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December 15th, 2010 AARON MESH | Cover Story
 

Cartpocalypse!

Randy Leonard isn’t the only problem facing Portland’s food carts.

     
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Gregg Abbott is perched over his Samsung Android at a wooden picnic table outside his Whiffies Fried Pies truck, parked in a vacant Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard lot called Cartopia. It’s a Monday morning—his day off—and Abbott is anxious to move under the heating lamps of nearby Tiny’s Coffee. He’s had his fill of sitting out in the cold.

If food cart chefs are Portland’s new rock stars, then Abbott is Keith Richards. His rise is the stuff of local legend: In May 2009, he quit his job parking cars at RingSide Steakhouse to start deep-frying half-moon pies—filled with barbecued brisket and cheese, salmon and chipotle mayonnaise, or marionberry preserves—in a 1994 Wells Cargo trailer. That summer, the food cart lot Whiffies Fried Pies shared with french-fry purveyor Potato Champion became a nightlife destination, as tipsy partygoers munched the perfect drunk food until 3 in the morning.

Whiffies now serves a hundred customers a night. Its Twitter feed has 3,491 followers. Abbott has been filmed for segments on the Travel Channel and NBC Nightly News, and last month was asked by Gordon Ramsay to try out for the Fox cooking-competition show MasterChef.

But like many young rock stars, Abbott hasn’t seen the royalty checks.

“If I really took the time to figure out how much I made per hour last year, I would for sure burn my cart to the ground and join an ashram in Northern California somewhere,” Abbott said.

Plenty of cooks would love to take his place. Food carts have clustered at the edges of parking lots in Portland’s downtown for the better part of a decade. Thanks to government zoning laws less persnickety than those in other cities that require food trucks to drive home at the end of the day, Portland’s theoretically mobile kitchens have paid rent to parking-lot owners to serve $6 pad Thai from permanently parked trailers—creating miniature dining districts on the sidewalk.

But in the past two years—and especially this summer—the carts have spilled across the Willamette River, expanding eastward like a small-business soufflé, or some kind of foodie Manifest Destiny. Carts with names like Starchy & Husk, Kim Jong Grillin’ and Crème de la Crème began serving macaroni and cheese, Korean barbecue and escargot from parking spaces in boutique cart pods—empty lots that might have been construction sites in a more robust economy.

In the midst of a recession, new cart owners have created a shadow economy—one that’s young, hip and adored by the national media.

The Multnomah County Health Department counts 609 food carts in the county as of Nov. 30—148 more than this time last year. In 2001 there were just 175.

Fifteen of the city’s 25 cart pods opened in 2010, 11 on the east side, says Brett Burmeister of Food Carts Portland, a website that covers the cart scene. An informal survey by WW last week shows that while most downtown carts are still owned by first-generation immigrants, less than 10 percent of the carts in eastside pods are.

Two weeks ago, City Commissioner Randy Leonard took notice of the cart boom—and said some of it was illegal. Declaring that carts in two downtown pods had added decks and patios that “no longer make them food carts but illegal restaurants,” Leonard ordered inspectors at the city’s Bureau of Development Services to crack down on code violations.

But Leonard’s attention isn’t the only trouble looming for food carts. Winter has arrived, and Abbott isn’t optimistic that the more than 600 carts will still be open in the spring.

“There are a lot of factors right now that are going against food carts,” Abbott says. “It’s my hope that the wave of people who are like, ‘This is an easy way to make a million dollars,’ is cresting. It might be over now. We’ll see how these things shake out, but starting a cart in December is a really, really tough way to get going. My guess is that by February there are going to be a lot of carts for sale on Craigslist.”

Other food cart owners agree. After a summer of media love, they’re exhausted, jaded and not much wealthier than they were when they opened their windows. And they share the same worry: Maybe Portland’s cart craze has gone too far for its own good.

