Portland loves its food carts—there’s no doubt about that. While there might be differences of opinion regarding the “best” food cart in town—it’s hard to compare the fishy chips of EuroTrash to the breakfast offerings at The Big Egg—there’s certainly no question that the city’s food cart scene is embraced by the city’s foodie culture as a distinct element that helps “keep Portland weird.” Sometimes it seems as if neighborhoods haven’t “arrived” until they can lay claim to their own food cart pod, even while lacking a full-service grocery store.
The popularity of Portland’s food carts is far-reaching, with U.S. News & World Report deeming the city’s street food as the “best in the world.” The food cart industry has also resulted in ancillary businesses that range from food cart suppliers to sustainable to-go food containers. The food cart economy was able to flourish under a largely permissive regulatory structure by the city’s bureaucrats. In Cartopia: Portland’s Food Cart Revolution, co-authors Kelly Rodgers and Kelley Roy point out that the stance of the city’s Bureau of Development Services was to “ignore” food carts. Besides Portland’s Bureau of Development Services responding to complaints about illegal food cart structures in the winter of 2011, there has been, for the most part, a lack of regulatory barriers to negatively impact the expansion of the food cart system.
However, recent developments have occurred that could perhaps challenge this permissiveness, with little understanding of the possible effect upon the city’s food cart culture. Restaurants have long looked at food carts skeptically, with some stating that the low overhead coupled with relaxed regulations result in an unfair playing field for food carts. The only statutes that apply to food carts are local interpretations of the rules regarding “mobile units” in the Oregon Administrative Rules. Regulations that prevent food carts on a gravel lot in Old Town led to a homeless tent city instead—despite the lot owner’s chronicling of other food carts on gravel lots throughout the city.
But it wasn’t until Roger Goldingay, the owner of the Cartlandia food cart pod in East Portland, applied for a liquor license from the OLCC that a gut-check of sorts occurred regarding the legitimacy of food carts in the eyes of Portland’s policy makers.
“Regulators get out of the way of food carts,” Rodgers says, “except for when it comes to public health and safety. However, once you introduce alcohol, you’re inviting more regulation.”
Will this increased regulation lead to more scrutiny by the city, resulting in the legitimizing of food carts with their own section of urban zoning code? Or is it not legitimizing these carts—and allowing a free-flowing market dynamic at the street-level urban scene—that allows them to thrive?
The Food Cart Liquor Application That Caused the Ruckus
Who would have guessed that Goldingay’s OLCC application would have caused such a ruckus? At a city council hearing this past February, commissioners deliberated a proposal in which the city would play a role with the OLCC to develop strong rules regarding the sale of alcohol at food carts. The city cited public health and safety concerns, pointing out that while current statutes exist to shut down restaurants that irresponsibly serve alcohol, nothing exists to shut down irresponsible food carts. In response, Goldingay called the OLCC requirements “quite substantial” and stated that of the more than 600 food carts in Portland, there are “very, very few, less than ten,” that could meet OLCC standards—including Cartlandia’s fenced-off acre lot and having multiple staffers monitor the distribution and consumption of alcohol.
Ultimately, the Council voted unanimously to disallow an “alcohol cart” at Cartlandia. The state subsequently overruled this vote, with the OLCC approving Goldingay’s application in mid-March, thus proving Mayor Adams’ point that “the OLCC has amazing power of this issue, while the city does not.”
Goldingay views it in a different manner. “The OLCC did what they were legally required to do,” Goldingay later reflected. “And they determined that food carts are no different than any other business [that serves alcohol].”
Are Food Carts Really The Same As Restaurants?
Although the state has a technical definition of “mobile units,” questions were raised by city commissioners during the hearing as to how to define food carts. Nick Fish wondered if food carts and restaurants should have the same OLCC regulations, stating that they “don’t feel the same.” Testimony provided by the Office of Neighborhood Involvement points out that restaurants are “fundamentally different” than food carts, despite the OLCC’s conclusion.
John Hamilton of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association (ORLA) suggests that a distinction based on the word “mobile” is inappropriate. “Food carts aren’t mobile, they are stationary. They are no different than brick-and-mortar restaurants, and the same standards should apply.” Hamilton states that to prove mobility, food carts should return to a commissary at the end of the day.
Not surprisingly, food cart owners don’t share such a strict interpretation of a “mobile food unit.” “By definition, ‘mobile’ means ‘capable of moving,’” explains Gregg Abbott, the owner of Whiffies Fried Pies at SE 12th and Hawthorne and who is also involved with the burgeoning Oregon Street Food Association. According to Abbott, the restaurant association’s agenda is to force food carts to move each day.
Seeking clarity of the definition of a “mobile food unit,” Multnomah County’s Department of Environmental Health’s John Kawaguchi pointed to the definition as listed in the Oregon Administrative Rules. “As long as it has wheels and can be pushed or pulled, then it is mobile,” Kawaguchi explains. But do mobile food units need to prove their mobility daily? “Some jurisdictions may require daily movement, but Multnomah County doesn’t.”
ORLA may have another reason for any distinction to be removed. “Food cart owners don’t pay the same permitting and other fees as restaurant owners,” Hamilton says. “And yet food carts do hook into water and electricity. From that standpoint, it’s not a level playing field and that is all that we are looking for.”
Abbott doesn’t see how a level playing field is possible, pointing out the limitations of food carts: “I can’t serve an eight-top with a five-hundred dollar tab.” Abbott believes restaurants and food carts serve different budgets of Portland’s eaters. “Let’s say there’s a $20 bill. The restaurants in town compete amongst each other for that $20—which is why you have lines out the door for brunch each weekend.” Abbott believes food carts compete for $5 bills. “Our competition is McDonald’s.”
Hamilton disagrees with Abbott’s assessment of dining economics in Portland, saying the days of food carts undercutting restaurant prices have passed. “When was the last time you got a decent burger from a food cart for less than $7?” asks Hamilton.
Liquor At Food Carts—No Problem, Right?
While the idea of enjoying a pint of your favorite microbrew while enjoying a Big Ass Sandwich may sound appealing, purists should be aware of the impact alcohol regulations could have on the city’s celebrated food cart culture. It brings to mind the warning city commissioner Randy Leonard gave to Roger Goldingay at the city council hearing last February: “This appears to be a perfect case of ‘be careful of what you wish for.’”