Foodosophy of Streetfood in Vancouver

This turned out to the biggest disappointment on my most recent visit to Portland. Nong’s Khao Man Gai – the now famous Thai-style Hainanese Chicken food cart at the cart pod at 10th and Alder had just closed as I walked up to it. Next time.

With Vancouver’s street food scene starting to warm up, my visit gave me a chance to observe what Portland is “doing right” in its own cart scene. Since it is very early into the City of Vancouver’s fledgling street food initiative, I am hoping the Vancouver regulators recognize certain key factors which I believe are responsible for Portland’s impressive cart scene.

Portland allows foodcart operations on private property – not just on city property. In fact, a large majority of Portland’s carts operate on private property. I see a lot of unused parking lots that have become cart pods. Also, gas stations, drycleaners, grocery stores, and any other business with an excess of parking spaces can rent spots to cart operators. Carts on private property are allowed (with a “right of way” permit) to face and operate at the sidewalk. This makes for a great street scene around lunchtime at the cart pods downtown.

Allowing carts to operate on private land is the most crucial amendment that the City of Vancouver can make to the food cart program if it wants to see the same kind of critical mass that Portland has been experiencing. Allowing carts to operate on underused private parking lots and unused plots will alleviate the scarcity of cart spots and ensure that the supply of spots is more driven by demand.

Portland’s licensing department is pretty laissez-faire – the relatively straightforward permitting process is a low barrier to entry. As long as you have the permits, the cart and the space, you can operate a cart. This attitude fits right in with Portland’s famously libertarian ways.

Of the 580 (and counting) carts in the city, over half are operated by immigrants – and many are coming from lower-income backgrounds. Most of the operators do not receive assistance from banks loans (only 2% of the operators received loans). Portland’s prospective street food operators also have access to some modest financial help from Mercy Corps Northwest, a financial incubator for social change.

With nearly 600 carts in their city, many Portlanders I have spoken to are now saying that the cart scene is over saturated – and many complain that it has become a fad.

Despite the protests from Portland’s restaurant industry lobby group, the restaurant scene in Portland doesn’t seem to be hurting because of carts. Carts and restaurants peacefully co-exist.  In the Mississippi district, for example, a land developer is building out a space dedicated to food carts shoulder to shoulder with the number of restaurants.

I am a little concerned by the call of many of our own city’s foodies to subject the Vancouver applicants to a some sort of taste test…and to involve restaurant consultants. This requirement harbours the potential to bias the process in favour of the well financed industry professionals; I also fear that it will negatively impact the diversity of the scene. It is great that some industry veterans like Gourmet Syndicate (Roaming Dragon) are developing slick cart concepts, but if we look to Portland as an example, it is the small-time operators with their handpainted signs and their shabby carts that provide the bulk of the diversity,  innovation and energy to this scene. The City of Portland sponsored a great report on the city’s food cart scene (“Foodcartology”). It is an informative read especially about the intersection of street food with urban planning.

If the City of Vancouver opens up more spots to keep up with the demand, allow cartpods on private properties, keeps the licensing loose, and lets Darwin have his way, in four or five years we will have the kind of streetfood scene that we deserve. I’m looking forward to it.

6 thoughts on “Foodosophy of Streetfood in Vancouver

  1. I am a little concerned by the call of many of our own city’s foodies to subject the Vancouver applicants to a some sort of taste test…and to involve restaurant consultants.

    I think we are on the same lines here, specially the last part: I questioned the person who wrote about it and raised some eyebrows. But, then again, people are blind about his “expertise” so they are just following it.

    In the end, I wholeheartly agree with your thoughts. But, as I mentioned previously, unlike Portland, the infrastructure in Vancouver is different so I am not sure even Portland’s plan will work in the same way it works there. So, similar to you, I have doubts of the current plan with a secret wish it will fail. But, at the same time, hope I am also wrong.