“I think the cart thing got a little out of control, to be honest,” says Kevin Sandri, who runs the Garden State cart in the North Portland pod Mississippi Marketplace. “I think too many people came to the party. And somebody called the cops. Usually, somebody needs to call the cops.”

*

Randy Leonard was driving into downtown off the Morrison Bridge last month when he noticed El Masry, an Egyptian food cart on the corner of Southwest 3rd Avenue and Washington Street. But it wasn’t owner Gharib Sameia’s kofta kebab that caught his eye. It was the deck.

“I saw a guy out there building the biggest of the structures, out there on the corner of 3rd and Washington—up on the roof on a Sunday afternoon,” Leonard said. “And I thought to myself, ‘I’ll bet he’s doing that on a Sunday in order to avoid running across any building inspectors.’ And it was within a week that Channel 2 was in [my office] saying, ‘Do you know about all these structures?’ And I said to them, ‘You know, I actually saw a guy working on one of them on a Sunday, and I have to say I wondered.’”

Long before KATU’s report last month on illegal decks, Leonard had been warned of possible code violations at downtown carts. Last November, he told WW that fire officials had complained to him about faulty wiring and propane tanks at two lots—on Southwest 3rd and Washington and Southwest 4th Avenue and Hall Street—but he instructed them to concentrate on more urgent violations.

“The running joke is that planners get upset about the carts [across from Development Services], and then they walk across the street and get a burrito and they are not upset anymore,” Leonard told WW last year. (The Leonard-managed Bureau of Development Services sits across from the cart lot on Southwest 4th and Hall—where the Taqueria la Nortenita caught fire and burned down in August 2009.)

For years, food cart owners have operated with little interference from building-code inspectors.

Food carts get two Multnomah County Environmental Health Department inspections a year, the same as traditional restaurants, but cart owners say those are the only government officials they’ve seen at their door, apart from those ordering lunch. (Food carts have no higher rate of food-poisoning complaints than traditional restaurants, county health officials say. In the 2009 fiscal year, only two of 137 food-illness complaints in the county were against carts.)

The lax enforcement has been an open secret. In August 2009, Mayor Sam Adams bragged to the Toronto Sun that Portland’s food cart wave had been aided by an absence of red tape.

“We have worked really hard to stay the hell out of the way,” Adams said.

Leonard, a former firefighter, says he changed his tune when he noticed the decks—constructed from cedar or pine and covered with tin or corrugated PVC roofing—jammed next to propane tanks. And he says he took action only after vendors flouted his order last month to stop building.

“They had been given fair warning to do something about it, and their reaction was to build more structures,” he says. “I gave the personal warning myself.”

Both parking lots are operated by Greg Goodman—one of the city’s most powerful property owners and a personal friend of Leonard’s—who charges up to $500 a month in rent for each cart. (Goodman owns the 3rd and Washington lot; the 4th and Hall lot is owned by the family of City Commissioner Dan Saltzman.)

Leonard says if one of the wooden decks caught fire, it would be more than a blaze.

“If it would just be a bonfire, that would be one thing,” he says. “But it would be a bonfire with rockets. Because those propane bottles are long and narrow, and when they catch on fire, they shoot off like a rocket. They’re more like a bomb. They would be very hazardous in fire conditions. In other words, the Fire Bureau would potentially have to back off and evacuate the whole area.”

Leonard and BDS officials hosted a meeting with 75 cart owners last Wednesday, telling them they could either remove the decks by Jan. 3 or begin an extensive building-permit application process. For those permits to be approved, says BDS enforcement manager Mike Liefeld, “the code requires some kind of anchoring.” Goodman, who attended the meeting, told cart owners they would not be allowed to drill into his parking lots.

“That’s going to be a problem,” Liefeld summarizes.

Sameia, whose El Masry cart first caught Leonard’s eye, says he’s going to apply for a building permit anyway. His cedar deck cost $2,000 to $3,000 to erect, he says. It’s painted red, and decorated with Christmas lights and a tapestry featuring three camels.

