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Food cart culture digs in, grows up, has a few drinks

Not longer seen as just a fad, customers relish new options


by: TRIBUNE PHOTOGRAPHY: JONATHAN HOUSE - Brett Burmeister waits to dig into his burger at Cartlandia, the 30-food cart pod on Southeast 82nd Avenue that was the first to get a liquor license. Now a dozen others have followed suit.  A couple of years ago, Portland’s food carts — beloved by hipsters, downtown business people, neighborhood folks and tourists alike — offered strictly PG fare.

Now, they’re all grown up.

Nearly a third of the city’s food cart pods now serve beer, wine or cocktails.

Thirteen of the 36 food cart pods citywide have in the past two years sought and received liquor licenses from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

Thanks to a set of OLCC restrictions on the licenses, the infusion of alcohol hasn’t had any ill effect on the industry.

“We haven’t seen any public-safety impact at these businesses,” says Christie Scott, an OLCC spokeswoman. The OLCC board approved the restrictions as permanent rules last Friday, for the first time differentiating food carts from other outdoor areas like patios and sidewalk seating.

The rules limit customers to no more than two drinks at a time (16 ounces of beer or cider, 6 ounces of wine, or 2 ounces of distilled spirits); except to allow two people to share a standard 750-ml bottle of wine, and three people to share a 64-ounce pitcher of beer.

“No minors” signs must be posted, and there’s no drinking or amplified music past 10 p.m.

Finally, boundaries for the “alcohol consumption area” must be enforced by the licensee.

The more social, community-minded vibe is a big draw for the carts, especially out in East Portland, says Roger Goldingay, owner of Cartlandia, on Southeast 82nd Avenue, as well as the 10-cart Mississippi Marketplace in North Portland.

“There’s nothing cool out here, except us,” he says.

Two years ago, he was the first in the city to be granted a food cart alcohol license, after a bureaucratic struggle.

Two weekends ago, Cartlandia opened The Blue Room, an on-site bar and restaurant that will offer live music on the weekends and a place for people to enjoy a beer with their food cart fare.

The space features its signature teal walls, a stage for live music, five large-screen TVs to play sports and “Portlandia,” and a bar made from a salvaged piece of an 1860s church and an old pipe organ. They offer beer 18 beers and ciders on tap, along with cocktails and a short menu of five items, required by the OLCC.

“I think it’s only going to make it better, be another draw,” says Rich Coletta, owner of The Gyros Spot, a Cartlandia food cart that directly faces The Blue Room. “I look at it as a social hub, a marriage between food and drink.”

Cart culture changing

Other changes in the food cart scene are proving that the industry is growing up. Food cart vendors are being more conscientious, starting up not out of desperation, but inspiration. So say two of Portland’s biggest food cart ambassadors, Brett Burmeister and Steven Shomler.

“People are putting together a business plan, a five-year plan, maybe thinking of a restaurant in their future or a product line,” says Burmeister, a Portland native who’s written the Food Carts Portland blog since 2008.

“People are now opening food carts with the intention of it being a first step in being a brand,” Shomler adds.

Both industry observers say the Portland food cart scene — which has earned its 15 seconds of fame, and then some from, local and national media — isn’t fading away.

It’s not just a passing trend, they say. It’s not just something for the “bike” set or the “foodie” set.

Like the craft breweries, independent coffee shops, artisan food ventures and crafty DIY startups, food carts — love ‘em or hate ‘em — are part of the city’s fabric and economic engine.

In fact Portland’s food cart pods are now a model for the rest of the world. Burmeister, a Portland native who remembers cruising along 82nd Avenue in high school, was invited to talk about the scene in Portland a year ago at the first World Street Food Congress in Singapore.

Then, last September, Burmeister put his own spin on the Singapore event and co-founded Roam, the first conference solely for mobile food vendors in North America.

With 125 attendees, “it was shock and awe to see the group.ing of 60 food carts on a single city block at Southwest 10th and Alder,” he says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOGRAPHY: JONATHAN HOUSE - Cartlandia owner Roger Goldingay paved the way for eastside food carts pods with the development of Mississippi Marketplace. He intentionally designed the site as a community space.

