Well it was bound to happen sooner or later – Edmonton has joined the long list of cities that have had disputes between restaurants and food trucks. As you’ve probably heard, Grandma Lee’s in Petroleum Plaza has complained about Drift, one of our city’s most popular food trucks. It’s an attractive media story as we head into summer and that has contributed to the issue becoming a bigger deal than is necessary. On the plus side, the situation has highlighted the need for a review of the Street Vending Program.
I have been learning about and researching the bylaws and guidelines and how everything works for quite a while now, and this seems like a good opportunity to share what I know!
Why are food trucks allowed in Edmonton?
The Traffic Safety Act (TSA) sets out the basic rules for streets in our province. Among other things, the act outlines how the Alberta Transportation Safety Board should work, the rules for operator’s licenses and vehicle registrations, speed limits and other rules of the road, and the powers of municipalities with respect to streets. Specifically, section 13(1) states that municipalities can pass bylaws that govern the use of highways under its direction, provided they are not inconsistent with the TSA. Here in Edmonton that is bylaw 5590 (Traffic Bylaw, PDF) and in Calgary, that is 26M96 (Traffic Bylaw) and 20M88 (Street Bylaw).
A useful way to think about it is this: All streets in Alberta are governed by the basic rules set forward by the province. In cities like Edmonton and Calgary, bylaws enable each municipality to manage its own streets, building on top of those basic province-wide rules.
In Calgary, the Street Bylaw states in section 5(a) that you cannot sell things on streets. Section 5(b) outlines some exceptions to this, including pushcarts and ice cream trucks, but does not specifically mention food trucks. In Edmonton, section 67 is far less specific, and simply states that you must have a permit in order to sell goods and services. It also grants authority to the City Manager to basically bring the bylaws to life through policies, procedures, guidelines, and enforcement.
That’s why Edmonton has been allowed to have food trucks – our Traffic Bylaw enables permits for selling goods and services on city streets, and it does not specify any restrictions as to what those goods and/or services might be. As long as you have a valid permit, you’re good to go. In Calgary, you’d need to get a letter from the Director of Roads unless you fall under one of the allowed exceptions. Obviously that’s not a very scalable solution, hence the pilot that is underway in Calgary.
How does the City of Edmonton manage food trucks?
Nearly thirty years ago the Street Vending Program was created. According to a City report from 2005, it “was initiated by City Council to aid in the revitalization and enrichment of the downtown core.” Parks & Recreation was originally responsible for the program, though it has also called Community Services home. Currently responsibility falls to Sustainable Development.
The program today consists of the coordinator, the application forms, and the guidelines. You can download the latest package here. If you look at the package, you’ll find that the Street Vending Program deals with all kinds of vendors, not just food trucks. Hotdog carts, ice cream trucks, and any other vendor wanting to sell things on city streets must have four things: a business license (specifically a Travelling or Temporary Food Sales license), a health permit, a minimum of $2 million general liability insurance, and a vending permit. In order to get a vending permit, you need to talk to the Street Vending Coordinator and you need to follow the guidelines. There are slightly different guidelines for sidewalk vendors as opposed to street vendors, and altogether different guidelines for ice cream trucks.
Until very recently, the coordinator was a seasonal position, which means that throughout most of the winter there was no staff person at the City working on street vending. That meant that there was limited time to make improvements to the guidelines or changes to the program, which is part of the reason why they have remained largely the same for years.
What are the guidelines for food trucks in Edmonton?
There are a number of guidelines that apply to all kinds of vendors. For example, vendors are only allowed to operate from 7am until 11pm. Permits apply to a single location only – if you want multiple locations, you need to have multiple permits. Vendors must adhere to a code of conduct and “conduct themselves in a professional manner”. Vending units must not be left unattended, vendors cannot sell illegal or counterfeit products, etc.
