Saturday, July 25, 2015

Food on Four Wheels

One of my favourite things from our California honeymoon last fall was a night out in Venice Beach's Abbott Kinney neighbourhood. Abbott Kinney is sort of what would happen if Toronto's Kensington Market met Yorkville: it's got a beachy, hippie vibe, but the cashmere sweatshirts cost $400. I loved it, because it felt self-contained in a way that a lot of Los Angeles didn't. Toronto is made up of an archipelago of neighbourhoods, while LA seemed like more an oozing sprawl. (I say this with affection, of course.)

In Abbott Kinney, we shopped, walked up and down the street, stopped in for dinner at an upscale resto, drank delicious cocktails, and basically acted like we had more money than we do. When we left the restaurant, the sidewalks were still buzzing with people, most of whom were lined up for the First Friday festival. There were dozens of food trucks lining the curb, each with two lineups: one of hungry Angelenos clutching cash, and a second of dreamy-faced eaters who were snacking on everything from gourmet cotton candy to Korean short ribs. Meanwhile, the restaurants that lined the other side of the sidewalk were wrangling lineups of their own.

It was a scene to give Toronto City Hall the willies. They've been adamant that food trucks will be the death of the traditional dining experience, and that this menace on four wheels will one day overtake bistros, cafes, and restaurants and leave us all out on the sidewalk.

I think this is crazy. I am biased—after all, we had a food truck cater our wedding—but there seems to be several major bonus to encouraging a local food truck scene.

First of all, from an economic standpoint, there are a couple key differences from a brick-and-mortar place.  Fun fact: restaurants are expensive, yo! People need to get a lease, buy all this equipment, hire staff, get a liquor license, decorate, design a full menu, &c, &c, &c. A recent National Geographic article pegged the average start-up costs for a food truck at 75 grand, while a "real" restaurant clocked in a cool quarter-million dollars.

Putting together a full kitchen and a full menu is a ton of work. Food trucks have smaller, more specialized menus, which mean that the space to cook in can be highly specialized. (If you don't have to have both a deep-fryer for your calamari appetizer and a freezer for your chocolate gelato dessert, you can use that space for equipment you actually need.) Not having space for more than two people on the truck means that you can't hire more than a handful to run your whole business, keeping your staffing costs lower.

Lowering the cost of entry means that more people can afford to do it, giving a wider range across the socio-economic spectrum. It also means creativity: if your specialty is, say, hot dogs, then how many variations can you offer? How about dumplings? Hand pies? Ice cream bars? Narrowing your focus can mean a sudden influx of a-ha moments. (No topping hot dogs with ice cream bars, please.) And let's not forget the cultural diversity. Many of the American food trucks focus on regional cuisines, such as Mexican, Egyptian, Korean—Toronto, as one of the most diverse cities in the world, is already comfortable with eating all over the map. Show me a Toronto schwarma restauranteur who wouldn't be equally happy running a food truck.

Plus, you're mobile. Run out of food 3/4 of the way through a busy night? You don't have to deal with hungry customers who have been sitting for twenty minutes while you scramble to figure out if you can somehow combine chives, orange juice, and carrots to make the tortellini with pesto they ordered. You can just drive away. You can also chase your market, going from the construction worker crowd, who eats their first lunch at 10 AM, to late-night party girls who won't touch a carb when sober but who will happily wolf down a burrito at 3 AM.

That's not to say that food trucks are perfect. It's hard to prep meals for a hundred people in a space the size of a walk-in closet. Like any food business, profit margins can be slim, and it's damned hard work. More than a traditional restaurant, food trucks have to be on it with social media; after all, it doesn't matter if you have the best gyros in the city if nobody knows that you're down on Cherry Street today. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and being listed on various food truck finder apps are all required to build a following; then again, most of those tools are free. 

So why am I singing the food truck's praises so hard? Because Toronto has been usually strict in regulating how and where these business can operate. For years, they had to be at least 50 meters away from an open business, and could only stay in the same spot for three hours; now it's thirty meter and five hours. There are less than 200 food trucks licensed in Toronto (this doesn't include the nearly 150 ice cream trucks, who don't face the same restrictions), and checking the Toronto Food Truck app reveals that many of the trucks listed there operate well outside of the GTA: Collingwood, Kitchener, and Barrie all get hits. In trying to protect the established restaurant industry, Toronto seems unwilling to believe that food trucks can co-exist with a relative level of harmony.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, food trucks have their own professional association, a real-time website revealing current locations, and it's part of an $800M annual national industry. It's seen as a natural extension of the city's vibrant foodie scene, and a showcase for the city's ethnically diverse population. Food trucks are big business there, and they're not confined to the sidelines. In other cities, food trucks have been seen as a menace to local business, but one blog I read compared the conflict to record labels vs. online music downloads. In other words: things evolve, so evolve with them.

I feel like this could be part of an ongoing lament of how Toronto lags in comparison to other cities. From art-school gift shops to public transit to families stuck in tiny condos to city parks that close in order to host international games, it's hard not see the cracks in Toronto the Good's facade. I want Toronto to be better. I want this city to be as innovative as it thinks it is, and to innovate outside of the white-dude, middle-aged, working-with-a-pension box that is slowly falling apart. Food trucks aren't the only way Toronto could take on that challenge, but they certainly are the most delicious.