Business begets business

When he’s not waxing poetic about giant sandwiches or artisan-made pasta from the city’s food carts, he earns a living as an event planner and organizer of food cart tours.

Although food carts here must have wheels so they can be mobile, very few are truly mobile, Burmeister says.

So when people want to have a food cart at an event, the carts just can’t just up and move. He’s noticed an uptick in food “trucks” that do have the ability to go to the suburbs, and he works with 20 of them to find opportunities at events around town.

Some of those trucks are outcrops of local brick-and-mortar restaurants, whose owners realize there’s a high demand for cart food at outdoor events and

festivals.

Burmeister also runs Food Carts Portland Tours, after leading friends on tours for free for a while and realizing there was enough demand to make it a business.

He charges $37.50 for 90-minute tours that include samples from four carts and his narration of the carts’ history and culture.

He especially loves to talk about the east-side carts, which have caught up to the west side only in recent years, in part thanks to Goldingay’s work at Mississippi and Cartlandia.

The 2,000-square-foot Blue Room is phase two of Goldingay’s site plan; the third phase will be to turn the other old building on the property into indoor seating and a special event space.

Burmeister, who grew up near 82nd Avenue, credits Goldingay with transforming not just the lot but the neighborhood vibe.

“Roger took this crappy little corner lot and turned it into a community space,” he says. “He had to work with the city, figure out the codes ... and he did it beautifully.”

Self-styled food cart expert Shomler is a food writer from Southern California who came here in 2012 and dove right into the food cart scene.

Last year he helped organize the Portland Summer Food Cart festival. As he got to know individual vendors, he started to compile their stories and last week he published his book, “Portland Food Cart Stories,” which shares the stories of 40 of the city’s culinary entrepreneurs.

“Portland is the mecca of the food truck scene,” Shomler says, noting that cities across the United States are looking at Portland for ways to make it easier for vendors to operate.

He offers free consulting to vendors looking to get started or grow in the market.

Rather then charge them, he just asks for a beverage — beer, coffee or whiskey.

The ability to serve drinks at the carts is “a great addition,” Shomler says. “There’s no reason not to have beer at a food cart. I would feel safer at a food cart with beer than at a baseball game with beer.”

Roster of events grows

The number of food cart-focused events continues to grow.

On Sunday, 2,000 people gathered for the seventh annual Eat Mobile festival at OMSI, featuring bite-sized samples from 27 Portland carts. In years past, attendance was as high as 3,500 and there were as many as 45 carts, but the organizing host, Willamette Week, capped it this year to ensure shorter lines and more samples for each guest.

Then there’s the Portland Summer Food Cart Festival, which is set for June 21 at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham.

The festival included 16 food .carts last year and 3,200 attendees; this year organizers are hoping for up to 25 carts and 4,000 people.

Tickets are $10 and include entry to a beer garden and live music. All ticket sales benefit the nonprofit Adult Learning Systems of Oregon Inc., which provides services to people with developmental and intellectual challenges. Food cart owners keep every dollar of their food sales.

Unlike Eat Mobile, tickets do not cover the cost of the samples. Vendors offer a special menu for the day and keep all of their sales.

Adult Learning Systems board member Kyle Gibson came up with the idea for the fundraiser three years ago, as the nonprofit was hit hard by state and county budget cuts.

He saw a dearth of food carts in East County and an opportunity to capitalize on the success of the Portland food cart scene while raising funds for the organization. Last year the festival raised $29,000; this year they hope to reach $45,000.

It’s nearly impossible to find a public event around town without a food cart. The Bite of Oregon in August will include eight food carts, up from three a few years ago.

They’ll be at Cinco de Mayo and the Rose Festival. Food carts also continue to mushroom at street fairs, neighborhood festivals, farmers markets and corporate events in the city and suburbs, thanks to event planners’ efforts.

Satisfying the spirit

Even though Portland’s food carts have evolved into a more sophisticated beast, the young, fresh entrepreneurial spirit among vendors is still alive and well.

