Making food trucks street legal in Montreal

The ever-popular purveyor of street meat — and other dishes — is having its proverbial day in court.

The Grumman ’78 taco truck. Photo via Flickr

After a few years of operating in a grey legal zone, those responsible for the recent food truck revival on Montreal’s streets are finally having their day in court, so to speak.

A series of public hearings being held by the city is the latest step in the seemingly never-ending road to legalizing street food in Montreal. The most recent was held Oct. 29 at City Hall, by the city’s permanent committee on economic development and urban culture. The evening meeting featured a PowerPoint presentation looking at how street food works in other cities, and how a Montreal model might function.

Participants were invited to comment and deposit statements on the topic. Those statements will be examined in advance of the next public meeting on the topic, to be held Nov. 21.

“We’re really happy to see what’s taking place, to see some forward momentum,” says Hilary McGown, of Grumman ’78, the first of the new wave of food trucks to hit Montreal’s streets, about three years ago.

Since Grumman first brought its lime-green taco truck to the public, other restos have followed suit. “I think there’s about 10 or 12 food trucks now,” says McGown. “So there’s not just tacos anymore — there’s pulled pork sandwiches and oysters and tartare. There’s a lot of different food products popping up.”

Right now, the trucks that sell this food operate in a grey legal zone, thanks to a law put into effect by Camillien Houde in 1947. The food truckers, though, have found workarounds. “Despite some of the laws in place, there is an area in which food trucks can operate — if you’re on private property, if you’re part of a festival, etc.,” says McGown.

In legalizing food trucks and street food, there are a lot of factors to consider — and McGown thinks that’s a good thing. “Food trucks can’t just operate willy-nilly — they can’t just pull up on a street corner in front of an already established restaurant and steal all of their clientele,” says McGown, adding, “I don’t believe in that at all.”

There are also safety factors to consider, she says. “The city is concerned about safety in terms of how the food is prepared, safety in terms of running water, hot and cold, in trucks, garbage, regulations in terms of gas lines, and things like that.”

The cost of street food
With items like oysters and tartare on offer, Montreal’s street food scene is a high-end one — and for now, at least, it seems the city wants to keep it that way. One of the points mentioned in the October presentation was the need for the quality of Montreal street food to conform to Tourisme Montreal’s standards, which reflect its recent $1 million initiative to make the city a leading foodie destination. (While the city works in partnership with Tourisme Montreal and provides it with funding, it’s independent of the city.)

“There are certainly quality control concerns,” says Amélie Régis, who works for the City of Montreal and prepared the PowerPoint presentation.

Tourisme Montreal did not want to comment on the food truck issue, saying it is doing its own internal research on the topic. But its vice-president, Pierre Bellerose, says that while the group is currently looking to promote Montreal’s “best restaurants,”  keeping gastronomy affordable and accessible is a priority.

Does that mean there may be room for traditional lower-end street food like cheapo hot dogs and giant pretzels on the Montreal food truck scene?  Food truckers are divided on the issue.

“I think that you can get a $2 hot dog in any casse-croûte on any street corner in Montreal,” says McGown. “The people who operate food trucks have established restaurants and professional cooking teams at their disposal — so there’s no point in doing something that is cheap and not all that interesting for the consumer.”

Gita Seaton, chef and partner at the Mile End’s Nouveau Palais which operates the Winneburger hamburger truck, thinks there’s room for lower-end food, but only within limits.

“I love processed food!” she says, laughing. “I don’t see any reason why someone shouldn’t be out there selling Pogos — but I think that everything has to happen in moderation. [The city] should make sure that hot dogs don’t just take over the street food scene of Montreal, because that would be a real shame.”

As the public meetings continue, the food truck industry remains optimistic the current laws can be changed in time for next season. “The reaction that I get from people to the food truck is astounding,” says McGown, adding that she’s only encountered a handful of people with lukewarm feelings about street food.

“The thousands of people I’ve met and interacted with have been very enthusiastic about the food truck. It’s something different, it’s something fun, it’s something delicious, it’s something [relatively] affordable, so I really think that the city would be very remiss to miss out on an opportunity such as this. It just makes people happy.” ■

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