Last spring, on an Easter weekend trip to Miami to research the area's thriving food truck scene, Suresh Doss had a revelation. Mr. Doss, a 34-year-old computer systems engineer who runs a popular food and drink website called Spotlight Toronto, is the de facto face of street food in Toronto. He's a born organizer. When somebody wants to start a food truck, or work through the city's all-but-impossible street-food regulations, or even just to find a street-food seller at lunchtime, they turn to Mr. Doss, typically. He grew up surrounded by the stuff.
As a child in Colombo, Sri Lanka, he'd often buy a bowl of poori slathered with curry, or a paper cone filled with mango, pineapple and hot sauce from a street-side hawker on the way to school in the morning. He even worked as a chutney boy on the days when his mother, Bernadette, made her fermented rice and lentil dosas at fundraisers held outside one of Columbo's Catholic cathedrals.
Toronto, where his family moved when he was 12, was a shock to his system. Save for a shrinking band of hot-dog carts and the tired, diesel-belching chip trucks grandfathered into prime spots outside Nathan Phillips Square, food vendors weren't welcome on public streets in Toronto. The issue was stalled, too, for the most part. As for the new generation of food trucks springing up outside the city, in St. Catharines and Hamilton, Toronto city hall wasn't about to welcome something it had never seen.
In Miami, Mr. Doss saw a way to fix that. Miami's trucks had banded together into fleets 10 or 15 strong for enormous rallies that drew thousands of food lovers. That could work in Toronto, he figured, if they did it on private land.
"I came back and I had a very specific idea, taking into account BIAs, taking into account restaurants – we can't just randomly do a food-truck thing and piss everybody off," he said.
He contacted the Distillery District, where the trucks wouldn't face too much municipal interference. The district's management gave him the Saturday of Canada Day weekend.
Four food trucks showed up that morning, as well as 10 booths run by chefs that Mr. Doss had invited. There were beef empanadas, Acapulco-style kingfish ceviche and "Canadian lumberjack" sandwiches made with bacon, apple slices, maple syrup and aged cheddar cheese. El Gastronomo Vagabundo, a truck from St. Catharines, served five-spice pork belly on steamed buns with chili jam. The truck's chef, Adam Hynam-Smith, had been struggling to get by until then. He and his wife, Tamara Jensen, typically parked outside a winery in Niagara, and hoped there'd be enough business to pay for the gas.
That day, Mr. Doss and the district's management had planned for 800 people. They got nearly 4,000 instead.
A month later, they threw another Food Truck Eats, as the rolling festival soon became known, with 10 trucks, 10 restaurant booths and an estimated 10,000 revellers this time. Mr. Doss has since organized food-truck rallies at Ryerson University, the University of Toronto, in Liberty Village and at the Bay Adelaide Centre – always with the area management's invitation, and always with local restaurants onside.
It's working. In recent months, city councillors have started lining up to support Mr. Doss and his efforts, and nearly a dozen new food trucks are expected to debut in the GTA before the end of this year.
Quinten Chan, a partner at Buster's Sea Cove, a seafood grill and sandwich shop in the St. Lawrence Market, said his company's new truck will be ready to launch this coming week. Suresh "knew everything from the legal aspects of it, getting the permits, and he even has all the contacts for the mechanical part of the truck, and then he also has the social media side of it," Mr. Chan said.
Mr. Hynam-Smith of El Gastronomo Vagabundo put it even more succinctly. "This guy, selflessly, I don't know when the guys sleeps – he's some sort of Sri Lankan god or something. I don't know, maybe he's part elephant. He can just soldier on through anything."
Deep-frying food-truck myths
The most common misconception about food trucks is that they're less clean somehow than restaurant kitchens. Mr. Chan's truck cost $70,000 to outfit. "We have grills, we have griddles, we have cold tables, we have deep freezes, coolers, ventilation system, suppression system, hood vent. It all has to be stainless and it all has to be custom," he said.
They're regularly inspected by the city, too.