In addition to the general street vending guidelines, there are roughly fifteen bullet points under the section for street vendors. Most of these are fairly straightforward, including things like “all existing parking restrictions apply” and “overhead canopies or vertically operating doors must not obstruct or hinder safe pedestrian traffic”. I encourage you to read the document for yourself as it isn’t very long. I’ll highlight the two points that deal with disputes between existing businesses and vendors:
- Permission will not be granted to Vendors where a conflict with an existing business is evident.
- Where a conflict arises with an existing business, the Sustainable Development Department reserves the right to relocate the contentious Vendor.
Nowhere else in the guidelines does the topic of conflicts come up. There is no section on how such complaints are handled, nor is there any information on how to appeal a complaint. Under the current guidelines, if you’re a vendor that someone has complained about, you’re automatically labeled “contentious” and there’s not much you can do about it. There are no rules to fall back on, and there is no process to follow to try to resolve the issue.
When was the Street Vending Program last reviewed and updated?
While minor modifications have been made over the years, mostly with respect to title and department name changes but also fees, the current street vending guidelines are largely the same as they were in 2005 (the oldest copy I was able to find). And according to a report from that year, the “program has not had an Administrative or City Council initiated review”. In other words, they haven’t been formally reviewed since they were created!
That report came about because then-Councillor Michael Phair received a complaint about street vending and “especially concerning vendors that sell food” so he made an inquiry to Administration. They brought a report back to the Community Services Committee on September 1, which outlined how the program operates. The committee voted to have Administration bring back a second report comparing the program with “best practices in cities such as Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.” That report came back on November 4 and outlined some of the things other cities do with respect to street vending. Here are the two key points from that report:
“Community Services Department surveyed service providers directly and asked a series of questions via telephone with counterparts from Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, New York, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle.”
“After looking at the street vending practices for ten municipalities, it is concluded that Edmonton’s program equals or exceeds that of the other municipalities.”
As a result no further action was taken, and the program has continued the same way ever since.
Why should the guidelines be reviewed and updated now?
Put simply, a lot has changed in the last thirty years since the Street Vending Program was created! Especially in the last five years, interest in food trucks has exploded across North America and expectations about how such businesses operate has changed very quickly. In 2005, the program had about 40 vendors in total. This year, there are 55 vendors (that number includes food trucks, ice cream trucks, carts, and all other sidewalk vendors). That’s not a large jump, but we are seeing new food trucks joining the fray and I expect that trend will continue.
More important than the quantity of vendors is the type of vendor. Back in 2005, we didn’t really have curbside food trucks like Drift. Now we do, and we should expect more! I think there are significant differences between a sidewalk vendor and a food truck, yet the guidelines for the most part don’t reflect that. Whereas it might make sense to restrict a sidewalk vendor’s permit to a single location, the whole point of a food truck is that it is mobile and can move around.
The food trucks of today are serving a completely different kind of product than mobile carts have in the past, and that has an impact on the program too. Sandwiches from Drift are certainly competition for brick-and-mortar restaurants, so it’s no surprise that some disputes will arise. The current street vending program does not outline any process for dealing with such disputes.
The opportunity to realize Council’s original vision for the Street Vending Program – “to aid in the revitalization and enrichment of the downtown core” – has never been stronger than it is today. If we want food trucks to be viable and sustainable into the future, we need to update the program.
What changes should be made?
This is a topic that will need further discussion, but we could do a lot worse than to look to Calgary for guidance. Because their pilot program is so new, they have been able to capture many of the key points that differentiate food trucks from other vendors and those are reflected in the program’s guidelines.
Note that we don’t need to change our bylaws, just the Street Vending Program. Changing the bylaws is a much more difficult process that would require approval by City Council. Changing the Street Vending Program can be much simpler. Remember it’s the bylaws that make food trucks possible but it’s the Street Vending Program that outlines how food trucks are managed and should operate.
Here are some ideas for positive changes to Edmonton’s Street Vending Program:
- Grant food trucks a permit that applies to multiple locations or a large area, rather than requiring one permit per location. In Calgary they have the concept of “roll zones” and “no-roll zones” which outline where the trucks can and cannot go.
- Bring the cost of the permit in line with other cities. In Calgary, food trucks pay a flat fee of $700 per year that is not dependent on actual street usage.
