City Hall's street vendor picks get thumbs down from foodies

Post by Mike Klassen in

19 comments

lemon
According to foodies, City Hall picked some real lemons in their food cart trial

The food cart issue brought about by Vancouver city council struck me as a goldmine of populist politics. Who doesn't like food, right? There were some initial concerns raised by the DVBIA, who rightly pointed out that it would be grossly unfair to position the carts in the vicinity of already rent and property tax burdened retail restaurants. For the most part, however, the suggestion by Charles Gauthier to model the program after Portland's successful street food cart system was ignored.

For average folks who just want some good eats, they don't worry that much about how economically viable a sushi or wraps restaurant is. The City pulled out the bugles to announce their list of food cart selections whittled down from a massive 800 applications. How did they do it? Did they conduct a cook-off, a Canadian Idol of sorts as myself and Frances Bula proposed on last week's civic affairs panel?

No. What City staff did was throw a dart, and if your name got hit you were it. By using a lottery to pick who got the cart locations rather than on inventiveness or merit, there are a LOT of foodies around town who are miffed. Foodie columnist Andrew Morrison of the excellent Scout Magazine sums up what many are thinking in this great post.

While I’m glad the city recognized 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.

Yes, I appreciate that staff have their hands full already with the burdens of socially re-engineering Vancouver as an agrarian-socialist city state, but if council is prepared to go out on a branch like promising exciting new fare to liven up our No-Fun streets, then get it right!

Morrison pulls no punches in his thoughtful assessment of the "winners" of the food cart lottery.

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.

I dunno. Perhaps this is a back-handed way to make up for running an anti-HST petition at City Hall and in park community centres. If the food carts are a flop, people will inevitably head back to the restaurants, right?

Okay, I realize that's a stretch, but I wonder when Gregor Robertson is quoted saying "We’ve got a world-class city and people want a world-class street food scene to match" in a press release, if he's even given a passing glance to what his team has selected.

- post by Mike

19 Comments

If a business goes to the city and gets a permit, the city doesn't ask for a menu or business plan. It just checks that the paper work is in order and the business follows by-laws. The City does not worry if the food is "good"

If you believe in capitalism, you should trust the market to work the bad ideas and food carts out.

If you have a better way of how to choose the 17 vendors, I would love to hear it. A way that would be fair and won't piss the other 783 off too much.

I saw this on the news last night and thought a lottery was not the smartest way to choose who gets a license to sell food. One guy they interviewed seemed a little shocked that he was actually picked, and didn't seem to have any real plans yet for what he would serve. Some of the things other winners of licenses said they would be serving don't sound "world class" at all, however, they don't really have to be world class, just taste good.

I agree with Ryan that the City can't attempt to determine which vendor would provide the tastiest food. However, there are other criteria they could have used to pre-screen the 900 people who hoped for a license. Making sure that vendors have the skill and experience in serving food safely is something Council can check and use to determine if that vendor gets a license or not. A simple written test could have easily weeded out those who have no clue about how to safely store, cook and serve food to the public without making them sick. Those who passed that initial test would be entered into the lottery draw.

Better yet, why doesn't the City just allow everyone who wants a license to get one, as long as they pay the fee and pass the test, like getting a drivers license. Let the market decide which ones succeed or not.

Might be some choice in the future, from MayorGregor's twitter feed this morning: "...plan to include public in choosing next round!"

(http://twitter.com/MayorGregor)

I agree, let the free market decide...it'll wean out the bad vendors. If we interviewed everyone, that crosses the over-regulation line by quite a bit.

Nothing wrong with a lottery, but only if the participants are qualified.

That is where they went wrong . . . letting every and any wannbe foodie file an application.

I'm surprised they didn't give out the sites to their preferred clientele.

Stephens Walk in Calgary chooses their vendors and requires a new permit application every year - no grandfathering of permits or locations. If a vendor is rarely there, or sublets his spot, or serves lousy food, or does not look after the litter - they are gone. With only 17 spots available, and a goal to succeed, Vancouver should have been much more picky.

Having a cook off would have been fun, great PR for the program, and enlightening! Too much regulation - no, it is an effort to get the results you want.

Amen Ryan!

The Thought of The Day

"Always buy your coffee from a coffee shop, your pastry from a bakery, and your fruit and veggies from a grocery store."

Think about it.
This council and mayor are in the oil business, in the chicken raising business, in the bees on the roof business, in the painting bike lanes business, in the electric car business, in the global warming business. The only business they are not in apparently is the City Administration and Policy business.

According to the way the City Manager's Orifice wants to control the Vancouver's Park Board affairs or gives unsolicited advice to the Vancouver's School Board, the Council and Mayor will go into the food and beverage business as a 'de facto' matter. Forget about qualifications.
Not a biggie. None of the people in charge of the City of Vancouver hired by this Council were qualified to do the jobs they were hired to do.
No, really? Holly Hock!
Who wants competent people?
Fogetaboutit!

Those Vision guys. They are always good for a laugh. And in the spirit of their centralized, almost socialistic spirit, what would they not be qualified to say or do? Well, let's not spoil the future surpise.

As a matter of fact, knowing now that George Chow went into the Clown business, David Cadman into the Inquisition business, and Kerry Jang into the Climate Tricks business, they would have been wise enough to have employed the skills of Paul the Octopus, the predictor of the soccer World Cup champions, into choosing the street vendors.