A year into business, Evan Feenstra, 26, and his partners at Momo Cart already have started to make a profit. Their cart serves traditional Nepali dumplings, inspired by a year abroad in Nepal, where they enjoyed the savory treats.

He and his partners recently used Kickstarter to raise $10,484 of their $9,000 goal to transform their bicycle cart into a real cart, which they hope to launch in a couple of weeks at a location they’re eyeing on Southeast Division Street.

Until then, they’re based downtown for lunch at a new Shemanski Square food cart pod every day of the week. “I’m definitely living my dream right now; I’m young, I don’t want to sit in front of a computer. I want to eat yummy food for free.”

“This is definitely not the ideal time to start a food cart,” Feenstra says. “There’s probably 100 people doing the same thing. There’s definitely a surplus, and it’s a pretty saturated market. But I don’t think it’s going to go away. If anything it’ll become more popular, because it so defines Portland.”


Food cart pods have a citywide reach

East side and North Portland

1 The Fixin’ To — North Lombard and Richmond in St. Johns — three vendors, indoor seating and cocktails/beer available

2 Kruger Farms — North Lombard and Burr — three vendors, covered seating, beer available on weekends

3 North Station — North Greeley and Killingsworth — two vendors, indoor seating

4 Mississippi Marketplace — North Skidmore and Mississippi — 10 vendors, beer and cocktails from Prost Tavern

5 The Beech Pod — North Mississippi and Beech — four vendors, covered seating

6 Kultural Korner — North Mississippi and Fremont — two vendors

7 North Fremont and Vancouver — six vendors, covered seating

8 Alberta15 — Northeast Alberta and 15th — four vendors

9 Area 23 — Northeast Alberta and 23rd — four vendors, covered seating, beer available

10 5Ways — Northeast 60th and Cully — three vendors

11 Rose City Food Park — Northeast 52nd and Sandy — 10 vendors, beer/wine available 

12 A la Carts Food Pavilion — Southeast 50th and Division — 10 vendors, covered seating, cocktails available on weekends

13 Southeast 32nd and Hawthorne — four vendors, covered seating — Beer from Fried Egg I'm in Love

14 Good Food Here — Southeast 43rd and Belmont — 10 vendors, covered seating, 

15 Cartopia — Southeast 12th and Hawthorne — eight vendors, covered seating, late night open

16 Sellwood — Southeast 13th and Lexington — four vendors, covered seating

17 Cartlandia — Southeast 82nd and Harney — 20 vendors, covered seating, onsite bar, onsite parking

18 A la Carts — Southeast 102nd and Stark — eight vendors, covered seating

19 The Row — Southeast Second and Oak — two vendors, covered seating (now closed)

20 Central Eastside Food Cart Pod — Southeast MLK and Stark — eight vendors, covered seating, parking

21 Carts on Foster — Southeast 52nd and Foster — 10 vendors, onsite pod bar with beer/cider, indoor seating

22 Southeast 48th and Woodstock — three vendors, covered seating

23 Pod 28 — Southeast 28th and Ankeny — four vendors, beer available, covered seating

24 Basecamp Brewing — Southeast Ninth and Oak — two vendors, indoor seating, brewpub

Downtown Portland and west side

25 Q19 — Northeast 19th and Quimby — five vendors, indoor seating, cocktails and beer at Quimby’s onsite

26 Alder — Southwest Ninth and 10th and Alder — 60 vendors

27 Southwest Fifth and Stark — 22 vendors

28 Southwest Third and Stark — 22 vendors

29 Southwest Second and Oak — 5 vendors

30 Southwest Fourth and Hall by PSU — 20 vendors

31 Pioneer Courthouse Square — Southwest Sixth and Yamhill — four vendors

32 Southwest Sixth and Columbia — six vendors

33 Southwest Third and Ash — four vendors

34 Southwest Third and Ankeny, Dante’s block — six vendors

35 Hillsdale Cart Pod — Southwest Capitol Highway and Sunset — three vendors, covered seating

36 Moody Food Carts — Southwest Moody and Abernethy in South Waterfront — five vendors