“They think it’s dangerous,” says Sameia as he dices cucumbers. “I don’t see how it could be dangerous. This was my dream. I’m asking for the City of Portland, especially Mr. Randy, to help us.”

Sameia, who moved to Portland from Suez, Egypt, 22 years ago and opened his cart this spring after jobs at Nike and an auto dealership, says he didn’t check city code before building the deck.

“I went to the parking-lot management and I asked if I needed to go to the city to get a permit,” he says. “They said, ‘No, you don’t need to.’ If it’s against the law, I don’t even want to step in it. But the manager said, ‘You’re fine.’”

Goodman confirms to WW that he will not allow any drilling on his properties, and says his City Center Parking never received any design proposals for patios.

“Did we know somebody was putting a porch in? Yeah,” Goodman says. “But we did not knowingly tell somebody to do something we thought was illegal.”

While Liefeld says BDS will continue to investigate only the lots they receive formal complaints about, Leonard promises that he will send inspectors to all the cart lots in the city.

One they haven’t looked at yet is the Goodman-owned lot on Southwest 10th Avenue and Alder Street, where deck building is as rampant as on the cited lots. At least one cart has constructed permanent structures—a tin roof and a marble countertop—with holes cut out to accommodate existing trees.

Sunny Souriyavong, who owns 10th and Alder cart Sawasdee Thai, says she built a $3,000 roofed deck in March after receiving permission from the lot manager.

“I’m kind of scared,” she says. “I feel sad and terrible. It seems like, you put it up Monday, you have to take it down on Saturday.”

Even as Leonard enforces the old rules, policymakers on multiple levels of government are promising new ones. The Oregon Department of Human Services is expected to meet with county officials in January to discuss updating policy to meet Food and Drug Administration food codes for mobile units. The Portland Fire Bureau says it is writing a new food cart policy as well, focusing on propane tanks, shock hazards and exits.

Abbott, whose Whiffies truck is parked next to a tent strung with white light bulbs (both legal, if they’re up less than 180 days a year), says code enforcement is overdue.

“Even the other food cart owners see that it can’t be an utter free-for-all,” Abbott says. “As cart owners, we should get together and have a serious dialogue about what is going to continue to let us have the sort of freedom that we’ve had, and not get somebody squashed by a falling structure.”

*

Abbott obsesses over the minutiae of the food cart business. His BlackBerry has an RSS feed that tells him whenever a new Portland food cart appears on the Internet. He spends 30 minutes every day tracking the prices of food carts being resold on Craigslist.

“Nobody spends more time thinking about this,” he says.

Since April, Abbott has been scheduling monthly meetings with a small group of other cart owners, including Garden State’s Sandri and Potato Champion’s Mike McKinnon.

Other owners in town sometimes refer to the group as the Food Cart Mafia.

“It was clear from about a year ago this was coming,” Abbott says. “It was clear we might bump up against the Restaurant Association, it was clear that sooner or later the city had to enforce some of these code things. And with anything that gets popular, there are detractors that will find reasons to increase the cost of entry. Regulation is really about increasing the cost of entry so that it’s more difficult for people to get into these games. It’s super cool to be involved in a field where the cost of entry is low, and people get to bring out their wild ideas and take them for a spin without risk of ruining their lives. Increasing that cost of entry would bum me out.”

The major regulatory cost of opening a food cart is a $340 annual Multnomah County Environmental Health Department fee—along with initial costs of a $290 plan review, a $100 business license and several other small fees. Even though most of them are stationary, food carts don’t pay the city’s system development charges—infrastructure fees that can run well into the thousands of dollars. And that makes restaurant owners livid.

