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Canada's food truck expansion continues as industry finds its place

Emmanuel Guardado, who owns the QueChivo Salvadoran food truck, with his vehicle at a park in Calgary, Alta., Friday, Aug. 19, 2016. Guardado had always dreamed of starting his own food business, but it was only when he lost his job in the oil and gas industry that he decided to dive in.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
August 21, 2016 - 2:30 PM

CALGARY - Emmanuel Guardado had always dreamed of starting his own food business, but it was only when he lost his job in the oil-and-gas industry that he decided to dive in.

"I got laid off from my job and figured, what better time to do a food truck?" he said.

Seeing almost no food options in Calgary from his native El Salvador, Guardado set his theme around the street foods of his homeland, including the stuffed tortillas know as pupusas.

Hitting the road in April, Guardado has now joined the ranks of food truck owners lured by the flexibility and relatively low start-up costs as the industry shifts from buzzy upstart to an established category in the Canadian food landscape.

In Calgary alone, 76 permits for food trucks have been issued this year, up from 47 a couple years ago — and the highest number since the city started offering them in 2011.

But Guardado says there's still room for more.

"There's definitely great growth potential," he said. "There's some competition, just like in any other restaurant, but I wouldn't say we're stepping all over each other and fighting for it."

Toronto has also seen a bump in food truck permits after the city shrunk the required buffer between trucks and restaurants from 50 metres to 30 metres, now more in line with Calgary's 25-metre spacing.

"Last year really was a massive victory for us," said Zane Caplansky, owner of Caplansky's deli and a Toronto food truck pioneer who's been up and running since 2011.

With regulations that Caplansky says were "archaic and repressive" now gone, on-street permits have gone from 16 in 2014 to 56 this year.

But with parking spaces for big trucks still a problem, and crowds unreliable, Caplansky says it's still a challenge to operate on the streets of Toronto.

"It's a tough business," he said. "You can do very well, or you can lose a lot of money very quickly."

Many truck owners, Caplansky says, are skipping the street permits and sticking to private events like weddings and food truck festivals where the customers are guaranteed.

"There's a much better business model around catering and special events," he said.

The fact that the number of food trucks aren't skyrocketing despite the loosening regulations has helped ease tensions with the restaurant industry, which has fought to keep buffers in place to respect the property taxes and investments restaurants have made.

"It's largely settled down," said Mark von Schellwitz, vice president of Western Canada at Restaurants Canada. "Generally the two are co-existing quite well."

Some cities are still trying to find policies that work for them.

In Halifax, the system allows food truck operators to bid on 11 designated spots around the city, but despite having at least 16 trucks operating, only eight of the spots are taken.

Montreal also has unfilled food truck slots, with only about 25 trucks operating as hopeful vendors face a lengthy application process.

In Vancouver, where there's a 100-metre buffer rule between restaurants and trucks selling similar food, the industry appears to be thriving.

The hundred or so permits available for mobile vending downtown — which includes everything from Asian fusion food trucks to hot dog carts — have all been snapped up, and the city has also issued another 45 roaming permits that exclude the downtown.

Despite the competition, some new entrants are finding plenty of room for growth.

"It's going really well," said Rotem Tal, who co-founded Vancouver's The Chickpea Truck earlier this year.

"We've moved from a small kitchen that we rented out, to our own kitchen; from working a few times a week at our downtown spot, to hiring employees and doing a bunch of events in the morning and evening."

With a booming B.C. economy, Tal says the truck was profitable after the first month, employs 12 employees working various hours and is now booked until the end of September.

Back in Calgary, where the downturn that spurred Guardado to open his QueChivo food truck continues, getting a business going is a bit tougher.

"People are being a little more conservative with their spending, so there is a little bit of a slowdown on people eating out," said Guardado. "It's a start-up right now, so we're not making any money, but we are covering costs."

Despite the challenges, he's optimistic.

"I believe it's going really well," said Guardado. "I mean we've had tough days, but overall we've had really good days."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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