- Make it easier for trucks to serve in the evening. This could be accomplished by establishing some sort of evening roaming rules, by extending the valid operating times past 11pm, or both. In Calgary, food trucks may operate until 3am.
- Get rid of the restriction that only one truck may operate on a street at a time. We know that food trucks are often more successful when there are many together than when they are going solo, as long as they are complementary, and we know that food truck operators all talk and already team up from time to time!
- Clearly outline where food trucks are allow to operate. Calgary’s guidelines clearly state that food trucks cannot operate within 25 metres of any restaurant during its operational hours. (Note: Drift is a lot further from Grandma Lee’s than 25 metres!)
- Outline a process for dealing with complaints. Food trucks need to have some certainty about their business, and if the processes by which they may be asked to move is completely opaque, it’s hard to have that certainty.
- Revamp the evaluation process for issuing permits. The current “process” is highly subjective and often relies upon the food truck’s relationship with the street vending coordinator. That leads to inconsistent treatment of food trucks, and in some cases, inconsistent fees.
- Create a proper website. For the longest time, all the Street Vending page said was to call the coordinator and it gave a phone number. At least now it links to the application package, but we could obviously do so much more.
The good news is that discussions regarding these changes have already been taking place, and I anticipate we’ll make significant progress this year. I think if we can make some of these changes a reality, we’ll have a much stronger vending program into the future.
It’s also worth mentioning that perhaps Sustainable Development is not the right home for the Street Vending Program. Sustainable Development is responsible for business licenses, property management, and economic development strategies, among other things, but food trucks in particular need more than that. They also deal with Transportation, Transit, and other departments. I would recommend folding the Street Vending Program into the Civic Events Office, which already coordinates with the various City departments on a regular basis.
If we’re willing to put even more effort in, I think there are significant opportunities to once again have Edmonton’s street vending program be the standard by which other cities are measured. Here’s just one example. Food trucks are different lengths and so are parking stalls. Why not release a dataset of all the parking stalls in Edmonton, or at least those in food-truck-friendly neighbourhoods that includes the location, length, price and other information? It would then be relatively easy for a food truck to scan for potential locations at which to park. We’ve already got the open data catalogue and the parking meter data exists somewhere, so with a bit of effort we could make something like this a reality.
What’s next for Drift and Grandma Lee’s?
As you might have heard, Drift was granted an extension at their current 108 Street location until Friday. They are supposed to file an appeal by then, whatever that means. There is nothing in the guidelines that outlines how exactly Drift is supposed to respond to the situation. Furthermore, the advantage is clearly with Grandma Lee’s – the City can basically tell Drift that they have to move and there’s nothing they can do about it.
I would rather see businesses like Grandma Lee’s choose to compete rather than complain. With a brick-and-mortar location, a restaurant should be able to offer an experience that no food truck can match. Furthermore, we know from our experience with What the Truck?! that having food trucks in an area often draws more people to surrounding businesses, not less. Unfortunately, as Colby Cosh astutely identified last week, Grandma Lee’s has chosen rent-seeking over delivering a better experience, and that means everybody loses.
I hope Drift is not forced to move, but if they are, then I hope it ultimately results in improved guidelines that clearly stipulate how such disputes will be handled in the future. If we want to make it easier for new food trucks to open up in Edmonton – and I think we do – then we need to make the rules clear and consistent.
What’s next for food trucks in Edmonton?
I think Edmonton’s existing food trucks will become even more successful over time as they build up a larger and larger client base and as the food truck movement really takes hold here in Edmonton. We’ll also see new food trucks launch and enjoy success, such as The Act which entered service on Monday. More food trucks means more pedestrian activity and vibrancy on the streets and that ultimately will make Edmonton a better city in which to live. Unless we somehow take a massive step backward, I don’t see any other outcome for food trucks in Edmonton!
By reviewing and updating the Street Vending Program, we can create an environment for food trucks that better reflects the realities of today, and more importantly, better positions us for success in the future. It’ll take some work, but I think it’ll be worth it!