DINER: Is The BCRFA Lobbying City Hall To Clamp Down On Vancouver’s Food Carts?

Want a laugh? The Sun is reporting a non-story that says the BC Foodservices & Restaurant Association is warning City Hall to ease up on all the food carts.

“We’re getting to the point now where it’s pretty much at the maximum,” association president Ian Tostenson said Tuesday.

Um, what? It’s heartening to see that City Hall only politely nodded at Mr. Tostenson in response.  The BCRFA is a fine organisation (if a little out of touch), and they’ve done plenty to lobby the province against all the red tape facing local restaurants, but they really need to put the silly back in the jar on this one.

Tostenson agreed food carts serve a specific market of people wanting fast food on the go. But if there are too many, this could cause problems for established fast food restaurants.

Oh noes! Whatever happened to all’s fair in love and restaurants? This is hardly a serious challenge to the city. If anything, it’s a weak shot across the bow, and not a little illustrative of how out of touch the BCRFA is with Vancouver’s changing dining culture. Food carts are the best thing to happen to Vancouver’s food scene in a long, long time. Could Tostenson just be bridling because so few (if any) of them have decided to join the BCRFA? Many have actually banded together to launch their own association instead, and with the BCRFA looking after the interests of fast food restaurants, who can blame them?

There are 18 comments

  1. I love food carts! If I want a sit-down meal, I’ll visit a restaurant. Totally two different industries.

    Sad Coma Food Truck didn’t make the cart list this time around.

  2. Hmm. No one works harder to champion BC restaurants that Ian. I love the guy, but I have to agree with you. The BCRFA is out of touch, and flexing over food carts? Petty.

  3. I wonder if they’ve looked at the economic viability of more food carts. I’m all for more options. It definitely beats crappy hot dogs and chestnuts, but some days some carts look pretty empty (especially in the winter months) and it isn’t for lack of good food. I guess that’s the roll of the dice of the entrepreneur, but it has made me wonder if there is enough year round demand for these businesses to be sustainable. I guess we’ll find out. Or I guess the operators will do the market research for the city on their own dime.

  4. Morning. My comments were taken out of context. I did not ‘warn’ the city. I simply pointed out basic economics. Too many will saturate the downtown market. That weakens existing operators and will potentially hurt quick service restaurants (bricks and mortar), who tend to pay a much higher portion towards taxes than do food carts.
    Lets find room for everyone to compete but stay viable.

  5. “The B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association is warning the city of Vancouver to limit new food carts being added to Vancouver streets.”

    I don’t doubt you, Ian, but even if the Sun’s lede (above) was incorrect and your remarks were taken out of context by the writer, I think my greater point – that it’s none of the BCRFA’s business whether or not the downtown market gets over-saturated – stands. As your organisation well knows, no market sorts itself out more adroitly than the restaurant market, and thus it should be left alone. If a restaurant is no longer viable, it’s because it isn’t doing a good enough job. Should the BCRFA try to impede the progress of Vancouver’s street food scene on behalf of fast food restaurants, I’d wager such a move would be looked upon by the dining public as nothing more than self-serving manipulation, which is to say it would be wholly unwelcome.

    Thanks for weighing in. Keep up the good fight (hopefully elsewhere).

  6. I couldn’t agree more with Scout Magazine (Andrew). Ian and the BCRFA have no right to try to dictate where people should eat and he actually seems to be unaware of “basic economics” despite claims otherwise. If the market (dining public) decides that all they want to do is eat at food carts and not at fast food restaurants than so be it. Why should you be telling them that it is wrong to do so? After all, if that does occur then the food carts have done a better job of satisfying their customers than the fast food restaurants which should be the main objective of any business. And if it goes the other way and people don’t eat at the food carts (or the city is “over saturated ” with them as you say) then it will not be economically viable for them to operate and the ones losing money will have to close shop and the ones making money will stay open. The market will decide on the right number of food carts the city can support.

