Victoria’s answer to the pandemic’s impact on businesses– the Build Back Victoria program – has come to a close, taking mobile food vendors with it.
Local donair cart operator Shawn Fitzgerald said this blow to his business, Donair Dog, is just the latest in a string of hits that have made it difficult to continue.
In the beginning, Fitzgerald and his wife Corinne House operated their donair shop out of a building in Esquimalt, but only three months after they purchased the business, the building was bought and demolished by the Township of Esquimalt.
Strapped for cash and devastated by the loss of their newly acquired location, Fitzgerald and House decided to take the business mobile. But then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, putting their plans on hold for two years.
In order to counter the impact of the pandemic on local businesses, the City of Victoria implemented the Build Back Victoria program, allowing temporary permits for mobile food vendors. However, these were always temporary and the Business Recovery from Pandemic Bylaw officially ended March 31, 2023.
Without a new bylaw in place, those participating in the program saw their permits expire, with no sure path ahead.
“To have been told in February that the city wasn’t sure what they were going to do with the Build Back Victoria program, we were a little worried about it and then, at the end of February, we tried to renew our permit and we were told then that the city wasn’t going to renew the program,” Fitzgerald said.
On March 1, Fitzgerald received the official letter informing him the program would be ending at the close of the month.
“Getting that letter, it was not only disheartening for us, but the people in the community who have grown accustomed to being able to walk to us, they were also quite upset about it,” he said. “Basically, it put us out of business again.”
The letter he received indicated there may be a ray of hope - they could visit a website with information about alternative vending locations.
Fitzgerald said they were, however, left with information that mobile vending must be done on privately owned property with appropriate zoning.
“Unfortunately for Fairfield, there is not a lot of private property that is appropriately zoned and would work for mobile street vending,” Fitzgerald said.
The challenges Fitzgerald has faced with his donair cart have come at a high cost. In order to operate with all the necessary certifications, he had to pay out almost $3,000, not including the cost of the cart, which ran about $5,000.
Still, he said business was good and with the weather improving, he was expecting it to get even better.
“We were so surprised on how well it was doing and then on the sunny days at the end of February and beginning of March, business jumped up immensely,” he said. “So we were quite excited about going into the summer. I think it would have been very viable for us. It would have proved to be very good for the community.”
Fitzgerald’s petition calling for the city to allow compliant street vendors to operate on public property has almost 1,000 signatures, and he hopes it will bring awareness to the issue.
While the path forward is still unclear, city spokesperson Colleen Mycroft said it is “exploring additional mobile vending opportunities in 2023 through special event permits.”
Coun. Matt Dell, who said he is supportive of the food vendors, said city staff is working to replace the bylaw allowing the temporary permits, but is unsure of when that will happen.
Until then, Fitzgerald will be operating the concession stand for the Beacon Hill little league at Hollywood Park from this month through June.
“But come July, we’re back in the same boat where we have nowhere to go,” Fitzgerald said. “The city just basically closed the door on all of us. They quickly launched a new bylaw to allow street-side patio extensions of restaurants to stay, and the street vendors – we kind of feel like we were just forgotten.”