LYAC Takes on the Food Truck Debate

This report details the LYAC’s discussion of food trucks that took place on February 5, 2015, led by Ward 8 Youth Councillor Scott Wilkinson. The LYAC discussed what influence the trucks could have on the city (downtown in particular), and debated what the conditions of the bylaw should be. Scott offered some context on how the debate began and where it currently stands. He explained that the debate began in February of 2013, and he related the concern raised by restaurants about food trucks eating into their revenues. The food truck debate has raised several different questions. Should food truck menus be vetted? Should the trucks be allowed to operate during special events? Should they be given access to public parking? These questions and more were debated by the LYAC.

Who Should Read This?

  • London restauranteurs and small business owners
  • Londoners who enjoy exploring local cuisine
  • Londoners interested in the food truck debate

The discussion was held in two group sessions lasting 45 minutes each, led by Scott and facilitated by LYAC facilitator Selma Tobah.

A Note About Our Reports

LYAC reports are a different kind of report. They are conversational, friendly and honest. These reports don’t try to trick you by using complicated language or pretend to be based on the opinions of experts. They are based on the best information that the Youth Councillors have at the time of each discussion. We hope that the reports make you think, make you act and challenge you to consider things that you haven’t considered before. Share your opinions with us so that we can represent you better!

This is something of a preliminary report, and will be reviewed by the full council in the near future.

Food Truck Discussion: Group One

The first group discussing food trucks with Scott consisted of Ali (Ward 9), Wadhah (Ward 12), Cedric (Ward 1), and one of the LYAC’s Social Media Coordinators, Kayley. The group was also joined by Nick Steinberg as well as Matt Ross, Executive Director of the LYAC. Scott introduced the concerns towards food trucks held by some restauranteurs, namely the lower start-up costs, lack of property taxes, and less of a need for maintenance as providing an unfair advantage to the trucks.

That being said, Scott asked the group: What do you think food trucks will add to the downtown culture? Cedric responded that food trucks will give people more options in cuisine, and that trucks will be able to cater to niches that the current culinary landscape is not satisfying. Wadhah explained that he agreed with the arguments about unfair competition at first, but upon further reflection he argued that food trucks would drive more traffic downtown and subsequently to the restaurants. Ali agreed with Cedric in that food trucks add new experiences to the city, and he argued that food trucks attract a different clientele from restaurants. He quipped that if you want a hot dog, you are not going to order one at The Keg. Matt echoed Wadhah when he explained that people attract people and so downtown traffic could increase with the presence of food trucks. He also mentioned that food trucks are great for serving niche food types, and that they support a growing restaurant industry. Nick also re-iterated that the restaurants should not fear food trucks because they offer a completely different atmosphere.

Scott then asked questions regarding how food trucks should be implemented. Scott asked if the food trucks have any automatic advantages, and if so, if that is unfair. Ali remarked that food trucks do have certain advantages over brick-and-mortar establishments as discussed above, but that’s how competition works. Scott followed up by commenting that in certain cities there are limits placed on how far food trucks can be from restaurants to avoid competition, but along Richmond Row several restaurants are right next to each other, so how is that not already intense competition? Cedric brought up the issue of license fees. In London, the last license fee amount proposed was over $2000 annually, while in surrounding cities such as Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo licenses are rarely over $400 annually. Cedric argued that entrepreneurial spirit should be encouraged and the high price barrier is preventing that. He argued that London needs to be competitive with surrounding cities or else business will be lost to those cities. On the subject of fees, Ali mentioned that fees could be a fair chance to balance out other costs that restaurants claim as unfair advantages to balance the competition. Scott asked if it is the government’s role to even out the balance, to which Ali responded that the government should play some role in that regulation, though it was difficult to say why.

Location is another huge concern. Scott noted that at the latest council meeting concerning food trucks, only three parking spots in the downtown core were deemed acceptable places to park according to the regulations London has been working with. Ali said that he didn’t understand why they would restrict movement. Why can’t they park anywhere as long as they don’t interfere with traffic? Scott explained that restaurants lobbied for restrictions, including limiting trucks to three consecutive parking spots. Scott then asked if there should be a set distance between food trucks and restaurants (the distance currently being debated is 50m). Wadhah argued that distance should differ based on location, density, and population rather than being a set distance for all, but Scott pointed out that the challenge is in implementing such a variable regulation.  Competition versus balance is a difficult terrain with this issue, despite the general enthusiasm for the trucks.

