Issa Ashtarieh, the owner of Bahar BBQ, sells shawarma and falafel on the corner of College St. and University Ave., a rare alternative to the many hot dog and burger stands found in downtown Toronto. He is just one of three vendors left from the eight who were originally part of the city’s attempt to increase the diversity of street food in the city.
Toronto took a step toward change in 2008 with the initiation of Toronto a la Cart. The food pilot project was intended to both increase variety and allow budding entrepreneurs to start their own vending businesses using carts.
Since the program was discontinued in April, Toronto’s street food cart vendors are overwhelmed by expensive fees and the city’s strict rules on food safety. The result is a limited selection of hot dogs, sausages, burgers and fries.
Standing in the way of a solution are an excess of food safety regulations and higher investments for vendors, but Toronto’s street food landscape is gradually improving. Food trucks, which do not face the same menu limitations as carts, are becoming more popular than ever.
The city has strict policies on how food is prepared and what can and can’t be sold on the streets. Ashtarieh says selling shawarma is far too complicated and sophisticated in comparison to pre-cooked meats like hot dogs and hamburgers.
He says he was required to purchase a particular cart made for the project which consisted of a grill, refrigerator, and watering system for $31,000. Combined with other equipment, Ashtarieh’s investment was over a $100,000.
Now, plagued with maintenance fees, Ashtarieh struggles to make any profit. Most of what he earns goes directly back to the business.
He called the project a “shamble,” complaining the city sabotaged it by creating too many rules for what cart vendors can sell. Over-regulation has left him and several of the Toronto a la Cart food vendors in debt.
He says the only financial incentive the city has given them is a three-year exemption from paying any fees.
But according to Katherine Roos, manager of Enterprise Toronto, Toronto A la Cart was more of a learning experience for the city. She acknowledges Toronto may not have needed so much regulation on food safety and over-regulation may have contributed to the failure of the project.
Roos says there was an initial fear that food vendors would try to cook from scratch or with improper equipment.
“We realized that people in the food service industry are a lot smarter than that, because if one of your clients get sick, that could be the end of your business,” Roos says.
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