The Fate of Downtown Portland’s Food Carts

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Development is on the horizon, but when is anybody’s guess

STORY BY CHAD WALSH
PHOTOGRAPHS BY AARON LEE

About a year ago, The Oregonian’s Luke Hammill reported that Greg Goodman, the former “parking baron” and the man behind the Downtown Development Group, was floating a plan that could literally transform the city center’s landscape.

If fulfilled, that plan — tentatively called “Ankeny Blocks” — would materialize in the construction of 11 new mixed-use towers, built on lots stretching from Sixth Avenue and Washington Street to the waterfront and the Burnside drag.

The announcement comes at a time when developers simply can’t build fast enough to house Portland’s new and existing residents. Last year, Metro estimated that more than 35,000 people moved to the city in the year prior. That’s like Portland annexing all of Lake Oswego in just 365 days.

But while these pending developments will certainly make room for tomorrow’s workers and residents, they also potentially endanger the livelihoods of 60 to 70 small-business owners who run the food cart pods at Third Avenue and Washington Street, at Southwest Second Avenue and Stark Street, and along Southwest Fifth Avenue, also at Stark, which is the city’s oldest pod.

These planned developments certainly rang Brett Burmeister’s alarm bell. Burmeister is the founder and managing editor of Food Carts Portland, a website/blog that keeps a pulse on the city’s food cart scene. He’s also the scene’s most visible booster.

“One of the biggest challenges in the broader food cart community is that there’s no coalition of vendors to get together and chat about what’s coming their way,” he says. “For most of them, it’s a one-person fight. I don’t think they’re thinking a year ahead, two years ahead.”

Every day, those carts serve lunch and the occasional late-night snack to hundreds of downtown workers and tourists from around the country and around the world. And Burmeister thinks that might be one reason why the cart owners aren’t yet thinking about moving. “They feel like they can’t leave,” he says. “That’s where their customers are.”

Still, the writing’s on the wall, and sooner or later, those cart owners will have to pack up. But when, and to where, is anyone’s guess.

When that time does come, other food cart pods are a relocation option. So are food halls, like downtown Portland’s Pine Street Market and the on-again, off-again James Beard Public Market, which is now slated to open not downtown, but on the east side of the river near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Brick-and-mortars are also a valid option, but Burmeister says that’s a tougher nut to crack. By his estimates, 10 to 12 food carts break into the brick-and-mortar game per year, and he surmises that 10 to 15 percent of them fail early on. Indeed, by his count, only 40 new food carts have managed to successfully make that transition in the past 10 years.

But sometimes you get commercial developers like Kevin Cavenaugh, the principal behind Guerrilla Development Company. Cavenaugh wants his food vendors to succeed, which is why he works closely with them. He wants them to make sure they can cover the costs of running a business while still profiting and growing.

If you don’t recognize Cavenaugh by name, you’ll definitely know him by his work. He’s the main player behind Portland’s micro-restaurant scene. Think Ocean on Northeast Glisan Street, The Zipper on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, and the Two-Thirds Building in St. Johns, which are home to restaurants like Uno Mas Taquiza; the fried-chicken sandwich shop Basilisk; and 24th and Meatballs, which has a presence on both Glisan Street and in St. Johns. They’re essentially strip malls, but instead of tanning salons and insurance offices, each development’s space is leased to independent restaurateurs.

When developing a mini-restaurant complex, Cavenaugh says he weighs a number of things. The space should be small, but large enough to seat about 20 indoors. He also wants his tenants to be able to afford any initial build-out costs. “I think $50,000 in total costs is an aggressive yet achievable goal that a couple of my micro-restaurant tenants have attained,” he says. “Full-kitchen, permits, plates and silverware, everything.”

He also feels a restaurant owner’s pain. He knows the industry struggles during the rainier months and that most restaurateurs can only expect a profit of around five percent — and that’s if they’re lucky.

“Rent isn’t about price per foot,” Cavenaugh says. “It’s more about the actual monthly check amount. Ideally, a micro-restaurant can gross the monthly rent in one good day. That formula seems to work for my tenants.”

But even though relocation options are many and varied, cart owners, for the most part, are taking things day by day.

Karel Vitek owns the Czech food cart Tábor, which operates at the corner of Southwest Stark and Fifth. He knows that his 12-year-old cart will eventually be displaced, but he’s busy enough as it is preparing his famed Schnitzelwiches to downtown lunchers every day — on top of producing his new line of fermented Stinging Kombucha hot sauce.

On the Oak Street side of that same pod, Kingsland Kitchen’s Chris Payne is taking the same approach. However, he feels that the sky-is-falling approach isn’t doing anyone any favors. He says he’s spoken with city planners who told him that it’s more likely that developments will come to downtown in the next decade, not in the next year or two as originally feared.

But some cart owners are showing some concern about what those developments might mean for the food cart community. Nong Poonsukwattana — the woman behind Nong’s Khao Man Gai, the poached-chicken-rice-and-sauce mini-empire and queen of Portland’s food cart scene — says she’s saddened by the news, and her Alder Street cart isn’t even located on the endangered blocks.

“My understanding is my lot is safe for now,” she says. “I could be wrong. But if there will be a building there, I will have to think of something. I would like to keep my Alder cart there as long as I can. It’s my stomping ground. It’s my baby.”

It does seem likely that, someday, those Alder lots will be developed. Like Burmeister says, “If developers are willing to tear down a four-story building to build a 30-story one, why not just build up on an empty lot?” But he also suggests that Portlanders look at future growth and development from a mature point of view.

“I have this concern that we’re always reacting to things versus proactively trying to make changes,” he says. He sees it when it comes to housing, development, and trying to house the homeless.

And he sees a parallel between the growing pains Portland is gearing up for and the growing pains that San Francisco has been through. And he should know — he grew up there. The Mission and the Tenderloin were his stomping grounds, back when those neighborhoods had yet to be “whitewashed.”

“Will Portland be weird anymore?” he asks. “I like some of the changes that are happening, but at what point do we start to lose some of the fun of visiting downtown?”

Food carts helped put Portland’s food scene on the national map. A lot of people took notice. Lots of them visited here. Some of them moved here. But displacing those downtown carts to give some of those people a place to live and work still seems like a long way off.

In the meantime, the city center’s food cart owners carry on, knowing in the back of their minds that development is definitely coming, sooner or later. Hopefully, much later.

Chad Walsh is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. He contributes to — and sometimes pinch-hits as editor at — Eater PDX and writes for other publications, like Edible Portland.

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