'Carts on Main': Hillsboro's first-ever food cart pod to open soon
People walking on East Main Street in downtown Hillsboro recently have likely noticed activity in a long-vacant lot between Amelia's Exquisite Mexican Dining and Hillsboro Bar and Grill.
The lot is the future location of Hillsboro's first-ever food cart pod, called "Carts on Main."
The project is a partnership between the Hillsboro city government, owners of the lot, the Hillsboro Downtown Partnership and Larry Riveria, owner of the Hillsboro-based food cart Boro Burger.
Project partners hope Carts on Main will spur more economic activity downtown and create a space where people can meet and dine safely downtown as the coronavirus pandemic enters its 11th month and dine-in service remains prohibited in Washington County due to state restrictions.
With large tents being constructed on the lot behind him, Riviera said he plans to have Carts on Main fully open by spring. The lot will be complete with heaters, lights, fencing, planters, plenty of hand sanitizer, appropriately spaced seating, and four or five local food carts, including Boro Burger.
Riviera, who will manage Carts on Main, said he couldn't reveal which food carts would be at the lot because contracts were still being finalized. Some carts might start serving food there before Carts on Main is fully open, he suggested.
Carts on Main will remain open with a temporary use permit from Hillsboro through the pandemic, the city said in an email, adding that it will "provide much needed additional outdoor seating for all of downtown's restaurants to use."
Riviera hopes the project will foster a more established food cart scene in the city.
"It's about a food cart culture," Riviera said. "It's about bringing people to this area specifically. That's what food carts do. Think about southeast, northeast Portland. You go there, you bring a date or you go with some friends or family, you spent three or four hours walking around, and you're probably going to go spend some money somewhere else."
With the food cart pod mecca to the east in Portland and other Washington County cities already boasting established food cart pods — most notably Beaverton, virtually the same size as Hillsboro, with BG's Food Cartel across from City Hall — Hillsboro's city code has lagged behind, having no standards specifically for food cart pods.
Instituting a food cart policy is listed as an action item in the Hillsboro 2035 Community Plan. Adopted in 2015, the plan serves to guide city policy for the next two decades.
The timeframe listed for the food cart action item is 2020-2025.
Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway was not available by the News-Times' press deadline to discuss whether the pandemic and Carts on Main may motivate the Hillsboro City Council to adopt food cart pod standards sooner rather than later.
Food carts are currently able to operate independently in Hillsboro using mobile or temporary use permits.
Prior to the pandemic, most food cart owners in Hillsboro worked with bars that didn't focus on food or businesses in corporate office buildings throughout the city, Riviera said. Food carts would set up outside a bar or in an office building parking lot, serving food at designated times.
The business model worked well until the pandemic forced office building workers to work from home, Riviera said.
"It has been hard," Riviera said. "I know some carts and trucks who have gone out of business."
In a lot of ways, the food cart business model is more suited for pandemic restrictions than brick and mortar restaurants, Riviera said. They operate with few employees, there's little contact between servers and customers and people typically eat outside, where virus transmission takes place less readily, according to health experts.
But Riviera thinks making outdoor seating available to any restaurant in the area at Carts on Main may actually help the brick-and-mortar restaurants.
"Since this is public-private, people can go get a pizza over at Pizzario and have it right here," Riviera said. "We're not like 'brick-and-mortar versus food carts.' We're just trying to all survive this thing."
Josue Mondragon, co-owner of Amelia's, located adjacent to Carts on Main, said he thinks the temporary food cart pod is a good idea.
"I hope it does bring more people to downtown," Mondragon said. "I believe the more successful businesses we have, the better for everyone."
He acknowledged that his restaurant could be negatively impacted if Riviera brings a Mexican food cart to Carts on Main.
"But then again, I'm a firm believer that the sun comes out for everyone," Mondragon said.
Amelia's, which has two brick-and-mortar locations in Hillsboro, also has a food cart that typically operates in downtown Portland.
While it hasn't yet put a food cart pod policy in place, Hillsboro has supported the amenities that will be placed at Carts on Main, contributing nearly $29,000 in funding from its share of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the city said.
Cultivating food cart pods is a good way to promote economic development in normal times, not just during the pandemic, said Elisa Joy Payne, director of the Hillsboro Downtown Partnership.
"When it comes to economic growth, food carts are a really good industry. A lot of chefs start out in a food truck," Payne said, adding that after chefs perfect a menu and establish customers they look for investors to help open brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Riviera, who worked in the restaurant industry for 20 years before opening Boro Burger, says he too has hopes of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant one day.
For now, people can look forward to enjoying Boro Burger's fan-favorite smashed burger with bacon and cheese when Carts on Main opens.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.