The second stereotype – that food trucks steal business from bricks-and-mortar businesses – is harder to dispel. In a letter to the City of Hamilton's planning committee last month, Tony Elenis, president and chief executive officer of the 4,000-member Ontario Restaurant Hotel and Motel Association, complained that trucks have lower costs than conventional restaurants and suck profits from municipalities with few benefits. Mr. Elenis proposed forbidding trucks from staying in any one spot for more than 15 minutes, permanently revoking the licenses of trucks with parking violations and forbidding them from operating in downtowns.
What's surprising, however, is how little of the restopocalypse scenario has come true so far. In Hamilton, business improvement areas have all but begged them to park directly in front of restaurants.
Elisha Proietti, event co-ordinator for the Ottawa Street BIA, in Hamilton's east end, organized a 15-truck street-food rally on the street last September. It was a hard sell to the existing businesses at first, she said. There are 10 restaurants on the strip. "They kind of had to put a little bit of faith in us."
Ms. Proietti, who consulted with Mr. Doss, made sure to invite the local restaurants to set up their own outdoor food tables.
The trucks and the restaurants sold out of food long before the end of the evening, Ms. Proietti said. Even better, the event brought thousands of new customers to the street. Those customers have since returned. "That's really our proudest feat, that our restaurants have done so well since then," Ms. Proietti said. The BIA has another food-truck rally planned for next Friday. They're expecting it'll be the largest in Canada so far.
A plan that might work in Toronto
In every case where they've held rallies in Toronto, Mr. Doss said, receipts at the surrounding restaurants also went up instead of down. "They all had banner days. I walked past Gilead Bistro [a restaurant near the Distillery District]and that was packed. Second event, same thing. Third event, same thing. Bay Adelaide Centre, same thing. People grab a snack, then they go and they get a beer, or they get whatever else they want."
Now the question is how to accommodate street food outside of special events. Standing at the corner of Queen and Jarvis Streets at lunchtime on Wednesday, where four trucks had set up on a pair of private parking lots, Mr. Doss pointed toward one of the local restaurants. "If this guy has five trucks here on his parking lot in the next two or three months, I'm sure the Thai restaurant across the street is going to complain, he said."
A month ago, Josh Colle, a city councillor for Ward 15 Eglinton-Lawrence, approached Mr. Doss to ask how the city could make street food work. "We kind of over-think these things, and I think this is an instance where we need to let the market and the consumer decide what they want," he said. Mr. Colle asked Mr. Doss for a workable plan.
Mr. Doss's response is to divide the city into 10 zones, roughly. Each zone has an appointed street-food space – the edge of a park, or a private lot, or a corner of Yonge-Dundas square, say – for a couple of food trucks, a couple of carts, and a converted shipping containerfitted with a pair of simple storefronts and basic kitchens. The containers are the linchpin, Mr. Doss said, because they'll be available for local restaurants to rent.
The city's still a long way from making it happen, of course. Mr. Colle, for instance, is taking baby steps. He hopes that next month he might persuade the Planning Committee to pass a motion formalizing the trucks' right to operate on private lots.
But in the meantime, business is booming. After two years of hard-scrabble struggling, Mr. Hynam-Smith is nearly fully booked this season with weddings, corporate events, food-truck rallies and even a film-production catering gig. Other truck owners report much the same thing.
As for Mr. Doss, the man has rallies to organize. A week today [Saturday, May 5]/note> he and the people behind the Toronto Underground Market, a pop-up food festival, are holding Street Food Block Party, at the Evergreen Brickworks. The first batch of 2,500 tickets sold out in 3 ½ hours earlier this month, at $20 a piece. The organizers released another block of 500 tickets on Wednesday morning last week. They sold out in nine minutes, Mr. Doss said.
"We're going to continue what we're doing," Mr. Doss said. "We've got enough support from private spaces that we'll make it happen. We're going to demonstrate that it can work."
Street food is finally happening, whether the city's ready for it or not.