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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Shack attack

Portland's wide array of colorful food carts is attracting national attention. It's quite the testament to the city's entrepreneurial spirit. It's also a sign of how difficult it is to run a traditional restaurant these days. And at least a few Portlanders complain that the carts are undercutting the traditionals, who have many more rules and regulations to live by.

One reader suggested to us earlier today that "maybe lawyers can save on overhead by practicing out of carts, too." Don't laugh.

Comments (30)

I'd like to know how the full restaurants have more "rules and regulations" to live by. It is my understanding that food carts have to meet all of the rules that any other food establishment meets.

Forget the carts, I want Gray's Papaya.

Let's see... rules regarding washing of dishes... rules regarding restrooms... rules regarding waitpersons... rules regarding ingress and egress...

Don't forget signage, fire sprinklers, and hoods. Sam and Randy must have some sort of 'understanding' with all of them otherwise the carts would be targeted and fined up the wazoo.

"Let's see... rules regarding washing of dishes... rules regarding restrooms... rules regarding waitpersons... rules regarding ingress and egress..."

True, but restaurants can sell booze and do video poker in their "lounge" section

Those are nice revenue sources that are not an option for carts.

I don't know why more aspiring Portland restaurateurs don't go the cart route. You can see if your concept has merit and perfect your recipes, all for pennies compared to the capital you need for a storefront. If you have a hit and build a loyal clientele, you can either stay in the cart and enjoy the fattening margin or make the switch to a storefront with a little more certainty about your prospects. If it's a dud, you won't go bankrupt.

It won't work for all cooks and concepts, obviously, but it is a great way for folks to get their feet in the door. And let's give props to Multnomah County for its supportive approach in regulating them that has allowed them to thrive.

Those are nice revenue sources that are not an option for carts.

Yeah, but the food cart vendors have other sources of income-


Despite appearances, carts aren't doing that well in Portland. It's a fad that's brought all kinds of speculators to it (including cart manufacturers); within the next year or two, most of the people who jumped on the fad will fade away due to lack of business. And, the press tends to significantly inflate the actual amount of business being done at carts.

And let's give props to Multnomah County for its supportive approach in regulating them that has allowed them to thrive.

The county hasn't done much special to allow carts--what's helped enable them is lot owners renting them space.

Which is another reason for the precariousness of the whole fad--carts can exist only when actual property owners rent or lease them space. That space is typically awaiting other uses (like development).

The one that hipsters love to talk about on 12th & Hawthorne, for example, likely won't be there in a few years. Watch.

ecohuman, I agree that we have probably developed a cart bubble at this point. Particularly those which aren't downtown. You need a critical mass of people to keep it going. This winter we'll lose some.

It's kind of funny to watch the Grilled Cheese Grill cart up on Alberta adding more permenant structures as they realize what the winter is going to really be like for customers standing around outside. I think they'll survive though.

I think we'll definitely have a strong cart business in town, but it will thin somewhat.

So how does a cart get to add permanent structures, as Snards suggests? I'm not anti-cart, but multiple standards don't seem right. Even the lot on 4th Ave. downtown is getting to be the Dignity Village of food concessions.

Carts are a wonderful way to try out a food concept and a way to make some money when unemployment is as high as it is.

The city I moved to a few months ago is starting to allow them both in its center city and in some of the burbs. There's a great taco cart in my burb. And I would love to see more of them. In the burbs, I'd target them for carry-out dinners, rather than the lunch crowd. Even the upscale restaurants around here have drive-in windows or parking spots for those who call ahead (The server sees your car and runs out with the order. Ringside in Portland will do that, too. Good way to get a quality steak without dressing up).

I'm not anti-cart, but multiple standards don't seem right.

I agree. I think the best thing would be to get Sam and Randy on it so they can come up with some reasonable rules for all food carts in Portland.

Who's with me?

"Yeah, but the food cart vendors have other sources of income-"

Don't forget this:


Carts are the best way to run a vertical restaurant in this city because the volume of customers is modest. That is why you see these peculiar specializations like waffles, crepes, or fries. You cannot do that with a regular restaurant.

I have to tell you all I for one avoid eating at carts because a cop told my son recently that he got called to check out a suspected cart burgalery one night. He went to it and poke is flashlight in to see who set off the alarm. It was rats. Apparently rodents enjoy fine dining as well. Being exposed and very easy to get into at night, rats are a serious problem.

Needless to say, the cop doesn't eat at carts either.