Scott explained that there has been some suggestion of putting together a panel to vet the menus of food trucks, and he asked for the groups’ opinions on whether this would be a useful practice. Wadhah said that speaking as an average citizen there isn’t a large diversity of cuisine to try out in London and that perhaps vetting menus for uniqueness could increase that diversity. Cedric agreed with the potential for greater choice that menu vetting could provide, but that he also believed that the market for food trucks should be responsive and authentic to make the food truck market thrive, even if that means less choice. Selma suggested that they should vet menus according to the space, that is, placing food trucks away from restaurants that fill the same niche. Nick agreed, saying that because they have less overhead costs, trucks can charge less for the same products. If there is a shawarma truck in front of Barakat and it charges less than Barakat, wouldn’t Barakat lose business? Ali responded by arguing that if Barakat is better quality and has name recognition, customers would be worth paying more.

Wadhah said that we need to remember that the restaurant industry is one of the worst industries to get into in terms of trying to be successful, and that food trucks probably do not see a lot of profit outside of sustaining themselves. He said that those aspiring restauranteurs may only have the level of capital to run a food truck, and placing endless restrictions on them may lead to early failure. He noted that many restaurants fail within 5 years, to which Matt asked whether owners of failed restaurants might have run a food truck instead of a brick-and-mortar place if they could have. Wadhah reiterated his point that people attract more people, and that not only restaurants but also small businesses could see more traffic, and that the presence of food trucks will benefit the city in the long term.

 Food Truck Discussion: Group 2

 After a break, the second group gathered. The group consisted of Jess (Ward 14), Anooshae (Ward 10), Melissa (Ward 7), Nicole (Ward 4), and one of the LYAC’s Social Media Coordinators, Emma. Scott began the discussion again with a general question about the group’s opinions of food trucks as well as asking what food trucks can add to the big picture of London.  Anooshae brought up the Beaver Tails truck that parks near the Weldon Library bus stop and Western as an example of good reception, and she noted that food trucks would be especially helpful for students on the go. Melissa added that food trucks are especially great for people wanting to start up since they have lower barriers of entry. Jess argued that food trucks will add to the culture of the city, particularly encouraging a pedestrian culture and a new level of walkability as well as encouraging people to explore more of the city. Melissa noted that food trucks would also boost public transit traffic as people will want to bus into the core to visit the trucks in the summer, and that food trucks could play a huge role in the revitalization of Dundas Street. Selma stated that as someone who drives downtown regularly, her concern is for the congestion that could result from the presence of food trucks. Jess responded with the idea of creating a food truck park in Harris Park to avoid the issue of congestion. A food truck park featuring hot water and cold water lines would bring more people into the park and promote use of the trails. Melissa also brought up Springbank Park as a potential location for food trucks as they would be great for picnics. Scott pointed out that under the proposed regulations the trucks’ location have to be a metred parking spot, and allowing food trucks into Springbank’s public parking might take spots away from the families, though he agreed that the presence of food trucks could definitely attract families to the park. Nicole suggested allowing trucks to park on the grass, and Jess suggested the possibility of semi-permanent structures. Not only could food trucks drive traffic to other businesses as discussed in the earlier conversation, but the trucks could encourage people to explore the natural beauty of London.

Scott brought up the license fee issue again and asked what the group’s opinions were on the license regulations. Jess argued that the license fee definitely should not be as high as what Toronto is paying, and should be comparable to London’s surrounding cities. Scott asked the group further questions about what restrictions should be placed on the trucks. Melissa re-iterated the point that if people want to go to restaurants, that is where they will go, and that imposing so many restrictions on food trucks from the beginning is not giving food trucks a fair chance, though she agreed that there should be some restriction on location. Scott acknowledged that restaurants such as Garlic’s and the Black Trumpet are not the competition for food trucks, but what about places such as Barakat or Prince Albert’s Diner? Melissa argued that such restaurants have a set culture and atmosphere that bring in regular customers, and that she doesn’t see food trucks taking away that atmosphere. Jess echoed a point that Ali brought up earlier, that if people prefer the food at Barakat, they are still going to go to Barakat. Selma asked whose responsibility it is to make sure that the competition is fair, as this was an issue in the earlier conversation as well. Melissa argued that competition is in the hands of the market, and Jess added that it comes down to personal preferences and demand.

