East County, Sandy offer world of cuisine via food carts
In Sandy, the folks at Sandlandia World Cuisine food cart pod have been curbing cravings with curbside eats since 2017. Though a few of the carts in the pod have changed over the past five years, the pod's popularity has maintained. At any given time when driving eastbound through Sandy, you'll see a line of vehicles parked outside the pod on Pioneer Boulevard.
Back in 2017, when businessman Jerry Carlson started work on the Sandy-based food cart pod, he called the location at 38440 S.E. Pioneer Blvd. ideal for locals and folks passing through toward the mountain in need of a quick bite. Carlson had owned the property for years and had the pod project in the works for two years before the array of colorful carts came to Sandy's main thoroughfare.
"I had other businesses, so it's important for me to catch the wave," owner Jerry Carlson said. "And the wave is food carts right now."
That wave, which Carlson spoke of in 2017, appears to still be rolling. And while Portland has been noted as a major site for these mobile eateries to congregate, (appearing on the popular Netflix series "Somebody Feed Phil" earlier this year) the popularity has reached farther than the Rose City.
Regardless of popularity, each place has its own unique hurdles and benefits for food truck business owners.
Break-out breakfast spot
Tina and Shane Douglas at Breakfast in the Hood in Sandlandia say they specifically built their truck for the Sandy community and that pod in particular; though the cart is mobile, they have no plans of leaving, even though resources for carts in the city are scarce.
Breakfast in the Hood was one of the original carts in the Pioneer Boulevard pod, back when there were only about five businesses stationed there. When they began their food cart journey, the Douglases converted an old camper to serve food from. After four years, they were able to invest in a truck made for the industry.
"When we started, I'd never owned a restaurant before, so it was definitely a learning process," Tina said. "I was also shocked to see how little info or resources there are (in this area) for how to start a food cart."
Tina's food service background was as a server prior to opening the cart, but her family's love for breakfast food fueled their motivation to get through the arduous paperwork process.
According to Tina, to open the cart they had to jump through hoops for the city, the county, the health department and the fire department, proving knowledge of proper food storage and preparation as well as adequate cooking premises.
"I do wish the city of Sandy offered more resources to us," Tina said. "A lot of people here can't afford to upgrade their carts. When COVID hit, there were programs to help, but almost all had a caveat that said we didn't qualify. We all feel excluded. We built this truck for here. We're not going anywhere, and I'd sign a contract to say we'd stay if we could get help. I feel like we bring a lot to the city of Sandy."
Another challenge the Douglases, like many other food cart owners face, is that "food carts are hard in particular because equipment has to be smaller and no one makes equipment specifically for food carts."
That said, Tina explained that they still have enjoyed their time in business.
Everything the Douglases and staff make is from scratch "from the jam to the batter," and though Tina never cooked in a professional kitchen before the cart, she and her family have years of knowledge of breakfast.
"We're big early risers, so we get up, hang out and make breakfast," Tina said. "Breakfast has always been a big staple in our family, whether we're eating it for lunch, dinner or breakfast."
Tina noted that the location of their mountain-themed cart, being right next to Next Adventure, has been beneficial since those traveling for recreation often stop for equipment and then find their food.
"I love our business," she said. "It's great. I think it would have been easier and harder to have done a brick-and-mortar. It took us awhile to get a customer base but we have so many people traveling through; about 70% are travelers. Business is going well — almost so well we can't handle it."
Family food in Fairview
A Reynolds High School graduate had big plans after graduating last spring.
And so, with the support of his parents, and a private-public partnership that created the perfect restaurateur launchpad in the heart of Fairview, Guillermo Sanchez Jr. debuted a new food cart a few blocks from the neighborhood where he grew up.
Now he, alongside his supportive parents, Guillermo Sr. and Estrella, are serving up mouthwatering dishes that bring full bellies and beaming smiles.
"It is all about seeing the smiles when they take that first bite," Guillermo Jr. said.
The family-owned cart is El Toro Birrieria, which serves a classic Mexican dish from the state of Jalisco, where Guillermo Sr. grew up. Birria is slow-stewed beef with a bevy of decadent spices. At El Toro they serve that meat in a variety of ways — the most popular is the pair of tacos, but there are also burritos, tortas, quesadillas, taquitos, nachos, sopes and even a cup of ramen noodles.
"It's juicy, tasty food," Guillermo Jr. said. "Back in Mexico it is often served during any celebration, like a wedding or party."
The timing for the first-time food truck operators could not have been more perfect. As Guillermo Jr. celebrated graduating high school and began to assess his future, a new business incubator was opening just down the road.
The Fairview Food Plaza, famous for its world-record fork statue, had spots for food carts, with an emphasis on local, burgeoning restaurateurs. So, the Sanchezes crafted a unique menu, figured out a cart that would work for their needs, and took a leap.
