Portland’s food carts: an example for Lex

We MUST begin this in Lexington.  It’s about new jobs, better eating, building community.  Notice the fact that this “food cart” idea is expanding beyond food into small stores….like I’ve proposed for downtown. DEFINATELY check out the Portland Food Cart website


Planning Magazine — February 2011

A Moveable Feast

Portland’s food carts are everywhere.

By Samuel Adams Beresky

Food carts certainly are nothing new in Portland, Oregon. They’ve been around for at least two decades, at first mainly serving a downtown lunchtime crowd. But now they operate in every neighborhood — with the city’s encouragement. Planners see them as an important part of the city’s entrepreneurial spirit — and as part of a long-term planning vision.

Despite double-digit unemployment, Portland has seen a 40 percent increase in the number of its food carts over the last two years. At last count, there were 583 licensed carts in the city, with well over 60 varieties of food, from standards like Vietnamese sandwiches and tacos to more niche products like fried pies. There is even a cart that only sells creme brule.

Most carts are located in pods — the local term for surface parking lots or former vacant lots that provide space for multiple carts. Think of a pod as an outdoor version of a mall food court, except with locally owned, and high-quality, often locally sourced, food.

“These food cart pods are taking unused land and creating jobs, community, and very good food,” says Brett Bermeister, editor of a local website, http://www.foodcartsportland.com.

Why the boom? “People are creating jobs for themselves,” says Matt Breslow, owner of The Grilled Cheese Grill — a food cart in the northeast part of the city that specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches. “This city attracts a certain kind of person — adventurous and creative with a modest entrepreneur spirit. Food carts represent an easy business opportunity, and the city was intelligent enough not to get too involved.”

There is lots of foot traffic at S.W. Alder and Third, where food carts occupy a downtown surface parking lot

Lite rules

Portland’s rules on food carts are hardly heavy-handed. “Technically the carts have to be mobile, but there is no regulation that requires them to move,” Bermeister says.

Multnomah County requires all vendors to obtain a food handlers’ license, and, just as with every brick and mortar restaurant, the county health department inspects every cart twice a year. Unlike other cities that have stringent regulations about where food carts can locate and how long they can stay in particular spots, in Portland carts are considered vehicles. As long as they have wheels and an axle and stay in commercial zones — even if they never move — carts need not conform to zoning or building codes.

In addition, the city tries to make it easy for vendors by providing a one-stop shop on the city’s website that provides all the information, including permit applications, that any potential food cart owner will need. “Unlike other cities, there was very little red tape here,” says Breslow, who has recently opened a second The Grilled Cheese Grill.

From the city’s perspective, it makes sense to encourage these restaurants on wheels. “There is a sense of wanting to support the local economy, but beyond that, the food carts provide so many additional benefits,” says Steve Cohen, Portland’s food policy and programs manager. According to “Food Cartology,” a report on food carts compiled in 2008 by the city’s planning bureau and Portland State University, food carts add eyes on the street, attract customers to commercial areas, and provide good jobs.

Food carts also support the Portland Plan, the city’s long-range plan — whose adoption is pending. The plan calls for “20-minute neighborhoods” to be in place by 2030. To reach that goal, 90 percent of residents should be able to easily walk or bike, in 20 minutes or less, to meet all basic, nonwork needs. Cohen sees a role for the food carts in that vision: Carts can be “a community asset to their neighborhoods by providing fresh, local produce.”

Portland's 583 licensed food carts include The Grilled Cheese Grill which offers seating in a converted school bus as well as outdoors

Room for all

A few food carts sell fresh produce along with prepared food, and some businesses are using the food cart model to sell other types of goods. There is a vintage clothing store in a trailer, a bike repair cart, and a mobile truck that offers custom tailoring. Support businesses are cropping up, too, including garbage haulers and gray water removal companies that serve the food carts, and a new company that recently began offering bike delivery of food cart food. Go Boxes, a company that provides reusable food containers for the downtown pods, started up last year.

All this growth has not gone unnoticed. Articles praising Portland’s food carts have popped up in the national media, with Budget Travel magazine going so far as to claim that Portland has the best street food in the world.

