For now, “Pepperman” is little more than a moniker Kelly Powers uses for his email address. But one day soon, he hopes to become The Pepperman: owner of a food cart dubbed Pepperman’s Grill.
Through social media, the Winnipeg man recently caught wind of Coun. Lisa Helps’ push to loosen regulations around mobile food vendors in Victoria – a city with a longer outdoor business season than his locale. It prompted him to action.
Last week he and his wife, Theresa, flew here to scope out the scene and network with local food producers.
“All the veggies, all the fruits … chicken, free range – I want to go as local as possible,” Powers explained to Helps at a coffee shop meeting last Wednesday morning.
He’s already got his menu meticulously planned. But a few factors stand in his way, such as the practicalities of relocating and more importantly, a city rule that stipulates portable food carts must be located on private property.
“If you’re allowed to park in more spaces, then you can be mobile,” Theresa said.
Helps hopes to change the bylaws to create more space for such entrepreneurial upstarts.
Following the lead of Vancouver, which opened the door to food carts on public property in June 2010, Helps advocates a summertime pilot project, whereby the city designates a type of outdoor food court on municipal property.
Her vision is to place it on the waterfront parking lot below Wharf Street near Bastion Square.
“It would be a really great space,” Helps said. “It doesn’t mean getting rid of all the parking spots, because people will freak out about that, but allocating 10 (parking) spots.”
The pilot would accomplish two things, she said.
First, it would support a type of small business that’s in demand by both budding entrepreneurs like Powers and customers, as evidenced by the long lineups for Red Fish Blue Fish, a vendor based on the dock below the foot of Broughton Street.
Second, the pilot would add vibrancy to a sadly undervalued city asset. While everyone agrees it’s a travesty to park cars on prime city waterfront, previous attempts to rezone the lot were mired in controversy and ultimately failed.
A food cart pilot project, on the other hand, requires no infrastructure, no capital and can be reversed if it proves unpopular, argued Helps.
But of course, food carts are not without their own controversy.
Back in the 1990s, the City of Victoria licensed food carts on Government Street, but concerns from the restaurant industry contributed to the cancellation of the program.
Today, some concerns still exist.
“It’s about trying to maintain some kind of level playing field for the business,” said Liz da Mata, owner of The Reef restaurant and director of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association.
“You’ve got to make sure that the (food cart) licensing isn’t so much easier and cheaper that you’re penalizing the brick-and-mortar standup shops.”
Location is also sensitive: you can’t have a pizza truck across the street from a pizza restaurant, she said, giving an example.
Da Mata, however, isn’t down on food carts.
“There’s positives and negatives, no doubt,” she said, adding they add vibrancy to the downtown, which helps everyone if done fairly.
The Reef has its own food cart, which operates at festivals, and da Mata has watched the cart drive traffic to her restaurant. “That is the way of the future. I see a lot of the food trucks becoming offshoots of the brick-and-mortar.”
Da Mata would like to operate her cart to serve the daily lunch crowd, but won’t pursue it until the regulations change.
Prime private locations are few, and most are taken, she said.
Next month, city council will vote on Helps’ motion. The Wharf Street parking lot, however, isn’t the only possible location for the pilot. City staff have suggested other possibilities, such as along Dallas Road.
“That’s my dream location,” said Paulina Tokarski, the former owner of a Polish deli who recently opened the Hungry Rooster food truck.
Her operation, in a parking lot on Courtney Street, often buzzes with business workers at lunch time.
“I’m lucky,” she said of securing her spot – for which she pays $175 per month.
“There isn’t anything else in town. I’ve looked everywhere.”
Why stop at food?
When shoeshiner Jill Goodson got kicked off her Fort Street location last week, Helps took her side.
Helps would like to see not just food carts, but many types of street vending allowed on city property, including services such as shoeshining or possibly even product sales. The city recently loosened its regulations to allow buskers to start selling related products, such as CDs.
Since the extensive media coverage of Goodson’s situation, several private property owners have offered her space. As of Monday, she was leaning toward an offer by Street Level Espresso, near her old spot on Fort Street.
Did you know?
There are still a few small food carts operating on Government Street, a relic from the 1990s. The businesses have been grandfathered. Food carts can also get permission to set up shop on privately-owned city easements, as long as the easement isn’t intended for pedestrian passage.
Street eats in Vancouver
In June 2010, Vancouver launched a food-cart pilot program, which is now being expanded to include parks. The City of Vancouver calls out to citizens to help select the businesses. Check out the municipally-operated website, dedicated to all things food cart: http://vancouverstreeteats.ca.