From Bangkok to New York City, some of the world’s finest food can be found outside high end eateries and on high traffic street corners, parks or back alleys.
In those urban hubs, street food is as much a part of local cuisine as the brick and mortar restaurants they’re parked adjacent to.
The same, however, hasn’t been said about most Canadian cities.
Historically, local governments took a dim view of the street food trade, limiting numbers of outlets and doing very little to diversify offerings.
In the last couple of years that’s changed. In the lead-up to the Olympics, Vancouver’s traditionally sub-par street food offerings started morphing under loosening restrictions.
Rules that limited available food to prepackaged hotdogs were lifted, and vendor spots were increased by a third.
A selection process ensured carts offered a variety of cuisine that wasn’t at odds with the businesses in the area. And, to date, it’s been an effort that earned Vancouver the type of attention Kelowna’s elected officials and bureaucrats couldn’t help but take note of.
They’ve yet to open the floodgates on the food truck business, but Kelowna’s highest traffic tourist zones have seen a few new additions, while concessions that have been in the city since the dawn of tourism were given a mandate to start shaking things up.
“What we’ve done is put out bid packages for specific locations…what we’re trying to do is provide opportunities that help the public and tourists have an enjoyable experience in Kelowna,” said Ron Forbes, the city of Kelowna’s property manager.
Part of making the experience more enjoyable is offering more selection, he explained.
The city will address that aim by enforcing healthy menu options with anyone who holds a contract on a municipally-owned lot. Bureaucrats can also give contract priority to those who have a bit of culinary chutzpah.
“We’re trying to be creative and we’re starting to get more and more diversity,” said Forbes.
“While some locations are still offering the standard food you’d expect, like the hotdogs at a beach, the latest contract on Hot Sands beach has international sandwiches as their main fare.”
It’s a mandate that caught the attention of one of the most notable additions to the local street food scene.
Rick Graham made a decision two years ago to move to the Okanagan from the Lower Mainland and help out his aging parents.
Just as he was leaving, street food was starting to take off and he saw the seeds of an opportunity.
“I have 15 years in the food industry under my belt…so when I moved here, I bought myself a job,” he said, noting he was going to open a deli until he thought better of it.
“The street food trend was popping up everywhere. I’m a foodie myself and I saw the explosion taking place. I also knew there was a gap in the market in Kelowna and when the opportunity came up to go in this direction, I did.”
Drive by Stuart Park, and you won’t be able to miss Graham’s contribution to the local food scene.
His giant food truck named Rolling Stove took up residence at the high traffic area earlier this week, and all signs say he made the right decision.
“I’ve been really excited about the great business and the positive attention,” he said.
“I wasn’t sure if this kind of menu would be popular, but people are looking at new things and trying them out…and I’m pretty excited to bring the new trendy street food to Kelowna.”
His menu is definitely a departure from the hotdog stands outside local bars.
Vietnamese vahn mi sandwiches, Montreal smoke meat, pulled pork, gourmet fries and blooming onions are just a few of the options that grace their menu.
“Our sandwiches are done in folds,” he said. “They’re big, juicy, messes and fun to eat as long as you don’t want to stay clean.”
In addition to filling up passersby with his sloppy exotic fare, Graham is also hoping his presence will ramp up the street food scene in the city.
Having become a devout follower of food truck culture, he’s become a fan of the creativity within the trade.
“The wonderful menu items these guys (on food trucks) have are so creative and different,” he said, adding the showmanship of the trade is also appealing.
“Eating on the street is fun and adds a new twist to dining out.”
In addition to the Rolling Stove, Kelowna is home to Waffelicious—a cheery yellow truck that sells waffles at the same location in the winter—several hotdog stands and in upcoming days a shaved Hawaiian ice truck will be rolling into town.
More options may be in the offing, too.
Forbes said there are plans in the works that may cash in on the public’s growing interest in street food.
“Now we’re trying to come up with specific rules and regulations on how to do this,” he said.
“We want to find the opportunities for mobile food vendors, but on the other hand we don’t want to adversely impact business in that area as well.”
That may be why much of the focus has been turned to the vendors in local parks.
With the structures in place far from local businesses, there’s little cause for conflict.
Don Rogers operates the Apple at Gyro Beach and a stand at Tugboat Beach, and he’s glad his business isn’t interfering with the brick and mortar variety.
“Kelowna is not Vancouver,” he said. “The thing with street vending, in my own opinion, is there are businesses that pay tax all year that are permanent structures. I don’t think there should be vendors that should be close to them.”
That said, he also appreciates the value of diversity in the city, although he’s not sure the healthy options will gain much traction among the beach concession crowd.
“We’re doing more fresh fruit, available every day,” he said. “We’ve sourced out a number of healthy snack bars, vegan foods and that kind of thing.
“As far as hot food items, we have a salmon burger now that we’ve never had before as well as veggie dogs and burgers.”
While outdoor eating spots are becoming more popular, it remains to be seen whether Kelowna will ever have the robust scene other metropolitan hubs can boast.
Meantime, however, fans of foodie culture are celebrating the tiny steps forward.