    Bottom line, the city or the BCRFA can’t under any circumstances tell us what the right number of food carts in the city should be. Only the general dining public can. If the city can accommodate 100 food carts that all make money they why shouldn’t they all be allowed to operate even if it is at the expense of some fast food restaurants? The fast food restaurants are more than capable to compete with them on their own accord to try to gain/keep market share. May the best product win!

  7. I eat at food carts for lunch almost every day (La Brasserie, Tacofino and Fresh, Local and Wild) precisely because I consider them better options than every fast food ‘restaurant’ that is available … I’d question whether McDonald’s, Subway et al are really their competition …

  8. Here’s some ‘basic economics’, as one of the commenters upthread termed it.:
    Food Trucks pay no rent for the locations they occupy.
    Food Trucks pay no property tax, nor share of.

    Fair is fair. Food Trucks are nice, they contribute to the street ambience, and some of the product is good. How about a level playing field? To those of us operating in the ‘old school’ bricks and mortar locations, it creates some queasiness when the city creates terms of operation that vastly favour food carts over fixed locations. Level the field and bring them on, then we have equal competition.

  9. You’re talking about a completely different playing field. Brick and mortars come with roofs, tables, chairs and often liquor licenses, not to mention vastly higher cheque averages. Lumping the two together and treating them as siblings instead of distant cousins might be a little off base. Why not let the market rule?

  10. I don’t buy that for a minute. It’s food. The consumer has a choice when dining out, food carts and freestanding restaurants being prominent among them. It’s the same market. When the bureaucracy that for all intents and purposes controls that market, changes the rules to favour one of the ‘cousins’, that is to put it mildly, unfair. It’s piling on when the city uses taxpayer funded resources to promote ‘the cousins’. It’s a subsidy for the chosen few.

    Roof’s, liquor licences and higher check averages, come complete with of complications and expenses mandated and collected by the same bureaucracy that is featherbedding the way for the food carts.

    Scout Magazine, how on earth can you justify one subset of a business being allowed to operate without the same costs that all the rest of us have to bare? Explain please.

  11. Simple: if they faced the same costs as a restaurant, they wouldn’t exist (contrary to popular belief, there’s not always money in the banana stand). What’s more, the bureaucracy that is “featherbedding the way” for food carts (hardly) is the same bureaucracy that stupidly held them back for decades, and if such featherbedding is their act of contrition, I await many more Hail Marys before I feel that wrong is righted. I’d like to see them pay no fees by way of a delayed civic apology, but that’s probably just me. I like that they enrich the food fabric of Vancouver, and if they need the “subsidy” of a lesser (to me, fair) tax burden, then it’s the cost of doing business in a great food city.

    If you feel that your restaurant is being directly threatened by the existence of food carts, that’s one thing (no one can help you there), but if it’s a question of what’s fair and unfair, remember that one doesn’t celebrate birthdays at a food cart. One doesn’t go on a date to a food cart. One doesn’t linger over a bottle of wine at a food cart. There are no trappings, no atmosphere, no ancillary attractions save for what gets wrapped in tinfoil. Is Shoppers Drug Mart your competition because they sell Doritos? No. So don’t say its the same market, because it isn’t.

  12. Clearly we disagree on the concept of ‘market.’ There are probably hundreds of small restaurants that exist in the area that has the highest food truck deployment. An educated guess is that their rent/triple net is between $40 – 60ft Based on 1000 Sq ft, they pay occupancy costs of between 3 – $5,000 mth +. They open at 7, close at 4 and do not serve alcohol. They exist to serve the people that work in the area, not for special occasions. Some are good, some suck, but you cannot tell me for a minute that the food carts, with their ‘no rent no tax’ advantage, are not taking business away from them.

    When most of the proprietors made the decision to open, the ‘food cart’, save hot dogs and pretzels, option did not exist for them. If you told them they could sign a 5 or 10 year lease obligating them to total liabilities in the hundred’s of thousands of dollars, or start up a food cart with a total investment of 100k and no ongoing occupancy costs, what do you think they would do?

