Restaurants concerned food trucks may interfere with business when new rules take effect

After hitting Calgary’s streets as part of a pilot project in 2011, food trucks have taken the city’s food service industry by storm. The trucks, which offer food options ranging from waffles to pierogies, have made their way into the city’s culinary landscape, and it appears that they’re here to stay.

On Sept. 16, city council passed a bylaw to include food trucks in the business licence framework. Most of the rules remain the same from the pilot project, including the 25-metre distance food trucks must keep from freestanding restaurants.

However, the city has relaxed some previous measures, such as the rule prohibiting food trucks from operating 100 metres from city parks. The city hopes the new legislation, which went into effect on Nov. 1, will provide some clarity within the industry.

“The rules give everybody clear guidelines of what they can and can’t do,” said Kent Pallister, chief license inspector for the City of Calgary.

“Before, it was an agreement that was non-enforceable. Now we have black and white rules, so everybody is on a level playing field.”

Gabriel Goldberg has owned and operated his food truck, Red Wagon Diner, since April of last year and recalls several instances of rules being changed in favour of freestanding restaurants. He said he sees the new legislation as a step in the right direction for the industry and hopes this will give fellow food truck owners the security to stand up for themselves.

“Food truck owners have been careful not to make any waves in fear of getting shutdown,” Goldberg said. “When it gets put into legislation, I’m sure they’re going to stand up for their rights.”

Since the pilot project began there has been some pushback from restaurateurs worried that food trucks may take away from their business. They argue that food trucks have an unfair advantage because they cost significantly less money to operate.

25-metre rule

“We’re all in favour of competition, but it’s got to be even competition,” said Mark von Schellwitz, vice president of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservice Association. “You just cannot compare the operating costs of a food truck to the operating cost of a restaurant.”

A proponent of the new bylaw, von Schellwitz said he believes that 25 metres is fair distance for both food trucks and bricks and mortar restaurants. However, he does recommend the city enforce stiffer penalties than the $300 fine currently being charged to food trucks owners for breaking the 25-metre rule.

“For a $300 cost, some of these guys might just see this as a cost of doing business,” von Schellwitz said.

Instead, von Schellwitz recommends the city institute a progressive fining system for repeat offenders.

Nikki Brule and Meaghan Fitzpatrick of Yummi Yogis with their super-mushroom called Chaga

Photo by Ryan Rumbolt

Goldberg said the 25-metre rule might be too strict. He said he finds that most people have already made the decision of whether they want a sit-down meal or something quick and easy before they leave for their lunch break. If they see a food truck within 25 metres of a restaurant, he said it isn’t going to make them change their mind.

“They don’t limit the space between restaurants in the city,” Goldberg said. “So what’s the difference if the food trucks are a little closer?”

The 25-metre rule has been one of the most widely debated issues since the inception of the pilot project, and the city just wants to be fair to both sides.

“Some of the restaurant owners say the 25-metres isn’t far enough, some food truck owners say it’s too far,” Pallister said. “So we’re trying to find a balance.”

However, Pallister said food truck and restaurant owners that the rule is waived if there is consent to operate within the 25-metre distance. In fact, he encourages businesses with complimentary items — such as pizza restaurants and gelato trucks – to work together to maximize sales.

40-truck cap lifted

Another talking point in the food truck industry was the 40-truck cap previously set by the city. Some owners argued that having too many trucks on the road would be bad for business due to limited traffic in high traffic areas, and an already crowded market.

However, city council decided to lift the cap once the bylaw goes into effect at the beginning of next month. Without the cap, the city hopes food truck owners will benefit from the freedom of an open market.

“We don’t cap restaurants or bars, so we’ve applied the same rationale to food trucks,” Pallister said.

Goldberg agrees, and hopes the free market will encourage innovation in the industry.

“There’s no reason why Calgary can’t support a lot more,” Goldberg said.

“If you’re willing to work hard and keep your costs low, then the cream will rise to the top.”

mshilleto@cjournal.ca