In the ongoing, no-rules game of naming a business either "New Multnomah" or "Old Multnomah," Multnomah French Quarter at the southwest corner of the intersection of Multnomah Boulevard and Southwest 35th, can go either way.
The food cart pod/boutique mini-mall/meeting place is just entering its fifth year in business and ongoing retail changes make it feel "New Multnomah."
But the owner, Yves Le Meitour, ran an art gallery in Multnomah Village for years and there's long been business done at the site of his French Quarter, so it seems "Old Multnomah."
Either way, the Multnomah French Quarter is here to stay, says Sara Le Meitour, manager and daughter of Yves and his wife Deborah. She returned to Portland from Atlanta with her husband Jean-Phillipe Gourdine to manage the Multnomah French Quarter in 2014 and is now the mother of Kaladja, who's two years old.
In an interview with the SW Connection on the eve of Bastille Day, Saturday, July 13, Sara and Yves were both animated and analytical, optimistic and realistic, as they talked about the old and the new at 3530 S.W. Multnomah Blvd.
NEW FOOD CARTS
Sara: We plan to have at least three more food carts by… well, when is still to be determined because we're very picky. If we didn't really care we could probably fill it by the end of the month. But we do care. You know that (the) Tenth and Alder pod just closed. So we're very picky about who comes in. Obviously we're not going to pick anyone who directly competes with our existing businesses. We try to pick places that we think would do well in the Village. We're trying to bring in Indian food. There's no Indian food in the area at all.
Yves: You don't want to bring a cart in that competes with your current carts. You want one that complements what's here. Everybody wins.
Sara: Noy Viet Lao left, unfortunately, so there's a place for Laotian or Thai. I would love personally a cart that represents some area of Africa. Ethiopian food. Moroccan food. So we can have all the continents represented. We've also been trying to find a good crepe place. We have particularly high standards. I've tried so many.
Yves: We could increase our revenue immediately by packing our place with any kind of food. That's what we don't want to do. In the long range it's better to stick with quality.
WHAT'S THE PLAN?
Sara: I want the French Quarter to be known as a destination for all Portlanders and not just people who live in this area. Portland is known as "food cart city," right? So tourists come here and they go to the big pods. I want the French Quarter to be a pod that tourists come to. They go to Voodoo Donuts, they go to the Rose Garden and then they come here for lunch. That's what I want for the French Quarter.
We need to add some more food carts obviously. We've lost a couple recently. We are not like other food cart pods in Portland in that we don't let it be like, 'first come first served.' We try all the food. We make sure it's up to French Quarter standards because we want to be known as the place where every food cart is good. We don't want one or two really well- known while the rest are just mediocre. We want every single one to be known as this great food cart.
I want to make this place a destination for people outside of the Village because a lot of Portlanders have never even heard of Multnomah Village. So that's the first goal — getting people from the east side who have never even heard of the Village to come over here to try the food. The next goal is to make it like a destination for tourists. And that will never be achievable unless we have food carts worth talking about. And so we're not going to bring in just anybody.
Yves: Multnomah Village is on the west side of Portland and is basically the gateway to the wine country. You have all these vineyards west of here and people going there pass by Barbur Boulevard and Multnomah Boulevard.,, For them, we want to be the gateway to that particular area of Oregon that has become world-known. So we want to offer them a culinary experience with the feeling they are in a fancy restaurant but at the price of food carts. We could organize tours in the wine country that would start here with breakfast or lunch. Or the reverse, they go to the wine country and come back here and have dinner.
Sara: We like the vibe the boutiques bring by making their own products, except the plant store (Talise Gardens). They're artisans, right? Holly makes her own jewelry (Magpie Metals). Bree creates and blends all the tea (Aesthete Tea). Jean Marie makes all the soaps and lotions and candles (My Favorite Soap). Pilar and Brian make all their own candy (How Sweet It Is). We really love that.
"So one of the things I'm working on is keeping their rents down. New apartment buildings have retail spaces on the bottom floor but those spaces are often prohibitively expensive for small locally-owned businesses. So we like the vibe we have here. Hyper local. Boutiques. They can afford to have their store fronts and run their business.
Yves: We keep our rent prices for our food carts and our tenants here as low as we possibly can. We are the phenomenon which is the opposite of the natural trend: People start with farmers markets, then they get a food cart, then they go to brick and mortar. We have people currently who are brick and mortar and are getting killed by the rent trying to move in. We have somebody who would move here immediately because the rent kills them. So what we do is provide the place for people to conduct their business so that at the end of the month, they have money in their pocket instead of paying it to the landlord and we are very proud of that. Very, very proud of that. I have never heard of that before — someone who is brick and mortar who is moving to a food cart. Another thing also, we have a large proportion of people like me: immigrants. We are immigrants. A lot of the immigrant entrepreneurs here — at least half of them are women running the show.
Did she imagine five years ago when she moved to Portland from Atlanta to run her dad's business, that this is how it would turn out?
Sara: No. It was kind of by accident that I started managing the French Quarter. At first there was just a few food carts, the Lounge Lizard (retro store) inside and Parsons produce and the coffee cart were here. It's not like I had the vision of making this a destination at the beginning. I just prefer self-employment and independence. When you own your own business you have to adapt. As we brought in more tenants we started to see what was working and what wasn't working and then you adapt and six months down the line, you adapt again. As we go for the next five-year goal or whatever, I'm sure we'll still be adapting.
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