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Success in food cart capital

High quality food. Working smart. Customer love.


by: PHOTO COURTESY OF JOAN BROWN - Despite the ever-increasing number of food carts in Portland, success is far from guaranteed. It takes research, attention to detail, and lots of hard work.Portland is a food cart capital with local food cart entrepreneurs offering a wide variety of quality fare.

In addition to high quality food and sincere customer service, good reasons a food cart business has the potential for success in Portland is the non-extreme weather and a food culture that embraces diversity. Cart food is interesting, convenient and, depending on the cart, can be better quality and value than traditional food outlets. It’s a fairly good bet that most every ethnic, fusion or home-style-favorite food is served out of a cart somewhere in Portland. And if that bet is lost – run out quick and start a new cart.

Profit in the Portland food cart business is pivotal on demographics, efficiency, food quality, uniqueness, and personality. Huong Tran has worked her downtown cart Saigon Food To-Go, for 14 years, and with the profits from that one cart she is able to put her three sons through college. During Saigon Food To-Go’s 14 years, Tran has developed a strong customer base. Her food is consistent and her smile is always gracious. She pointed out that the food cart business has greatly expanded since she started, especially the last two to three years. When she first started there were seven carts at her location. Now there are 26. Her advice for someone starting a new food cart is to first carefully study the demographics. Downtown Portland is busy and there is a lot of foot traffic, a lot of people pouring out of office buildings to find a good meal. John Lee, owner of Bulkogi Fusion, said about 80 percent of his business is done during lunch hours.

Lee started Bulkogi Fusion four years ago. He said that so far it’s “not really good money.” He definitely sees a good future so he is opening a second cart in Northeast Portland.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF JOAN BROWN - John Lee, owner of Bulkogi Fusion, prides himself on serving unique food combinations made from fresh, healthy ingredients."Treat everyone personally," Lee advised, adding, "Be a little commercialized."

Much of the work Lee does himself, and during busy hours he has part-time employees. In the mornings Lee gets to his cart about 9 a.m. and leaves in the evenings about 6 p.m. During the day, before his employees leave, he is often able to take off for two to three hours. Later in the evenings he works at home for two to three hours preparing food to take to the cart.

Tran said that between the work she does at the cart and the work she does at home, she averages 55 to 60 hours a week. Her part-time employee is at the cart 20 hours a week. Tran’s Saigon Food To-Go is not open on weekends much of the year but she does work weekends during busy summer months.

Sunny Souriyavong has owned her downtown cart, Sawasdee Thai Food, for 12 years.

"In high school I worked fast food, at a Weiner Schnitzel," she said. "I always wanted to open a hot dog cart. I didn't know how to cook Thai food until I learned from my roommate."

Since opening her Thai food cart, she recalls when she first started there were some days when her total gross was only $50 to $60. Soon after opening she got a reputation for her Pad Thai, and a year later she was able to upgrade from a Class III cart to a Class IV cart that allows much more cooking. Since then, Souriyavong and her part-time employees perform all food preparations at the cart. She gets there in the mornings at 9 a.m. and leaves in the evenings between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. Her roommate runs a second cart in Northwest Portland. Souriyavong said that they make “good money.”

Sourivayong places strong emphasis on working smart. For instance, when she cuts onions she cuts enough for two to three days; it’s too time consuming to prepare everything, everyday.

"If you work at a station, know where everything is and keep it in efficient order," she said. "You have to know your things and work smart."

Another of her tips is to keep the cart as clean as possible and to keep cleaning during the day. Not only is it more appealing to customers, it’s a better place to work in and at the end of the day there’s not another two hours of cleaning that has to be done before going home. Tran said the health department is very strict so it’s important to treat the food cart like a full size restaurant and to carefully follow all the rules.

An average start-up investment, with a used Class IV cart ready to go with propane cooker, prep tables, refrigerator, water heater, sink and grey water tank, plus licensing, but not including insurance, rent, cooking and serving utensils, and food, is $15,000 to $20,000.

"Rent per month goes up every one to two years," said Tran.

Insurance needs and premiums vary widely so it is important to get quotes. Monthly space rent around Portland varies from approximately $425 to $700. Annual licensing and Health Department fees run about $1,100. Plus, if food is prepared or stored at home or another location there are additional licensing and inspection fees. More costs to factor in are propane and the removal of grey water.

"The health department is very strict on grey water removal," said Tran. Add maintenance costs in to those expenses, and there's another $1,000 to $2,000 annually.

Having chef’s training is not necessary but a good knowledge of food and bulk production is important. Self-employment and small business experience is a plus. Studying demographics and government requirements and law is necessary. Being keen on what people like and trends in food and service, and being flexible are essential. Food costs can be ruinously high, so extremely careful planning, menu selections and pricing are crucial.

"The easiest way to cook for taste is frying and grilling," said Lee, "but the worst for health."

Consequently, Lee is firm in his integrity of serving unique food combinations that give excellent taste and that are made of healthy, fresh ingredients.

This insistence for unique, exceptional taste and quality demands added hours of preparation and higher food costs, but seeing Bulkogi Fusion’s customer base and loyalty grow is the long-term payoff. When he first started he offered a bibimbap burrito that got a hot response, but competitors copied his menu using lesser ingredients and lower prices. Since then he has developed new fusion foods that are becoming increasing popular, and that other cart owners are unable to copy.

Souriyavong has found the food cart business to be a very good experience. She, Tran and Lee each believe success is attributable to high quality, unique food, being personable and trying to make everyone happy.

“They’re not customers, they’re friends," said Souriyavong. "Some come two and three times a week.”