Halifax’s food-truck scene is stuck in neutral
Photos by Steve Smith/VisionFire
It’s lunchtime on a spring day in downtown Halifax and the streets are practically empty. However, there’s a crowd of about a dozen people gathered outside a bright green truck on Argyle Street beside City Hall. They’ve come for grilled cheese sandwiches from the Halifax Press food truck.
The site is one of 11 that HRM lets food-truck vendors bid on. Otherwise, food trucks have to set up shop on private property and get permission from the property owners to do business there, while complying with zoning rules.
Jill Johnsrude owns Halifax Press and is the co-director of the Food Truck Association of Nova Scotia. With its central downtown location, the Argyle Street site is hot real estate. But Johnsrude disdains the other sites available to be bid on.
“We have a couple really outdated sites,” she says. Chief among them in her eyes is the parking lot at the Sir Sandford Fleming Park, known to many as the Dingle. While the site is beautiful and has great foot traffic, Johnsrude says it’s hard to get a food truck in and out of. She’d like to see more city-owned sites available to food trucks.
Johnsrude says for the last few years, the number of trucks operating in HRM has held pretty steady at around a dozen, mostly fuelled by a handful of operators who’ve been in business for a few years, such as Halifax Press, Habaneros’ Gecko Bus, Tin Pin Alley, and Ol’ School Donuts. But if more and better sites were available, would the number grow?
Even if more sites don’t open up, food truck operators can apply to have a site designated. A call to 311 will get the ball rolling and no form or application is required.
Staff will look at a proposed site and evaluate it against criteria such as whether it’s within a school area, “within 25 metres of a business or person granted or issued a foodservice establishment permit for an eating establishment or food shop” and if it’s on a major collector or arterial street, says the bylaw. After evaluating, staff produce a report and council votes on it.
“You can designate new sites, but council is less inclined to designate new sites given they have sites that aren’t being filled,” says Johnsrude. She doesn’t just want more sites, she wants them to be well-chosen sites.
As well, Johnsrude would like to see universal site licences so food trucks could move from site to site as opposed to the current system where truck operators are confined to doing business on the spots where they have licences (unless they’re parked on private property). City spokesperson Brendan Elliott says a way around this restriction is for food truck operators to gather together and make joint bids on sites and then work out a schedule amongst themselves if they are successful.
There are some good reasons why a blossoming food truck scene would be good for the city. “It’s trendy,” says Susan Downey-Lim, the owner of Taste Halifax food tours. “People like the whole idea of getting food from a truck.” She tries to include visiting a food truck as part of the company’s Eat Halifax tour.
Downey-Lim also says many food truck operators focus on sourcing their ingredients locally, which is certainly true for Halifax Press. It buys cheese from the Fox Hill Cheese House and That Dutchman’s Cheese Farm, chicken from Oulton’s Meats, and bread from Julien’s Bakery.
When Johnsrude was considering her food-truck concept, she thought about tacos, but there was a problem. “One of the things that was important to me is food sustainability and using your local producers and growing,” she says. “I don’t feel those people should have to be exporting them when we can use them at home.” Tacos didn’t fit because they require a lot of imported food.
For a long time, food trucks in Halifax meant fish and chips, but many of today’s trucks serve more exotic fare, focusing on fresh and local ingredients, options that are healthier than deep-fried and processed fare.
Johnsrude wanted to provide a food experience that hearkened to her university days. The 2012 Dalhousie neuroscience graduate always liked talking with people. In university, people would come to her room to share what was troubling them and she’d often make them grilled cheese sandwiches.
Besides more sites being made available, Johnsrude would love for the city to try a pilot project similar to what Hamilton, Ontario is doing. Beginning in 2014, the city launched a project to increase traffic at parks in the city. Through it, food truck operators have purchased daily permits to operate at select parks. From the operators’ perspective, it minimizes the financial risk because operators don’t have to sink a large sum of money into licensing a site and can quickly determine whether it works for them.
This is the third and final year of the project, and then the city will determine whether it becomes permanent. A March 2015 report declared the project a success, noting that the revenue from permit sales exceeded the costs to the city.
But an April 2015 article in the Hamilton Spectator shows lukewarm enthusiasm for the project. “Out of a theoretical 1,000 or so possible permit spots last summer, operators used just 137—and about a quarter of those were during the first two weeks, when permits were free,” says the article. “Three of the seven parks didn’t receive a single permit application after the free period.” Elliott says Halifax hasn’t looked at that idea and he has no opinion on it.
While Halifax’s food truck scene may be stuck in neutral, it’s grown since the days when Bud the Spud ruled the land. With a few tweaks, it could turn into something really special. A thriving food-truck scene is a tourism draw in many cities. That’s partly because the quick-service nature of the industry would leave tourists with more time to get out and see the city, and create a lasting memory. Downey-Lim says because food trucks tend to highlight local ingredients, they offer dishes and experiences visitors simply won’t get in other cities.
“I think it’s a way for [tourists] to grab something that is so quintessentially Nova Scotian,” says Johnsrude. “It’s like basically taking a tour of the province having one of our sandwiches.”
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.