How City Hall Screwed Up Their Own Street Food Pilot Project

July 9, 2010.

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” ? 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.

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