  2. The food cart scene in Portland had set the standard in the Pacific North-West, with Seattle following second and quickly expanding.
    I believe that in order for the program to succeed and last beyond pilot status, the vendors must be able to turn a profit. Whether this will be possible after paying the disproportionately high fee demanded by the city remains to be seen.

    13 days into the program, 2 of the 17 vendor locations are being used.
    Roaming Dragon and Kits Point and Ragazzi Pizza Co. an 400 Burrard. These 2 operators were fully equipped and ready for business BEFORE the start date.

    Rumour has it that the rest of the vendors will be up and running before the end of the month.

  3. Ensuring that all participants be guaranteed to turn a profit is probably asking too much. The city can’t ensure that – market forces will decide that.

    I think the real issue here is the scarcity of locations (which of course leads to the measures such as lotteries, and exorbitant license fees, etc.). Portland, in comparison, has virtually an infinite number of locations since the City allows private landowners to rent space.

  4. Pingback: The Week That Was And Is – August 13th, 2010 « eating is the hard part

  5. Solid post Gastro, glad you weighed in on this issue that seems to have taken a strange twist since the announcement of the lottery winners was made. I can see there being various models to achieve success here (as Portland seems to have), and each city probably needs to make up its own mind as to what works for both the city and the participating vendors, to make an endeavor like this a lasting affair.

    • Just some more data points for you food cart fans….

      I just spent a bit of time in San Francisco (I’m typing this at SFO’s gate 72, actually). I had an opportunity to study the thriving scene there.

      Their licensing process poses a conundrum to prospective cart operators. They have a “minimum two blocks rule” in terms of allocating sidewalk space. In other words, you can operate a vending push cart if you are at least 2 blocks or 600 ft away from a pre-existing brick-and-mortar establishment that is deemed to be selling “similar products” (- a pretty subjective criterion). If you are able to find such a spot, you should be able (in theory) to apply for a Pushcart Peddle Permit.

      As an illustration of the problem: most of the about 50 carts in the Mission district are unlicensed and only 16 have a Pushcart Peddler Permit (

      It is nearly impossible in areas like the Mission to apply for a new cart license with that 2 block requirement because food establishments abound. To add insult to injury, there is a ~$600 non-refundable application fee (which you do not get back whether you application is approved or rejected for any reason). There is motion afoot to improve the process in San Francisco with the help of a few socially-conscious organizations.

      For food cart vendors, there is of course an additional set of licenses that revolve around food and health department permits. The health department requires the vendor to prepare their food at licensed facilities. Social activists have started to open and operate non-profit licensed kitchens (eg La Cocina ) to help operators who are just starting out. An associated (but independent) project – the SFcart Project has a mission to help out these same operators in terms of navigating through City Hall, getting financing, doing workshops, etc. Also there are other social organizations such as the non-profit incubator Women’s Iniative

      So here is the running list of what I think will add up to a thriving foodcart scene in these cities (and perhaps here in Vancouver – assuming that this city really isn’t much different from Portland and SF…a pretty big assumption on my part):

      1.) Loosen licensing to allow more cart locations on city property
      2.) Allow carts to operate on private properties with appropriate licensing
      3.) Simplify and make more financially accessible the licensing procedures; and remove any subjective requirements that are open to interpretation by the law enforcement officials
      4.) Provide or facilitate infrastructure such as non-profit kitchens, small-business micro-financing, and social incubators to help small-time operators.

      I want to stress yet again: the food cart scene in Portland, San Francisco, New York, and LA are run predominantly as subsistence operations…not professional “industry” projects. We have to take that fact into account if we would like to mimic these two cities’ cart scenes.

      Since Vancouver is new to the cart scene, I can’t begin to predict which direction it will take. Will it look like Portland or San Francisco’s scene – with their small-time operators? Or will it be a small and highly regulated, curated, only-professionals-need-apply scene? The decisions the City here may make in terms of “improving” the process (as called for by some in the the restaurant business) may have unintended consequences…and I fear that the scene could look like the latter.

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