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Drink Mobile

How beer helped save the food-cart phenomenon.

Tidbit Food Farm and Garden doesn't look much like the apocalypse.

It's a sunny afternoon, and Portland's newest food-cart pod—with 20 eateries, a mobile apothecary and a school bus selling vintage dresses—is bustling with families. An eight-deep selection of craft brews is served to beer-garden patrons from a cart, while a mother squeezes pears under a tent staffed by Canby's Parsons Farms. An elderly Israeli man, standing near the Aybla Grill cart, offers advice on hummus.

This scene is a surprise from what we expected back in 2012—and even earlier this year. Two years ago, the city tried desperately to stop the Oregon Liquor Control Commission from allowing beer service from cart pods, saying it would result in "increased crime, traffic accidents, fatalities, public nuisances or other harms to the public safety." That hasn't happened, obviously.

This June, Portland looked to be losing eight of its pods to development within six months—including iconic pods Cartopia and Good Food Here, which were both eventually saved from the ax. Not long before, the same fate befell the lot four blocks from what's now Tidbit, where LEED-certified apartments now perch atop the site of the former D Street Pod. The scene was looking grim.

So what saved the cart pod? To hear some cart operators tell it, beer.

The original steel-wheeled potluck was a largely chaotic affair, predicated largely on the real-estate nosedive of 2007 and 2008. From Big Ass Sandwiches to Potato Champion, those early food carts were seemingly the only thing that could grow on fallow real estate that suddenly looked about as fertile as Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona. "I was stuck holding a big chunk of land with a huge mortgage payment," says Roger Goldingay of the plot that now houses beer bar Prost! and the Mississippi Marketplace pod. "Somebody asked me if I could put a food cart on it, and I said yes." Having the bar and carts together is enough to make the pod financially stable.

Increasingly, developers are more willing to view food carts as a business unto themselves, not merely a stopgap until they gather funding to plunk down a condo. By the time Goldingay moved on to start massive cart pod Cartlandia along the Springwater Trail on Southeast 82nd Avenue, he was looking for property specifically to house food carts. And beer was always part of the plan. It's now served both out of a cart and in an onsite bar called the Blue Room. Both licenses were opposed by the city of Portland. But these days, Cartlandia is so busy that Goldingay sometimes runs out to the parking lot to direct traffic.

"Now we're a destination for assisted living centers," he says. "They come in their buses and unload. Everybody comes. There are kids everywhere." Goldingay says that while he doesn't make a lot from sales of beer, it widens the carts' audience. "It's a nice thing to have a beer with a burger," he says.

He's not the only one who sees booze as a key piece of the puzzle. Brunch truck Fried Egg I'm in Love co-owner Jace Krause says business is "way up" since they started serving beer and "Sangria-ciata" cocktails blending wine and San Pellegrino. Just down from Tidbit, fine Italian food cart Artigiano now serves wine and hosts live jazz. Even farther down Division, the A La Carts Food Pavilion hosts a cocktail cart on weekends.

"Having a beer garden was critical to the whole notion of having a seating area," says Tidbit co-founder Aaron Blake, who brought in Scout Beer Garden from Belmont's Good Food Here pod. "I think it's everything, in a lot of ways. It gives patrons an opportunity to have a drink, and it offers another hub—another draw."

Blake and partner Christina Davis don't own the property the cart pod sits on; just like most restaurateurs, they scouted out property for the business they wanted to start, and are working on a long-term lease. Blake says in contrast to the more improvised food-cart pods of the past, they are trying to create a more curated experience geared toward the customers who patronize the pod.

"[Pods] aren't always well thought out," he says. "They just occupy the space. We wanted to take it to the next level."