“They’re not operating within the scope or intent of any of the laws,” says Bill Perry, director of government relations for the Oregon Restaurant Association. “These guys are not paying transportation development fees; they’re not paying sewer or water fees. What happens when a restaurant that’s right next door to them—say, a sub shop who had to pay all those fees—they open up a second unit and say, ‘I’m not going to pay the fees, because you’re not making them’? If they go try to enforce it…at some point, somebody’s going to have [grounds for] a lawsuit.”

David Stokamer, owner of three FlavourSpot carts serving waffle sandwiches and coffee, says he doesn’t have time for a fight with restaurants—he’s busy trying to make a living.

“I’m kind of wondering who’s going to have the time and wherewithal to fight this battle,” Stokamer says. “You know, the grass is always greener. Someone with a restaurant is looking out their window and they see all the food carts across the street, and there’s people standing there waiting for lunch—it’s like, ‘Oh man, I wish I was those guys.’ And this time of year, you’re sitting in your trailer and you’re freezing your ass off and you’re thinking about rent and it’s raining out and no one’s standing outside on line, and you’re looking at the guy across the street in the restaurant, saying, ‘Man, I sure wish I had a roof.’”

While code enforcement and restaurant backlash are hot topics, most food cart owners say they have bigger fish to fry. Their most immediate problem? Winter is coming, customers are going, and the summer bubble of carts has left too many of them packed together in places where nobody’s walking by.


ESCARGOT CART: Bianca Benson has time to kill in her Crème de la Crème school bus. IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

It’s “free cheese Friday” at Crème de la Crème—no additional charge for Gruyère, Brie or blue cheese on French dip sandwiches—but business is slow at the Good Food Here pod on Southeast 43rd Avenue and Belmont Street. Business is slow every day now.

“It’s dropped off, I’d say, 700 percent or so,” says Bianca Benson from the kitchen of Crème de la Crème, a 1961 Ford B600 school bus she and her husband, Michael, renovated into a kitchen serving French specialties like croques-monsieur and escargot. “There’s days where we’re lucky to pull in $100.”

Crème de la Crème was the first of 17 carts to open at the Good Food Here pod this past July. During the summer, Benson says, she averaged sales of $800 a day. Now, she’s lucky to take in $800 a week.

Benson says her lease continues until next July, and she’ll decide then if the bus is viable for a second year. (Making matters tougher, that $340 Health Department bill comes due in January.) She’s hoping the crowds gawking at Christmas displays on nearby Peacock Lane will stop by, and she’s selling handmade necklaces at the window for extra income.

“I’ve started making jewelry to extend my lemonade stand,” she says. “I’ll seriously have to do some re-evaluating, and I think a lot of people will.”

Matt Breslow, who runs the Grilled Cheese Grill out of two buses on Northeast Alberta Street and Southeast Ankeny Street, doesn’t think some carts will last that long.

“A couple of my friends that I work with, we have [betting] pools to see, ‘You think they’ll make it to Thanksgiving?’” Breslow says. “’They made it to Thanksgiving. You think they’ll make it to Christmas?’ Some of them are still going. And frankly, some of them aren’t.”

Abbott says the problem isn’t that Portland has too many carts, but that the eastside pods were developed under the assumption that the more carts there are on a lot, the more rent gets paid to the property owner.

“You can’t have 20 carts on a lot,” Abbott says. “Downtown you can, because you have 15,000 people walking past every day. But if you have 85 people walk past the cart pod every day, and 3,000 people drive past, how many of those people do you think you can get to stop and come in? And those developers develop those lots with the idea that they’re going to have 15 people paying the rent every month.

“But if your business plan revolves around the fact that you have 15 carts,” Abbott continues—he’s building up steam now—“and you need 12 of those carts to pay the rent every month to keep the nut paid, and only five of them can be successful, then even those five of them are going to have to go find some other place. The basic underlying business plan doesn’t make sense.”

Abbott has delivered this lecture before: He told it to the Vancouver, Wash.-based owners of Cartopia when they wanted to add more carts to the Hawthorne pod earlier this year. “We said, ‘For every cart that you put on this lot, you have to bring us another 150 people a day.’”