    Food carts are great, there are some fantastic operators. As it stands, they are subsidized. Stop subsidizing them, and then the ‘market’ can truly decide.

  13. James, I think that your comments are pretty unfounded, and to be blunt, coming off as quite bitter.

    to say that food carts are ‘taking away business” from restaurants is ridiculous. We are talking about a WORLDWIDE culture, that exists everywhere, and is just barely starting to happen in Vancouver. Although I don’t know it to be fact, I don’t think that you’ll find a single city in the world where street carts are not “subsidized”, as you like to claim. Show me a city where street carts and trucks are made to pay similar rent, property tax, and other fees, as restaurants are. I seriously doubt that you’ll find one. Why? Because it’s a ludicrous thing to suggest. It makes absolutely no sense, and for you to suggest otherwise, is just silly.

    I really hate to bring up Portland, as doing so is becoming pretty cliche, it’s still an incredible example. Quite a smaller city than this, and 10 times the amount of food carts (no exaggeration). Yet, there are still awesome lunch/breakfast/sandwich/independent fast food restaurants that are busy, all over the city. Why? Because they are GOOD. It’s a pretty simple rule of business. Generally speaking, if you consistently put out a great product, for a good price, you will be busy. If you’re not as busy as you think you should be, blaming it on the competition is just weak. Whether it be another “brick and mortar” or a street cart, if they are doing a better product than you, they deserve to be busier.

    You think it should be a “level playing field”. Okay, so should restaurants have to remove their roof when it starts to rain? Or open up all their windows, and turn their heat off when it’s below 0? Or be forced to move based on construction? In many instances, restaurants have a huge advantage over street carts. I know many, many people who think it’s silly to stand in the street and eat tacos, for around the same price that you can sit in “La Taqueria” and do the same (just as an example). For every person that is super stoked on street food in this city, there’s another one that just doesn’t get it, or doesn’t give a shit. That’s your clientele. There’s thousands upon thousands of people in this city who don’t have much interest in eating street food, ESPECIALLY in the cold rain (about 6 months of the year), so I really don’t even see what the issue is. I have worked a cart, in the past, and still regularly talk to many truck/cart owners. There are many days in the winter months that money is lost. Just like some days/night in restaurants. Don’t believe me? Oh well, keep believing that it’s some sort of license to print money. and further more, to say that there are “no ongoing occupancy costs” is also unfounded, as you must have a proper commissary kitchen to do all your prep in, before you bring it out to the streets. Each vendor pays rent for these kitchens. Not to mention, all the ongoing maintenance costs, just like a restaurant owner deals with. Sure, the costs are lower, but generally speaking, so is the amount of revenue. If you think for a second that street food operators haven’t had to deal with their fair share of expenses, risks, problems and heartache, once again, you’re being very silly.

    if you really truly feel that if you could do it all over again, you would choose a truck over a restaurant, why don’t you just do it? You can whine all you want, but restaurants aren’t going away anytime soon, I’m sure that there would be multiple people willing to buy your restaurant. Sell away, open a gang of trucks, live the easy life and never have a worry again. oh, wait….

  14. I have a great idea. I know a bunch of really talented clothing designers. Rather than have them go through the regular supply chain, lets allow them to have trucks that can park in designated spots and sell, sometimes in front of retailers who sell the same goods. And lets not have them pay any rent or taxes.
    And for good measure, we need some cool taxis, maybe some vintage 50’s rides, running on biofuel or maybe nuclear powered even, (pronounced nucular). And lets let them pick up passengers anywhere they want, and charge the same fares as regular cabs, but they won’t have to pay motor carrier fees, or any other fees to the city.

    Its the same shit my friend, allowing new players into a market under a whole new set of rules, that unfortunately, existing operators, (including those who rent from the city), don’t get. Because the restaurant industry is so fragmented, and underrepresented politically, it’s allowed, (here and elsewhere). Big credit to the food truck operators by the way, for creating their own organization.

