Food Truck (Courtesy of Alexandra Allaire)

Word on the street

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When asking someone to put together a list of top destinations here in Montreal, it should come as no surprise that restaurants and other foodie favourites will take up a massive chunk of that list. Whether you find yourself partial to the world-famous smoked meat from Schwartz’s Deli, or to a T-Rex poutine from La Banquise, Montreal offers an eclectic and unique dining experience, be it in the heart of downtown, or way out past the Plateau. Students and residents alike will travel far and wide and even brave the biting cold weather just to grab a dish from their favorite joints. Luckily for them, this year, they might not have to go further than campus.

This summer, students had the opportunity to try food trucks that came to McTavish Street. “McTavish Street [had] been selected as an official site for the food trucks to be stationed, [even though] the university was never consulted on the site selection,” explains Mathieu Laperle, the Senior Director of Student Housing and Hospitality Services (SHHS) at McGill. His team met with the city during the summer and came up with an agreement that transferred permission to McGill under the management of McGill’s SHHS. “In the future, McTavish Street won’t be used as an official food truck location,” Laperle says. However, McGill foodies will have reason to be excited once again. Why? Because the food trucks have returned to McGill’s campus.

Beginning on Tuesday Sept. 3, food trucks will be parked on Mondays through Fridays behind the Redpath Museum on the Downtown campus and on most weekdays in front of the Centennial Centre Building on Macdonald campus, according to Laperle. Although meal plans will not be accepted at these food trucks, this new option will add variety to campus cuisine.

“We’re very excited,” says Laperle. “We’re now able to provide something different […] for our community. It’s local and trendy!”

This passion for gastronomy may well be the reason why, when mayor Michael Applebaum announced back in April that Montreal would be featuring a wide variety of street food through a two-year pilot program (after a 66 year ban), the whole city exploded with piqued interests and excited talk. As it turns out, the city of Montreal actually banned street food in 1947 due to concerns about the cleanliness of the city streets. Undoubtedly, having a meal in an open, public space could easily lead to excess littering and the occasional bit of ketchup dripping from the edge of a seemingly harmless hot dog.

Except that’s the thing— the trucks that are out and about on the streets of Montreal are not your typical New York City hot dog and pretzel stands. In fact, potential vendors were required to go through a strict application process, through which a selection committee chose the vendors that would be able to sell their food when summer finally rolled around. This choice was based not only on the quality of the products used by each vendor, but also the overall uniqueness of menu. The committee “favours gourmet street food coherent with sustainable urban and touristic development in Quebec,” according to the Quebec Street Food Association (QSFA) website.

In other words, don’t expect to be buying three churros for five dollars on Montreal streets any time soon. “I think that if you’re already going to sacrifice frugality to order from a food truck, you might as well get something more ‘exotic’ than a hot dog to make it more worth your time and money,” Andy Gao, a U3 physiology student who dined at a handful of Montreal’s food trucks this summer, said in defence of the ‘gourmet vibe.’

Because these food trucks have a distinctly gourmet flair, prices aren’t necessarily wallet friendly, especially on a tight student budget. The lower end of price ranges for most food trucks are around eight or nine dollars, while most choices average in the double digits. While not completely outrageous, these prices have turned quite a few students away from food truck dining. While some students don’t mind shelling out the cash, others find it much more cost-effective to either cook at home or seek out cheaper alternatives for dining out.

“I think the prices tend to be inflated, but given what they’re operating out of and the circumstances they’re in, like the price of fuel for example, it’s understandable,” Gao reasons. “A lot of places also tend to use organic or locally grown ingredients, so that tends to elevate the prices, too. Aside from that, I think a lot of it is [the food trucks’] novelty value.”

But the rules and regulations don’t end there. With Montreal being a congested and busy place, the city also opted to pick out seven specific locations based on suggestions from all Montreal boroughs, ranging from the Mont-Royal Park to Square Victoria to Cité du Multimédia all the way over by the Lachine canal.

There are 27 trucks with city-wide permits that allow them to rotate between the seven pre-determined locations. Fourteen other trucks, such as Dic Ann’s, are located only at one location with a specific lease—for instance, in Old Port. Anthony Zammit, the franchise consultant from Dic Ann’s, explained the difference between having a specific lease as opposed to a city-wide permit.

“Those food trucks that go around [with the city-wide permit] have to prepare their food at their home based restaurant [before hitting the road],” Zammit explains. Dic Ann’s specializes in burgers and fries, and they do cook their patties and fries in the truck with a fryer, which the city-wide trucks do not do.
Trucks also differ in that some are extensions of preexisting restaurants and others are independent vendors. For those who have not started their business from a typical brick and mortar restaurant—which is usually a much more expensive investment— food trucks can provide an opportunity for budding restaurateurs and entrepreneurs who might find potential in this street food market. On the other hand, food trucks can increase business for pre-existing establishments. “Serving the public is similar [between the two],” Nick Morena, the owner of St. Viateur Bagel & Coffee says of the differences between running a restaurant and running a food truck, “But we are driving to [the customers], and people are happy about that.”

In order to overcome any business and marketing obstacles, vendors have been using what thousands of other marketing teams worldwide have been taking advantage of: Twitter, and other forms of social media. In fewer than 140 characters, street vendors have been broadcasting online where they’ll be, when they’ll be there, and whether or not they’ve sold out for the day— which happens all the time. “It helps get your name out there,” Zammit says of social media. “One time, I saw a customer come in and he told me he’d never tried our food before, but he saw a friend posting a picture [of our food] on Instagram, so he wanted to come in to give it a shot. If you have friends posting positive feedback toward your brand, the word will spread—and there’s nothing better than word of mouth.”

Whether you are a hungry student, a hopeful food truck owner, or perhaps even someone aspiring to get into the business, the reintroduction of street food to Montreal through this temporary pilot program— with the potential to become a more permanent fixture— has unarguably created some major buzz in the city, and you might find yourself embracing it as another slice of Montreal’s already dynamic culture.