Scott brought up the idea of menu vetting again, and Jess remarked that the process sounded as though it would cost a lot of money and she questioned the necessity. When asked the question of whether there should be restrictions placed on the distance between food trucks and restaurants, it was quickly pointed out again that brick-and-mortar restaurants aren’t usually restricted from being next to each other as several restaurants are clumped together downtown, so why are food trucks perceived as such a threat? Scott also asked whether the amount of licenses should be restricted, or not, and Jess argued that there should be a limit on the number of licenses because it would not be good to have too many open up at once. Having a limit such as 10 licenses per year would make it clear that it’s not something every single business owner can or should do.

Continuing on with the issue of competition, Emma asked an interesting question: What happens if you have corporate chains developing food trucks? Should restrictions be placed on them that are different from trucks owned by local restauranteurs? Anooshae argued that franchises should have to pay a larger fee, but Nicole asked whether the two have to be made equal. She said that the food truck initiative is supposed to revitalize downtown, so as long as the food trucks drive traffic downtown, it should not matter who owns the truck. Melissa suggested that the focus should be on trucks that are not part of larger franchises in order to attract local businesses, and Jess pointed out that it may be more difficult for a larger restaurant such as Boston Pizza to create a food truck version anyway – larger franchises with large menus would have to significantly reduce their menu choices and would have a lesser ability to fill niche markets.

The final point made by Jess was that food trucks are not going to be a significant money-making venture for the city, and that London has the wrong perspective of what food trucks should be. She argued that food trucks are about creating and shaping local culture, and that should be the focus of city council rather than making money.

Big Questions

  • How does the culinary scene of a city contribute to the overall culture?
  • What should does the government play in regulating competition between small businesses and restaurants?

Recorder’s Notes

There were several points of agreement between the two groups, and overall the reception towards the idea of London having food trucks was very positive. While both groups struggled with the decisions regarding how much regulation there should be in terms of where food trucks can park, how many food truck licenses should be permitted, and other potential restrictions, there was a general agreement that the food truck license fee needs to be competitive with other cities in the surrounding area, and the near $3000 fee that has been proposed is exorbitant.

The general mindset seems to be that the focus in the food truck debate should be on the contribution to the liveliness of London’s culinary culture that food trucks can offer and how this can benefit the city in the long-term, rather than simply focusing the immediate bottom line.

Leader’s Notes:

Though the opinions did vary, it was clear that the councillors, being a sample of the youth population in the city, would like to see:

  • Food trucks this summer as it is unreasonable it has taken this long to launch even a pilot program.
  • The cost of the licenses kept near other cities in the area (under $400) to attract the best food truck entrepreneurs and remain competitive with other cities
  • Restrictions eased on distance to restaurants from the 50 metres previously proposed. For example, why is there no fuss when Icarus opens next to Black Trumpet, or over the fact that Garlics’ door is roughly 5 metres from The Tasting Room and they share a common wall? Youth Councillors were all in consensus that this sends a convoluted message that rules aren’t equal for all in the industry. There was no consensus on a reasonable distance or even that it should be a fixed amount. Just that 50 metres is detrimental to the ability of food trucks to reasonably function in London and compete with other businesses in the culinary industry.

Jess Muller from Ward 14 brought up a great consideration of allowing food trucks into Harris Park to bring traffic to the river and the green land downtown. I would be interested to see what staff and council think about that proposal. Springbank park was also suggested as it is also on the river trail, receives a large amount of visitors for recreation, tourism and general leisure when there is no snow.

Things We Still Need to Learn

  • What are some qualitative ways that food trucks have shaped culture in other cities?
  • How have other restauranteurs in other cities dealt with perceived competition from food trucks?