    As for elsewhere, well, except in Portland, (I am so sick of Vancouverites who just got here from God knows where, wanting to be like Portland, which most them have never even been to), the food truck industry has turned into a running battle between fixed and rolling stock, particularly in NY and LA.

    I am not saying for one second food truck operators don’t face challenges, a lot of them the same as all restaurants, for the last time, what I am saying is: They are being given preferential treatment, (ie, allowed to operate on City Property, at no cost to themselves, in the form of rent, or taxes). And that my (non-tax paying) friends, in this city, with its ballooning and intrusive bureaucracy, is a freaking joke.

  15. your example that you just used is not the same thing at all and here’s why:

    food carts/trucks are NOT offering the same products and services as restaurants. Like I said in my original post, there are SO many people in Vancouver who have no interest in standing in the street and eating. Those people will forever go to restaurants, and sit comfortably in warm rooms to enjoy their meals. No street cart in Vancouver will ever be able to compete with that. There is nothing that a truck or cart can offer that is any where comparable to that experience. The two ridiculous examples that you just tried to use to compare would be completely different, because those things would be offering the exact same service.

    Life is full of options, and people will make their decisions. This market is big enough for both carts and restaurants alike to survive. Again, like I said in my original post, if you are GOOD, you won’t have a problem. Let’s just say for a second that you’re right: the market gets completely over saturated with options for quick service food at lunch time. Due to which, a few places start to close. Those places that are first to close, are the ones that aren’t staying current, and/or doing good food. You think street food is stopping the lines at Kintaro/Santouku anytime soon? Or La Taqueria? Or Meat & Bread? No, of course not. The reason is that all those places are putting out good food, for reasonable prices. You could argue that there aren’t many trucks right around those areas, but it’s only a matter of a few blocks.

    Your last paragraph basically sums it up. You just don’t get it. That is how street food operates. All over the entire world. Restaurants and street food co-exist EVERYWHERE. Deal with it. Nothing else you say in this discussion is going to make me believe. You are making ridiculous claims. Do one of two things: close your restaurant and open a truck; or get better, and you’ll be busy. If you operate a restaurant right now, and it’s not busy, trust me, it has nothing to do with the amount of trucks on the road.

  16. If more food trucks cause a bunch of budget sandwich shops serving boil in bag pulled pork on generic bread to go broke then it’s a great thing. Give us more trucks and places like Meat & Bread. I doubt food carts have hurt many places that support this magazine.

  17. I agree with Jesse, ( Thanks for the support for the street food by the way ) I worked in both side of it and I tell you people who are complainning the most is the ones who are weak or trying to find any excuse to blame it on something If you have great product there is always demand if not either your product is not worth the price or it’s just crab. I hate to say this but IT IS DIFFERENT MARKET at this point I’m done with this whole business but you are shitting me it’s the options they choose where to dine I’ve had long line ups yesterday on 8th ave near Ash st why? cause they are my Loyal customers remember it was pouring… so what does that tell me? It comes down to customer relations with the restaurant or food truck no matter what if they like it they will comeback if not they will look for something better because this is free market and it’s competition you can cry about it all you want but how about think differently and try to make it better rather than crying about this market is being too small and worring about the wrong assumptions of “they are satruating our numbers of sales” but we are not, We (street vendors) work our ass off like everyone who works in restaurant industry does anyway There is enough businesses to go around in this city.

  18. Using BCRFA/Ian Tostenson/”James” logic, wouldn’t the taxi industry have a beef with transit because buses and skytrains represent unfair competition to taxis? Isn’t that pretty absurd? And do taxis compete unfairly with rickshaws? Where does this insane argument end?

    How about mall food courts having an unfair advantage over restaurants because they don’t have to hire serving staff and clean the tables and washrooms? Why don’t restaurants petition to ban food courts then?

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