A moveable feast: Food carts roll with changes
For many first-time chefs in Portland, a food cart is seen as an affordable way to start getting paid for cooking what they want.
For Panting Li and husband Bailun Sun, it was a dream come true.
After graduating from Guang Dong University of Foreign Study in China, Li moved to the United States to join her husband. The reunited couple enjoyed a date at Crepe Neptune in Cannon Beach and searched for the best version of their "happy food."
Two years ago, the couple started their first business together, wanting to share their love of crepes with their community. They opened their food cart, Boom Crepes, in downtown Portland.
"Food carts are very popular in Portland," Li said. "Food carts are like a dream come true, and every food cart (owner) has a dream. Even if one doesn't have the money to invest in a restaurant, they can in a food truck."
The couple's dream was dashed May 30, when they and other cart owners at the food cart pod on Southwest Alder Street and 10th Avenue were told they had 30 days to relocate. The city's largest and oldest food cart pod would close due to the construction of the Northwest's first Ritz-Carlton Hotel. They and their fellow cart owners would need to move. But where, and how?
City, nonprofit help out
In late June, with the backing of Mayor Ted Wheeler, Prosper Portland — an economic and urban development agency that supports small businesses — donated the use of a city-owned lot, formerly used by the U.S. Postal Service, near the North Park Blocks.
Thirty cart owners opted for the free temporary storage, and their towing costs were covered by a fundraising effort led by Friends of Green Loop, a nonprofit group trying to connect businesses and residents of the city through a designated urban trail ringing downtown.
On July 17, three weeks after the carts were towed, a permanent home for the food carts was announced by Friends of Green Loop. The new site, which could open as early as January will be five blocks away, on a small city-owned parcel at the south end of the North Park Blocks, bordered by Ankey and Burnside Streets. In the meantime, Friends of the Green Loop started a Go Fund Me campaign which, according to co-director Keith Jones, raised about $180,000 to help pay for the infrastructure needed to support the carts at the new location.
Jones and his staff are meeting with the displaced cart owners weekly. A half-dozen have found new spots, but most of the carts that arrived in early summer, including Boom Crepes, are still in the city lot.
"Every week they are encouraged to find a spot," Jones said. "But it's slim pickings."
Most of the cart owners, he said, want to stay downtown, where space is scarce. He knows that several are waiting for a spot at the Ankeny site.
Deadline surprised many owners
Though a new home is in the works, some cart owners are still upset about the limited amount of time they had to move and worried about their relationships with customers and the uncertainties of relocating when there isn't a permanent location.
The food carts are a "part of (customer's) life when they come to eat," said Li, who liked the Alder Street location and feels bad that some customers are upset by the changes.
She also has enjoyed getting to know other owners over the past two years, saying they've become a community more than competition. "Sometimes we help each other out, such as asking for change," Li said. "We trade food, like I will have a gyro or a bowl. We're more family and friends."
Richard Tran, owner of Banh Mi Pho, had operated his cart at the Alder Street site for eight years and heard rumors about an investor buying the lot about five years ago. He thought the 30-day deadline to move was too short.
Danny Chan, owner of Sumo Sushi, agreed that one-month notice was too brief. "There were over 40 food carts, at least two people per cart, which is almost 100 jobs, and almost 100 families," said Chan, who also operates carts at the Portland International Airport and the Portland State University food pod. "Everybody is more stressed out, and more uncertain about things."
Customers worry about the loss of the popular food cart pod and how it might affect Portland culture. Teresa Lai, who eats at food carts at least once per month, finds the closure of the Alder site sad and surreal. She is worried that there will be fewer food options, and that Portland might lose its popular food destination status. She hopes it won't affect cart owners.
Chan, of Sumo Sushi, is still hopeful that some carts eventually may move to the North Park Blocks. He thinks the area is a good place for tourism and looks forward to the family-oriented festivals that happen there. In the meantime, he's moved his Alder Street cart a few blocks east to the Third Avenue food pod, where he said he hopes to reopen once his family life settles down after the recent birth of a daughter.
Although the relocation will affect business owners in the pod, Chan is not upset about the opening of the 35-story Ritz-Carlton Hotel. "Things change. Businesses open and businesses close," Chan said. "I'm definitely happy about the hotel, and bringing in more business for the city.
"I believe it will create more jobs, create more opportunity," Chan added. "(The city) just didn't give us enough time to figure out the next step."
Ankeny pod could open in January
Keith Jones is not quite ready to count down the days, but he is willing to ballpark the weeks. And, by mid-November, he had them pegged at six.
"They say it's five weeks from the city's electrical contract signature, and we are probably a week away from that," said Jones, co-director of Friends of the Green Loop, the nonprofit that has been working to relocate food cart operators displaced from the Alder Street pod this summer.
His group, and others, quickly set their sights on a small city-owned downtown block at the southern tip of the North Park Blocks, between Ankeny and Burnside streets.
Jones said that because the parcel is a city park, logistics around everything from bathrooms to emergency access have been complicated.
"There's been a lot of back and forth," he said. "If this were a private lot, we'd be done by now."
Still, he credited city officials and adjacent private property owners for sticking with it.
The most recent hurdle to be cleared was relocating freight access to a building along Southwest Ankeny Street. Without that move, which was just approved, the site would have held just 14 carts. As of now, the figure is 24, although Jones is not done negotiating. He thinks he can squeeze in two more. "I'm fighting for every cart space right now," he said.
And, by his calculation, those two dozen carts could be open for business in early January.
Pamplin Media Group editor John Schrag contributed to this story.
Sagarika Ramachandran was a summer intern with Amplify, a community storytelling initiative of Pamplin Media Group and Metro, the Portland regional government. Amplify supports internships for high school journalists in the Portland metro region to cover important community issues. The program aims to elevate the voices of student journalists from historically underrepresented groups, such as communities of color, low-income residents and others. Pamplin Media Group editors oversee the interns, and Metro plays no role in the editorial process. Read more at www.oregonmetro.gov/news.
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