There aren’t many places in the world where the arrival of a few new outdoor food carts causes a sensation. The fact that Toronto is one of those places is, well, so Toronto.
The idea of allowing the sale of something other than hotdogs, sausages and fries on the streets got its first serious hearing about two years ago. Many press releases later, four of the eight new, approved street-food vendors finally opened for business earlier this week. The fact that these purveyors of souvlaki, Eritrean injera, jerk chicken and biryani survived the complicated competitive process and believe they can make money is testament to their grit and determination.
Kathy Bonivento, who gamely answered reporters’ questions, grilled chicken souvlaki and dealt with eager customers during her first day of business at Nathan Phillips Square, described a process that would make lesser folk give up immediately. She had to prove she had the experience and food-safety know-how to take on the responsibility of grilling kebabs for hungry passersby. She had to convince authorities that her Greek food was healthy and nutritious and ethnic.
She had to win a taste test that involved five local chefs. And she was required to prove her financial wherewithal to get a street-food cart up and running. The cart that all Toronto a la Cart vendors must use costs $32,000. The trailer to haul the thing around costs $8,000. Bonivento pays $15,000 a year in rent for the Nathan Phillips Square location.
Her pita-wrapped souvlaki cost $5 each. She has to sell 11,000 of them just to cover her basic start up costs, never mind earn a living.
But in addition to winning the equivalent of a bureaucratic triathlon, the ethnic food vendors have also become symbols for a whole bunch of this city’s sacred cows. The competitive process catapulted Bonivento and the other lucky seven into the ranks of the nutritionally virtuous, sent forth to rescue us from hot dogs and sausages (bad) and fries (really bad). They and their state-of-the-art carts are symbols of our obsession with food safety. They represent the multicultural nature of this diverse city.
They will make tourists happy.
That’s a lot of responsibility for Toronto’s newest street vendors. A quick chat with Bonivento, however, suggests she’s bearing up well and has it all in perspective: “We’re just hoping everyone is going to love our food.”