Neeley Wells, who manages the Good Food Here pod for Urban Development Partners (monthly rent starts at $500), says the developers are still figuring out the ideal number of carts.

“During the summer, [17] was a good number,” she says. “This is our second month of winter. We certainly wouldn’t throw in the towel. People love eating there—they just wish it didn’t rain so much in Oregon.”

Yet new cart lots keep opening. A pod called Q-19, on the site of shuttered pool hall Cheers NW on the corner of Northwest 19th Avenue and Quimby Street, is seeking eight carts to sit outside a full bar in the building. Mississippi Marketplace owner Roger Goldengay has purchased a property in outer Southeast Portland on the Springwater Corridor Bike Trail. And this summer, real estate brokers-turned-developers Michael, George and Nicholas Diamond tried to recruit 20 cart owners to an indoor food-cart palace in a building on Northwest 14th Avenue and Flanders Street in the Pearl District—a kind of artisanal food court. That project is now “on the fence,” Nicholas Diamond says.

“When is the end of food carts going to be?” Stokamer asks. “The end of food carts is going to be when someone’s standing in a parking lot, in the freezing cold and rain, waiting 10 minutes for an $11 sandwich. And they just kind of say, ‘What the fuck am I doing here? How good could this sandwich possibly be?’”


ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Kevin Sandri plans to make his Garden State cart truly mobile. IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

The summer cart bubble already shows signs of deflation.

About 18 carts have closed or changed ownership this year, according to Food Carts Portland. Carts that opened in eastside pods are moving back downtown—there’s more regulation there, but also more foot traffic.

“As many carts from the east side that can find a spot downtown, are going to find a spot downtown,” Abbott says. “And you’re seeing it already. Wet Hot Beef, Chili Pie Palace, the Frying Scotsman: All these guys that started out outside the downtown area are moving toward downtown.”

Food cart owners are starting to consider contingency plans. The owners of East Burnside cart VolksWaffle shopped their Volkswagen Vanagon on Craigslist last month before deciding to concentrate on catering gigs. Sandri plans to start driving his Garden State cart to different locations each day—he thinks Portland’s days of stationary cart pods are numbered, and the food trucks will take to the roads, as they do in California and his native New Jersey.

“You’re going to see things go truly mobile,” Sandri says. “That’s what I’m going to do this coming year. I’m going to start to phase the parked cart out. With the rules and regulations, honestly, I think some of the downtown carts are going to become a thing of the past, sadly enough. And I think the landlords on the east side, they’re going to perhaps start charging a little bit more, a little bit more, as there’s fewer legal lots. It’s going make it seem a little more realistic to open a brick-and-mortar [restaurant], because I don’t think the costs are going to be that different.”

Abbott expects less-dedicated cart operators simply to quit.

“I think you’re going to see some of these lots split into smaller lots, and some of these guys try their hand at a different hobby,” he says. “The people that are passionate about it are going to continue to do it for the crumbs. Because there’s nothing like being here at 2 o’clock in the morning and seeing 200 naked people riding bikes into your lot.”

Abbott says he’ll stick it out. He’s added ice cream to his Whiffies menu. He isn’t trying out for the MasterChef appearance. (“I would make ice cream and pies until they figured out I was a one-trick pony and sent me home.”) Whiffies doesn’t pay him more per hour than parking cars did, but it’s his business.

And Cartopia is his home.

“I got into this game because I was bored, depressed and lost,” he says. “I needed some sort of community to be a part of. This lot became my whole community, even before I owned a cart here. I thought for sure this was the worst idea I ever had in my whole life, opening this food cart, and it was going to lead to financial ruin. But I was hoping that along the way I was going to meet some new friends. It was exactly what I needed.”

News intern Rebecca Jacobson contributed to this story.

A Little Cartography


The food cart pods of Portland


View The Cart Pods of Portland in a larger map

 
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