With the increased attention come detractors. Some pods have been described as shantytowns, and there is a perception that regulation is lax. Steve Cohen admits that there have been some growing pains and that enforcement is “complaint driven.”

Before the recent boom in the number of carts, an unpermitted awning or an added deck might have gone unnoticed, but not anymore. Possibly due to complaints from nearby businesses and restaurants, the city has begun to crack down for safety reasons.

The Brown Chicken Brown Cow is on the site of a former gas station

Go with the flow

Late last year, following some negative media coverage, the city offered a 30-day time- out during which any unpermitted structures could be brought up to code or taken down without receiving a citation. “There is a strong desire that the food carts remain a successful part of a thriving food and entrepreneur culture in Portland,” says Cohen.

Matt Breslow has found a way to benefit from the city’s permissive attitude. To avoid any potential conflict about a deck for a seating area, Breslow’s two food carts offer seating on converted buses. “Our seating is on wheels, so it is not subject to building codes,” he says.

As for getting along with neighboring businesses and residents, “there will only be problems if you are not community-oriented,” he says, adding that he purposefully picked his locations to complement neighboring businesses and improve selected areas. “What would you rather have next to your bar and coffee shop, a vacant lot behind barbed wire or a restaurant?”

Samuel Adams Beresky is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.


Images: Top — There is lots of foot traffic at S.W. Alder and Third, where food carts occupy a downtown surface parking lot. Middle — Portland’s 583 licensed food carts include The Grilled Cheese Grill which offers seating in a converted school bus as well as outdoors. Bottom — The Brown Chicken Brown Cow is on the site of a former gas station. Photos by Samuel Adams Beresky.

Reading: “Food Cartology: Rethinking Urban Spaces as People Places” is available on the city of Portland website: www.portlandonline.com.

Food trucks are news in several cities. See “Traditional Tools That Help Build Good Health,” Planning, August/September 2009, and “The Fast-Moving Food Truck Trend,” New York Times, July 23, 2009.

The organizers of www.chicagofoodtrucks.com support a proposed ordinance that would allow the city’s food truck vendors to cook on site.



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9 responses to “Portland’s food carts: an example for Lex

  1. Rod lindauer

    The problem with this in Lex is that food trucks must be serviced from a city inspected brick and mortar commissary where the cart must be stored and cleaned. There seems to be some leeway in play at the farmer’s market, where I have seen prepared food that lacks state required labeling. I would imagine there would be a lot of push back from existing restaurants if there was any serious move to duplicate this here.

    • Yeah you hit some of the issues – but portland found a way to make it work….I am a firm believer of “more is better” in this case for existing restaurants – more people downtown, more people with jobs, more economic activity is better than trying to keep the status quo.

  2. Rod lindauer

    I like the saying “everything old is new again”. If the coming transition isn’t super severe, we’ll see downtown Lex serviced by trains from the provinces. I’ll be able to bring value added food from my farm in estill co. by rail on the weekend, do my trading, get supplies and treats, maybe visit overnight with friends, eat downtown at a vibrant street fair on Sunday, and be back in Irvine in time to feed the chickens. Just like 1899!

  3. Dan

    Making this easy to do is key. I like the streamlined process on the web page idea. Late night food carts at the 5/3 pavilion seem like they would be a big hit.

  4. Rod lindauer

    There would probably need to be come type of shared commissary co-op space near downtown for this to work. The city and state requirements are just too much for individuals to handle on their own. There are also bond and insurance issues. I’m on board though! How do we get going?

  5. EyeLWait4U

    I like the article and how it was written meaning, I’m terribly tired of government doing so much protecting, so much looking-out for the people, piles of paperwork and too many hoops to jump through that you kill a wonderful idea. I want to point out that if there would have been too many rules and regulations these wonderful food carts would never have happened. Suffice to say, we do need to watch for food safety for the public but…individualism is really what the community is about. Business is a form of self expression and I for one travel from where I live in Vancouver to enjoy what the carts have to offer. Tell me that isn’t progress worth measuring? My vote would be to keep food carts orderly, clean, maintained with a fresh coat of paint often and safe electrically. Beyond that..have fun and enjoy keeping Portland weird!

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