"I wanted to open a restaurant or food truck, so my parents supported that goal," Guillermo Jr. said. "I wouldn't be here without their help."
"Of course, we would help; he is our son," Guillermo Sr. added.
El Toro has now become one of the centerpiece locations at the Fairview Food Plaza, and perfectly captures what the city hoped to accomplish upon funding the development. Local families, like the Sanchezes, are getting a chance to showcase their food and bolster Fairview's growing number of businesses.
"We are so thankful the customers are supporting our small family business," Guillermo Jr. said. "Thank you for trying our food and enjoying it."
"When you eat here, you are happy," Guillermo Sr. added.
Helping owners handle hurdles
From the beginning restaurateur Justin Hwang had a vision for the Fairview Food Plaza at 22320 N.E. Halsey St.
The project was first approved last fall when Fairview City Council voted to sign a 10-year lease on the land, earmarking roughly $3 million to develop the site through the urban renewal program. In January, the city selected P&C Construction to design and build the site, and later hired Hwang as the operator.
"I wanted to have the majority of the food cart owners be from this community," Hwang said. "This is a fresh start after COVID — many had lost their jobs. This was a place for them to get their feet back under them."
Hwang was able to draw on his own experiences operating restaurants, most notably Joy Teriyaki, to clear much of the red tape that trips up first-time business owners. As they crafted menus and figured out where to source local ingredients, Hwang worked with the city to make sure things continued to run smoothly.
"The amount of support I had to grow my business from a single mom-and-pop restaurant was crucial," he said. "I wanted to give them that same lift."
"Without the support from Justin and the other food cart trucks, we wouldn't be here today," Guillermo Jr. said. "We are all friends, share food, talk, give advice."
When construction on the Fairview Food Plaza was delayed, and several of the carts opened early during a soft launch, Hwang didn't collect rent so that they could build that customer base. And this coming winter, when poor weather and cold temperatures will lead to a slowdown of customers, there are plans to reduce fees.
"This whole project is focused on the neighborhoods and helping them through any hurdles," Hwang said. "I am not here as a boss, but as a friend and supporter."
The rise of the cart
In Supriya Shanbhag's eyes, the food cart's rise in popularity has involved many factors, from the relatively low cost of opening, the innate nature of a mobile eatery and the growing financial support from the government and lenders.
Shanbhag is one of several business advisers at the Mt. Hood Community College's Small Business Department Center, which is an entity within Oregon community colleges that supports business owners and prospective businesses.
Shanbhag and her team help people through every stage of starting and maintaining their businesses through giving free and confidential business advising, helping to secure loans, applying for grants and everything in between.
Though she could not specify, Shanbhag said that she works with many lenders and agencies that have created loans and lines of credit specifically for food trucks.
"There is a big gap between the lending industry and the small business clientele," Shanbhag said. "Many get turned down because they don't have sufficient documents or haven't been in business for long enough, so we help them get ready for them to secure that funding."
Despite challenges that every young business might go through, Shanbhag said there are quite a lot of advantages to opening a food cart.
"The biggest plus of starting a food truck is that the starting cost is a lot cheaper," Shanbhag said. "Right now, to lease a space can cost up to $3,000 or higher."
Shanbhag said that renting a parking lot or even joining a food cart pod is significantly cheaper than signing a lease.
Even discounting rent, Shanbhag said that the staffing, materials and other overhead expenses are drastically cheaper when starting a food cart.
"A lot of the people who want to get into the food business usually have a ton of experience from either working as a cook or managing a restaurant but just don't start out with a lot capital," Shanbhag said. "So, (starting with a food truck) is such an easier route for them to get cooking faster."
In her consulting, Shanbhag has seen how a truck's mobility can be a major advantage. One of her clients had opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant that was doing well in the beginning. However, in the span of six months, construction of a nearby road diverted traffic away from the restaurant. That, along with a swarm of new competitors in the area, led the burgeoning business to fail.
"They were extremely prepared, had a lot of experience and had great food, but at the end of the day, brick-and-mortars can be a hit or a miss," Shanbhag said. "That is a big problem that food trucks don't have to navigate because they can move around."
Some of the few downsides to the food truck business Shanbhag mentioned mostly centered on the restrictions surrounding serving alcohol and cooking within the cart, lack of ambience and usually no facilities like seating and restrooms.
However, Shanbhag said it is not hard to notice the success these trucks have been having in recent years.
"Just about 10 years ago, food trucks were actually really struggling," Shanbhag said. "Now, there are a lot more resources out there for food cart businesses because of the demand. The city of Portland and City of Beaverton (especially) are putting in a lot of resources behind the food cart scene and it is showing."
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