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.