Vancouver lost its chance of becoming the 'fishiest' city in the world, on top of already being the 'greenest' of them all.
And therefore, all the merry Vision Councillors of Vancouver plus one silly Mayor lost their chance to live happily ever after.

We live in Vancouver and this keeps us busy.

How about boiled eggs freshly hatched from backyard chickens slathered with "rooftop" honey. Mmmmmm....just the thought of it has me in a Pavlovian frenzy!! (drool, drool).

I think I'll be giving the "Homeless Deep-Fried Rooster Balls on a Stick" cart a pass...

The free market will decide what needs to be weaned out. Trust the consumer. Afterall, that's how Vancouver's great dining scene grew into fruition.

Just look at what overregulation has turned Toronto's street food vendor scene into...

yes, the consumer and the free market will sort it out. Darwin is alive and well but it could have been soooo much better had it been approached with a little imagination.

We want the pilot to succeed - in my books that would mean 17 vendors being highly successful at the end of the year and the public thrilled with the offerings. If 30% have crashed and burned does that mean the program is a disaster or that the vendor had no idea what they were doing.

Hopefully, this round of applicants will be monitored, have opportunities for feedback, and the lessons learned will influence the program moving forward.

No matter how poorly chosen the vendors are, how poorly the response to this new program is, or how completely inept this city council has proven to be, we can all look forward to Gregor Robertson's announcement of the "millionth customer served" when the ten thousandth customer chokes down some bad street meat.

So, the City HOPES to or WILL collect, what, $43,000 per year from EACH vendor? How is that being managed? A surety, or based on sales, or???

If some of those 17 (and alternates) chosen by lottery utterly fail to deliver in sales, or don't get any purchase in starting up, and cannot deliver of the dreamed for taxes and fees that are supposed to flow from these (supposedly) independent, small business people, what will this have cost us in planning/regulatory staff, et al? What is the anticipated ROI? What is it going to cost the ratepayers of vancouver to have this program monitored, run and managed?

In the latest "rush to market" edict coming from the pols at City Hall, the long-term considerations seem not to have been considered---at least not in public. This is a rush job.

A better way to have vetted this process would have been to have established a more robust rfp, checking the financial viability of each of the competitors, and taste-testing the wares (this would have had oddles of pr possibilities for City Hall, which is clearly the business they are really in). I'm not sure about a taqueria or mini shawarma wagon, but so far I would say that City Hall doesn't seem to have the business acumen to run the proverbial popcorn stand.

I guess the actual taste of the food was secondary to the smell of money.

It seems that not one thought was given to the ability of applicants to produce quality food in a SAFE manner. The number one issue that stopped us from having diverse street food in the first place was a concern over food poisoning. Now it seems they've gone from being overly cautious to be being 100% reckless in determining who gets to serve street food.

Food sanitation is serious and difficult even in the best restaurant conditions. One bad day in a restaurant can make a lot of people seriously sick. By not checking the actual experience or qualifications of the vendors in this experiment, there could be serious risks to the public.

I'm all for great street food. I think Portland's street food scene is awesome! But my concern is that one or two cases of food poisoning from an inexperienced food vendor could wreck the project for everyone.

Wah wah! The foodies didn't get consulted! Now where will they turn to have their vaunted opinions heard? Where will I get fois gras kissed by a $100 bay leaf on a stick when I'm walking downtown? :)

If we take a moment to be realistic, the logistics of a cookoff or some other method of quality-based competition would have taken a while to complete and left us without the expanded licenses until summer is just about over. People should vote on the new vendors with their return visit dollar and look forward to a more expansive vetting system, which has been promised, in future years. The lottery system was used to get the vendors onto the streets and food into people's hands, but it's never enough, is it.

in reply to a lot of comments bellow... How about starting to accept only applications that come from professional food vendors that know what they are doing and that are already ready to sell in the streets and have all the licenses already in their hands ?
This lottery was so strange and unbelievable. Anybody could apply. and when I say anybody it really is: when I went to apply, the person in front of me was an old woman (around 80 years old...): was she really going to run a food vending business ?
to anybody who didn't apply, the only questions that were asked were about paperwork (and it didn't matter if you had a foodsafe or not, if you had a licensed kitchen or not!). No questions at all about your menus, what kind of food was to be stored in a little cart in the middle of the summer... if vancouver health had been approached.... nothing !
As someone said so rightfully: before, nobody could enter the lottery in fear of being unhealthy... now it's all doors open and no worries for health issues ?!

From the news release...

"Vancouver Coastal Health must approve food handling practices for all food-vending carts."

(http://vancouver.ca/mediaroom/news/detail.htm?row=105&date=2010-07-09)

Hope VCH thorough enough

As one of the lucky 17, we were quite shocked to have actually won a spot. While the lottery is definitely a strange way to decide, and it is a shame that some great applicants will not yet make it to the street, we are quite pleased. (Perhaps if you investigated behind the names of some of the winners you might find that more of them lead to qualified businesses than you think, but have been listed by name rather than business). Licious Living has been operating a healthy meal delivery service in Vancouver and Toronto for seven years, and we have two downtown Vancouver retail cafes: at the Robert Lee YMCA 955 Burrard St and Bentall Tower IV 411-1055 Dunsmuir St. We rely on client feedback to continuously improve our food, and we'll do the same with the street cart menu.
Best of luck to everyone!

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