Let freedom reign for street-food vendors

Before 1947, street food vendors were a common sight in Montreal. It wasn’t hard to set up a stand and sell some French fries. However, street vending became heavily regulated starting in 1947 and was flatly prohibited during the 1960s in a bid to make the city look cleaner as Expo 67 approached. On many occasions during the last half-century, the city refused to reconsider that decision, to the harm of would-be entrepreneurs and consumers. However, city hall has recently decided to loosen up a little.

City officials have decided to grant special licences to some vendors in designated areas, to the delight of consumers, some of whom rushed to Olympic Park last weekend to taste succulent street food. However, the city should make a more comprehensive move and abolish the remaining restrictions because they are choking the entrepreneurial drive of many.

Opening a “street shop” – whether it is to sell hotdogs, baseball caps or gourmet filet mignon sandwiches – is easy and inexpensive. In the United States, where street vending is a $40-billion industry with 760,000 operators, one can buy an undistinguished hotdog stand online for only $5,060. One can also find a more advanced truck with equipment to cook pancakes for $29,000. Such costs are dwarfed by the amount required to operate a brick-and-mortar restaurant. If turning a profit becomes too hard, it’s easy to quit.

This makes it a great way to access the first rung of the entrepreneurial ladder and increase one’s earnings while pleasing the tastebuds of consumers. By sheer virtue of their small venue, street vendors often have a very limited menu. However, they can be very innovative by offering new and fascinating food items for those on the go. Many street vendors pride themselves as culinary innovators. Street-food vendors have flocked to Facebook, Twitter and MySpace to relay information about their menu to potential customers in a given area. One can even find iPhone apps in the U.S. that pinpoint the geographical location of some registered vendors.

It must be understood that the fundamental quality of an entrepreneur is alertness, meaning the ability to detect opportunities that have yet to be grabbed by anyone for the purpose of turning a profit. Call it the entrepreneurial instinct.

It’s exactly that instinct that pushes businesses to find out what consumers want and crave. We find this instinct behind the Montreal-based firm MuvBox, which has revolutionized street carts. In a stroke of genius, MuvBox owner Daniel Noiseux invented a mobile restaurant model that combines the concept of the classic American highway diner, as seen in countless movies, and the fried-potato stand.

When city officials allowed the opening of a MuvBox stand in the Old Port to sell gourmet sandwiches, it was an instant success. There is always a lineup when one goes for a lobster sandwich.

The company has been so successful that one of the mobile dinner trucks designed by Noiseux now sits permanently at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Why isn’t there one sitting in Victoria Square here in Montreal? Businessmen like Noiseux are alert to the needs of consumers, so why keep some archaic regulation in place which stifles their drive?

One way to boost any economy, let alone one like Montreal’s whose unemployment rate stands at 10 per cent, is for governments to remove barriers to entrepreneurs who seek to satisfy consumer wants. Rather than proposing new foundations, government grants or agencies to promote entrepreneurship, why not simply eliminate the stranglehold of red tape? Businesses like those that swarmed Olympic Park last weekend would boom and thrive if only entrepreneurs were allowed to follow through on their instincts.

Vincent Geloso is an Associate Researcher at the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.

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