…and those are given out by lottery (or illegally leased to third-parties). These two urls are the only real online sources I can find with to substantiate this, (and phone call to the regulators at NY will certainly substantiate beyond all doubt):

    http://nymag.com/restaurants/features/33530/
    http://www.chef2chef.net/articles/in-the-fire/street-food-trend.html

    Also…since people keep talking about “The Portland Model”….let’s not forget that 99% of all street food in Portland is crap. 1% of it is amazing, however….which is exactly 1% more than here.

  • fmed

    Let me pull out the relevant bit (from the second url):

    “There are regulations that govern truck storage, insurance, and security. And what about all-important permits and licenses? NYC, for example, has offered, by lottery, only 3,100 food vendor licenses each year since 1979, with priority given to existing vendors. With a waiting list of 10-15 years, there’s a thriving black market, with vendor permits selling for anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000.”

  • fmed

    And I found yet another online source…

    http://newyork.grubstreet.com/2009/08/users_guide_how_to_start_your.html

    “The Rules of the City of New York, the abstruse, hulking set of guidelines that regulate activities ranging from operating a street cart to carrying a handgun, stipulates that two permits are required: a Mobile Food Vendor License for you and a Mobile Food Vending Unit Permit for your truck. The former is a matter of paperwork and a few classes. The latter is not, as the city stopped issuing them ten years ago, according to a representative at the Department of Consumer Affairs, and there has been a cap of 3,100 licenses since 1979 (5,100, if you count fruit and vegetable carts, too; a bill has been introduced to raise the cap to 25,000). The permits are distributed via lotteries. “

  • Scout Magazine

    Sorry. The comment that I was asking you to substantiate was this one:

    “That’s how a real world class city handles street food licensing.”

    With the thriving black market that you mention?

  • fmed

    Haha. My tongue was in my cheek when I wrote that.

  • HH

    Owned.

  • http://www.shotinvancouver.com/ Alex

    Is there any regulation stating that the “menu” that the licensee originally submitted is the same one that they must launch with? Maybe after actually winning, the chicken salad and lemonade vendors can reconsider what they will offer.

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  • CouCou

    Maybe you should also remeber that it is a PILOT project. not the definite way of doing things. Who can you pilot a project when you have no way of knowing what the applicants are doing, if they are viable health wise.. etc.
    How can you then know, if it’s a failure, what is the cause of that failure ?

    Really, there are enough diversity and food professionals in the vancouver area that could have filled in those positions and that are already runing businesses with accredited food licenses….

    How can you dream of sushi in a cart ??? have you any idea of the instability of raw fish and the heat that can be on a cart, in full sun in the summer ??….

  • Derek

    It’s funny that sushi is mentioned. In Richmond there has been a small village of food trailers beginning from one trailer that opened january 2009. That one trailer specialized only in Bakudanyaki, which a giant version of the infamous takoyaki which translates to octopus fritter ball. Earlier this year it has been joined by two other mobile units, a noodle trailer that sells ramen noodles in the winter months and cold noodle salad in the summer months. The third trailer sells (dun dun duuuuunnn) custom temaki hand cones where you choose everything from the type of wrap and rice to what sauce you want on it. This vendor regularly has fresh salmon, tuna, scallop and sometimes hamachi (yellow tail) on his menu along with chicken teriyaki and unagi and others. The last two trailers have been operating for half a year now and both have strong followings, I highly suggest checking them out as they are just outside Bridgeport skytrain station (beside the busloop). More trailers are expected soon including some of the so called “gems” that were forgotten in CoV street food pilot lottery.

  • KimHo

    if earls is your idea of good food then we are already coming from different worlds

    Hi Anthony, I will assume this wasn’t directed at me but, if it was, I wrote previously my understanding of street food. To satisfy your curiosity, I did work in a restaurant kitchen eons ago. And, from my own experience, simple can be broken down in:

    1) Simple dish, where it is made out of handful of ingredients. Simple to prepare, difficult to master. An example of this would be fried rice.
    2) Simple dishes, where what is served is common, to the point you can prepare it at home (but, then again, would you?). An example of this would be a hot dog.

    To me, simplicity is up to the restaurant when they set up their menu. After that, what matters is consistency. If you can’t make the same dish 600 times (or more) without much difference, then you are not doing things right. And, in the case of large restaurants, have the recipe be cooked by line cooks whose experience level might or might not be there.

  • AM

    I’ve got to say that I’m with the “haters to the left” camp. Would it make the uber sophisticated palates of Vancouver happy to call it an organic juice stand instead of lemonade stand? Who doesn’t eat fruit in the winter? I don’t believe we can judge anything until it’s been tasted, everyone calm down and remember it’s called “street food” and not gastro bistro.

  • Neil Wyles

    Article in the Courier today states that some of the lottery winners will not be ready as they have no cart, kitchen or plan!!

    Really? The guy from the City did not do his homework to make sure that these people actually had their shit together!

    Surprise, surprise, suhhhprize!!

  • http://vancouverstreeteats.ca/ Vancouver Street Eats

    With the possibility of a smooth launch squandered, the city has rested the success of it’s vendor program squarely on the businesses themselves.
    It remains unclear how many of the permit winners have the experience and determination to make it work.
    Rumours of permit re-selling and other shady practices are abound online.
    In an environment where a taco truck loses out to a lemonade stand, a clear winner in this mess is hard to see.