It seems to fit those who enjoy working in an unconventional environment. Who knows, maybe next year we will see “Sam’s Cart” serving.....? Or Randy’s Roadhouse..... specializing in? Fill in the blanks.

Carts make a lot of sense when you look at PDOT's fee schedule for system development charges:


Restaurants pay $16.65 PER SQUARE FOOT to PDOT. Why NOT get a cart?

I love how all those food carts are set up on 4th Street across from the Bureau of Development Services for all the City employees to nosh at. That's just poetry right there.

Given how Sam and Randy charge the S**T out of businesses for maintaining a presence in Portland, yes...it makes sense for everyone to conduct business from a cart, then go on home to Clackamas, Washington, or Clark county.

cart bubble?

Are you saying the food cart business is built upon a house of carts?

Yeah I know........

"Yeah, but the food cart vendors have other sources of income-"

Interesting stories, both, but I'm quite sure that food cart vendors do not have a corner on those income sources. Restaurants have been engaged in those activities, and more, forever.

So, as far as I can see, food cart vendors do not have any 'other sources of income' that fixed location outlets do not.

The same with rats. I've seen Safeway outlets with rat problems...and they are not a food cart. Any place with long term food storage is going to be an attractive nuisance. The old structures downtown have various pest problems. It is not limited to the food carts.

I used the downtown a good deal while working off of Naito this summer. My thoughts are that the carts added to the air of general downtown seediness. That came as a surprise to me.

"Shack Attack"

I just got it. That's funny!

I live a spit from the Mississippi Marketplace on Mississippi and Skidmore. I must say it is very fun to walk a few steps to get some good food on the cheap however, my neighbors and I are experiencing a huge increase in traffic and parking any where near our homes is becoming more and more difficult. As one neighbor rightly pointed out, it's as if we have had 9 restaurants move into a 50x100 lot next door... ah well, whenever we complain about problems gentrification brings we are reminded to be happy that our properties have increased in value... o.k. whatever you say:(

I'd be interested in how food shack sales compare to those mobile lunch vans. The latter have been around much longer and they don't have to rely on the stability of an empty lot. Once they get set up with several businesses in districts without much in the way of eateries or stores, they're good to go and they can always go out looking for more.

You guys are going to think I'm making this up, but I swear on a stack of the religious books of your choice that it happened.

Back in Austin, there are these chains of Korean food cart vendors who set up next to the University of Texas, who specialize in extremely cheap egg rolls, fried rice, etc. It's a huge school, so they do quite well selling some of the greasiest, cheapest food imaginable to students in a hurry.

Here's where it gets interesting. Austin, like Portland, is a magnet for hundreds of those train hopping crusty punks, you know, the ones with the dogs on a string and facial tattoos. The smarter ones come here in the summer, and there in the winter...they might have something figured out there, too.

Back in the mid-90s, there was this scandal when it came out in the course of a drug bust, that in addition to being involved in the street drug trade, the egg roll cart people were buying unwanted puppies from the crusty punks.

You can use your imagination on that one...

Not a pushcart, but how about a lawyer who owns a hot dog stand and gives free advice every Wednesday?

The carts are great at lunch time but as a visitor to Portland from a much larger city I have to say that it leaves the are entirely devoid of eating options by late afternoon and for the evening.

How is it that not a single cart stays open for dinner time? If you want people to live downtown, there have to be places to eat. Quick, cheap to-go places are the best. Go to any successful, busy downtown area in any city and you'll find places to grab a quick bite to eat until 8 or 9pm at least.

As far as I can tell the only food options that aren't brewpubs and donut shops in downtown Portland after dark are one taco truck all the way up on Burnside and the mall food court that you'd never know was there if you were walking around the city hungry.

Also, the Bosnian foodcart is the best.

pdxvisitor: Check out the "pizza window" at Dante's, on the SW corner of Third and Burnside. Great stuff, real garlicky East Coast thin crust style. It's certainly not health food, but they serve until really, really late.

I personally have some issues with cleanliness at these carts. Many do not have any hot water. How can you wash food prep items properly without hot water? And how good is the Health Dept. inspection of these carts? This worthless City can't even go after home-based businesses operating without a business license and violating zoning laws. I see Taco carts all over outer SE Portland. Some seem to just move from place to place making me wonder if they are even licensed to operate as a business; much less meet Health Dept. standards.

"You can use your imagination on that one..."

Wokkin' the dawg...

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