Posted by: Andrew Pask | February 26, 2010

The Gold Medal for Street Food?

With Olympic crowds animating city streets and venues, there has been a steady rumbling of Olympic-sized appetites roaming in search of food and drink.  Despite all the foot traffic, the culinary options that have been set up as part of the 2010 Games are a bit of a mixed (feed) bag to be sure.

On the one hand, restaurants in the vicinity of Olympics crowds – that is, in the downtown core – have been largely able to capitalize off of the influx of folks.  Others located outside the immediate core area – in Gastown, South Granville and elsewhere – are claiming a loss of business.

Then there is also the food that the Olympics have brought to town.  Here the Games have managed to infuse the city with a range of culinary elements. For example, if you’ve got the time, a one hour line will get you all the carbo-loading you need: the Swiss house on Granville Island has nightly cues for fondue, the German pavilion has Atkins-friendly beer and bratwurst, the Dutch huis out in Richmond rocks out with a healthy mix of Heineken and techno.  There’s also been been a push for “Canadian fare” as Jenn Laidlaw notes in a recent article in Beyond Robson.  (Where she reports on her experiences with mussels and Solomon Gundy, Ill take this opportunity to give a shout-out to the Ontario pavillion for featuring some of the Province’s finer micro-breweries as part of their showcase).

But one thing that’s surely been missing is any real amping up of the street food scene.  The new food options that have come with the celebrations have largely, with the exception of some of the Yaletown market spaces, been found off the streets and behind pavillion gates.  And this has been one of the big suprises, because in many ways – with projection art, ziplines, light shows and sculptural installations – there has been a tremendous (and well received) effort put into enlivening downtown public space.  So why don’t our street food options also reflect this?

In a way, its a rather striking omission.  Our Street Vending Bylaw (#4781), licensing requirements and related health regulations haven’t kept up with the times.  This is hardly a new observation.  While we’ve have (collectively) taken strides with the introduction of the oft-talked about Japadog (itself set up because the City wouldnt allow its owner a license to sell crepes on the street) we lag way behind other urban centres in terms of having any options other than tubes of nitrate-infused meat sawdust, delicious as they are.

As one Globe writer article lamented, “it’s still incredibly sad to think that in a city as cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse as Vancouver this [Japadog] is the only remotely interesting street food around.”

Street food in Vancouver is waiting for its renaissance.  Thankfully, a better tasting set of options could soon be on its way.  City staff will be reporting back on a motion by Councillor Heather Deal (first introduced in March 2008) that seeks to increase the choice of street food possibilities.  Change may be on the horizon (and grill!) as early as spring of this year.

In this respect, the good news is that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel here.  There are lots of precedents on which we can draw.  In fact, if you look at the very successful temporary food operations that are available during events like the Vancouver Folk Fest – a wide variety of venders, healthy food options and low-waste, composting-friendly measures – and you can see that the vending possibilities are already in place with current city operators.

And there are inummerable examples of successful street food programs from elsewhere in the world.  My favourite examples of street food vending come from south of the border in Portland.  Here, small trailers replace carts.  Check out following examples.  The first comes from SW 3rd Street and SW Stark in the downtown area.

Here’s a second example, not too many blocks away, at 5th and Oak:

In both cases, the trailers are located on private parking lots but front on to the city sidewalk.  Each contains over 20 different vendors selling an almost equally diverse array of street food.  The trailers themselves are metered off of a City utility pole, and have running water and a clean working environment to cover off sanitation and broaden the cooking options.  What do you get in addition to the hotdogs?   Try kebabs, pasta, skewers, vegetarian wraps, tacos and quesadillas, burgers, soups… and the list goes on.  (You can also read more about the Portland experience at the Food Carts Portland blog.)

The great “case studies” that are available to Vancouverites can also be supported with some decent principles that speak to the value of street food vending.  The good news goes beyond just providing more food options to hungry visitors and residents:  street vending helps to enliven public space, bringing more people outside and on to the street.  Such vending tends to be easier on the wallet as well, which is always nice.  And the economic benefits flow the other way as well – as vending also provides jobs and enables opportunities for small and micro-business entrepreneurialism.

Heather Deal herself is excited by the opportunities that are now upon us.  When I asked her about the impact of the Olympics on street vending of this sort she was quite forthcoming in her response:

“We’ve seen an explosion of different types of food available in pavillions and in the open marketplaces in Yaletown and at the Plaza of Nations. It would be a real shame to see us return to the very limited street food we’ve traditionally had available. We can use our Olympic experience to help us appreciate what is possible.”

That, I think, is a sentiment most definitely worth toasting!

Postscript: Maybe its also time that we collectively supported the initiative with a bit more advocacy too.  Check out the great work of the Street Vender Project in New York or the Chicago Workers Collaborative.
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Responses

  1. […] I just got bonged with this excellent article on same from Andrew Pask at Public […]

  2. Did you know about the food stands and public market at the Plaza of Nations? Probably not because they were so poorly promoted and located (since they were not associated with VANOC). My friend ran a unique mini-spring roll stand and business was not good.

  3. Simon: I wandered up and down the stalls one night. Not sure which event was on, because I looked like the first person the vendors had seen in ages. Interesting anecdote about how poorly business did there. The set-up there reminded me more of the PNE (tacky tourist goods sandwiched between the food stalls) than anything else, and it wasn’t far from the BC Place exit, and closest to the Ontario/Saskatchewan pavilions (which were serving food and booze themselves).

  4. Another city with great food carts is Austin, Texas (http://austinfoodcarts.com/). One cart, Mighty Cone is an offshoot of a posh and pricey Austin restaurant, Hudson’s on the Bend. Just think what a food cart with ties to The Cannery, Vij’s or Chambar might be like.

  5. Quick side note: the Vaisakhi Parade this past weekend (April 10) was the only public festival I’ve been to where the food was FREE. A great concept where families are cooking and serving delicious food on E. 49th Ave. from Main to Fraser.


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