Despite red tape, 'Great Food Truck Race' films in Portland

Want proof that food carts are taken more seriously in Portland than in other cities? Seven food trucks arrived in Portland last week to compete in the Food Network’s reality TV show “The Great Food Truck Race,” and Multnomah County health inspectors insisted on visiting and inspecting each truck while it was operating and being filmed. That’s never happened in any other city, says Peter Woronov, the show’s co-executive producer.

Each week the trucks, much bigger and more brightly decorated than typical Portland food carts, alight in a different city and compete to have the highest sales. The food truck making the least money is eliminated and the remaining trucks advance to the next city. The show’s season winner is the truck that takes in the most revenue. The contestants are not seasoned food truck owners.

The victor will get their own food truck and $50,000 to distribute among the three-person teams.

Elsewhere, Woronov says, a health inspector was content to inspect the food trucks on the Friday before they began operating or preparing food. That’s when the seven trucks competing in Portland lined up in St. Johns’ Cathedral Park for preliminary shooting and to get their instructions and money to buy groceries.

But in Portland, according to Woronov, county health inspectors wanted to inspect the trucks while food was being served, which meant Saturday hours for the inspectors.

Saturday and Sunday the seven competing trucks (this was Week 2 of what will be Season 4 and one truck had been eliminated in Week 1) were vying for parking spots and customers. Officials at both Saturday Market and the downtown farmers market reported they had been approached by trucks hoping to secure a prime location. Both markets said no.

On Saturday, one truck was spotted camped in a private parking lot on Northwest 23rd Avenue and another — The Bowled and the Beautiful — had rented space downtown on Southwest Second Avenue and Ash Street. Others were spotted near Jeld-Wen Field, on Southeast Division Street and on Southeast 82nd Avenue.

In previous seasons, Woronov says, producers challenged contestants by removing everything from each truck except what contestants could first remove themselves in five minutes. In an episode last season, producers in Denver booted each truck for a day so they could not move around and forced two of each truck’s three-member team to sit on the curb while one team member took orders and cooked alone.

But in Portland, the biggest obstacle may have come in the form of city ordinances. Portland city code doesn’t allow food trucks to ply the streets as they do in many cities. Here, trucks, or the more typical Portland carts, must be parked off the street, usually in parking lots, if they want to sell food. So “The Great Food Truck Race” contestants were forced to spontaneously find parking spaces during the weekend, paying driveway and parking lot owners for the right to spend the day or a few hours, depending on how sales were going.

Producers tried to keep the filming quiet since the episode shot over the weekend won’t air for three months. But that wasn’t easy, what with the brightly colored trucks moving around town and vendors doing their best to hawk their wares. By Friday afternoon,

social sites such as Yelp were on to the filming. By Saturday and Sunday, similar sites were advertising where the trucks were in place.

“We might be the worst-kept secret in reality TV,” Woronov says. “It’s hard to hide those giant trucks.”

Woronov predicted on Friday that the contestants would find it harder here than in other cities, given that food carts are such a popular Portland cultural institution. Typically, he says, a food truck on the show in past seasons in cities ranging from Los Angeles to Atlanta could expect to take in about $2,000 a day.

“My mom would think (Portland) is a great place to go, but I think Portland’s going to be trouble,” Woronov says. “It’s like stepping into the big leagues.”

That trouble might be overstated, however, if a sample of the Saturday customers at The Bowled and the Beautiful truck downtown were representative. Most of the 20 or so customers in line confessed they were there because of a personal connection to the truck owners. Some were friends of friends in other cities and had been asked through calls or social network sites to support the truck. Others were fans of the TV show and came out to support their favorite contestant. None confessed to being random Portlanders or tourists who just happened to stop for a meal.

The traffic on social networking sites also reported a huge disparity in prices the out-of-town trucks were charging for their food. Apparently some were charging $20 or more for a meal, possibly operating under the impression that they had a built-in customer base no matter what the cost.

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