There were smiles all around Monday as Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson announced 12 new winners of food-cart licences for 2012 who will add tagines, perogies and tamales de pollo to city streets this summer.
"I'm pleased to see the international offerings reflective of the diversity of our city," he said, as media and city staff milled around four of the winning carts, sampling their goods in the parking lot below city hall.
But behind the smiles, Vancouver's tight-knit food-cart community admitted that city hall's new darling has become fiercely competitive, with little room for error, and probably some failures to come as the business shakes down over the next few years.
"We're doing well, but I'm very concerned for some of them because I've found out about the commercial kitchen costs," said Sarb Mund, who was one of the dozen winners selected from 59 applicants.
His new cart, which will serve Indian lunches in traditional tiffin metal containers at Georgia and Granville, is his second, after he also won a licence last year.
Mr. Mund is an accountant and has a fine eye for costs. He chose a cart, which goes on the sidewalk, over a street-parked truck so he wouldn't be saddled with the up to $700 in meter fees that some pay every month.
In spite of that – and the rave reviews for the naan wraps he serves near the Vancouver Law Courts – he said "it's to the wire each month."
That concern was echoed by others. Although all are wildly enthusiastic about this new food niche, which is garnering international media attention for Vancouver, they say it is operating on very tight margins as they serve what is essentially restaurant-quality food for street prices.
"It's very challenging. A lot of work and the money is not steady," said Andrew Fielding, who won a licence this year for a second Kaboom Box truck. He is hoping that economies of scale will help him.
"One cart is possible but if you can expand to two, my hope is we will be in a better position," he said.
Operators, who pay between $30,000 and $50,000 for their carts, said that having more special events, like the Dine Out festival for carts at the Vancouver Art Gallery, would help, as would the possibility of food-cart pods on private property.
The importance of business plans and experience, along with the high calibre of applicants, was evident at the announcement.
Of the 12 new licences, five went to people with existing carts. In the category of professional qualifications, besides Mr. Mund and his accounting certification, Mr. Fielding previously worked as an urban planner, and one of the completely new winners, Mathieu Gicquelle, is an engineer with project-management experience.
Mr. Gicquelle thinks that experience helped him produce a plan that gave him the No. 2 ranking he got. His cart, Ze Bite, will serve Mediterranean-themed fare, including tagines and sandwiches of pork braised with oranges and spices.
"It was a tough competition for sure," said the 35-year-old Mr. Gicquelle, originally from Brittany in France and boasting a resume filled with restaurant experience as well as engineering. "The bar was very high and it forced all of us to put a lot of work into our applications."
The competition was so tough that one very popular truck that has already operated for a year with a mobile permit, Coma, was unsuccessful for the second year in a row. That prompted owner Jay Cho to shut down his truck.
And a former chef at the upscale Coal Harbour restaurant Prestons, Alessandro Vianello, only managed to get a mobile licence for his Street Meet truck. The mobile licences are seen as less profitable in the cart industry, because owners have to rely on customers finding them in new places every day.
On the menu
Total number of stationary carts in Vancouver: 103
Total number that don't serve hot dogs: 48
Total number of mobile carts: 20
Total number of nationalities represented in the 12 new carts: 9 (French, British, Salvadoran, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Russian, Indian, Japanese)
Existing businesses that will now have two carts: Feastro, Kaboom Box, Soho Road Naan Kebab.