The Scrappiness of Portland’s Food Carts Made Them Leaders During the Pandemic

In mid-March, Portland food industry vet Anthony Brown was days away from opening his “Southern and Mexican inspired fusion” cart Nacheaux when the order came down: Restaurants in Oregon were effectively shuttered. He had already quit his job as a chef at the nationally celebrated Portland restaurant Screen Door, and the turquoise cart, adorned with an illustration of a unicorn mid-dab, had been rolled into its spot at Cartlandia, a large-scale food cart pod in Southeast Portland. But now, Oregonians were stuck at home. Brown considered keeping his griddles cold and putting off his grand opening. Then he realized that as a food cart, he was in the takeout business — meaning he was still in business.

So, on a Sunday in late March, Brown started pressing tortillas and rolling burritos, hoping for the best. His wife and business partner, Stephanie Brown, started taking orders on her days off from her main job at Enterprise, running out to grab things while Anthony cooked. He played around with his menu, throwing crawfish on mac and cheese, getting into brunch. Within a few weeks, the Browns were slammed with orders. His crispy-fried catfish tacos, fried chicken and masa waffles, and creamy carnitas mac and cheese — an amalgamation of culinary inspiration from his Belizean and Southern grandmothers — had drawn in a fleet of Instagram devotees in spite of the raging pandemic. “I cannot speak for everybody, but we’ve actually had a very successful time in this pandemic,” he says. “The low overhead gives us the flexibility to grow.”

The Browns are not alone: Many of Portland’s food carts have survived, or even thrived, throughout the course of the pandemic. As brick-and-mortar restaurants scrambled to devise sustainable to-go plans in the wake of the order to close the state’s dining rooms, food carts were able to keep doing what they had always done: serve takeout, pivot when necessary, and get creative in a pinch. By August, a handful of longtime restaurant chefs started looking into carts, including Greg Higgins of the temporarily closed Higgins and Derek Ingwood of the permanently closed Bistro Montage; when restaurateur David Machado closed all of his Portland restaurants, Jeff Larson and Schuyler Wallace — two chefs at Machado’s now-closed Tanner Creek Tavern — opened a food cart together in a new Northwest Portland food cart pod. New food cart pods have opened in different corners of the city. More are coming. Though Multnomah County’s new restaurant license applications have dropped to 50 percent of their regular numbers, people are applying for food cart licenses at about the same rate as they did last year.

In recent years, the city’s food cart scene has struggled: Development deals have pushed out food cart pods from downtown to Division, forcing some carts to close or scramble to find a new home. Food carts have been hit with vandals and burglars, who have broken windows and stolen iPads. Many cart owners have given up on the business model altogether, moving into larger restaurant spaces.

However, in a year that has been brutally difficult for countless restaurant owners, food carts have stayed light on their feet, adapting as experts in a notoriously tumultuous industry. Some cart owners have used their ability to stay open to support underserved communities, feeding walk-up customers for free or donating meals to shelters and nonprofits. Some food cart chefs have used this year to get creative, trying out new specials or switching up their business models. It seems like food carts are in the midst of a renaissance — not just for their food, but as leaders within a struggling culinary world.

Portland, of course, has been famous for its food carts, which popped up across the city toward the end of the 20th century, for years. Some of the city’s most noteworthy chefs first acquired fame behind the window of a food cart, from Nong Poonsukwattana and her celebrated khao man gai to Rick Gencarelli of sandwich staple Lardo. The low cost of entry made carts alluring for many chefs, who wanted to try bold ideas that might not pay the rent of a full-blown restaurant space. They required a scrappiness, an ability to concoct something competitive with every other restaurant in town, made in and served out of a 200-square-foot box. Many were up to that challenge, or even invigorated by it — it made the experience of cooking solely about creativity, fast-paced and unburdened by the weight of a restaurant’s size or stature.

Portland’s original golden age of food carts started around 2008, defined in part by dishes and carts like the peanut-butter-and-jelly fries at Hawthorne’s Potato Champion and the original Nong’s Khao Man Gai downtown. “The lure of food trucks seemed irresistible to Portlanders looking for a way to re-enter the American Dream machine,” wrote Portland Monthly critic Karen Brooks. Even in the midst of a financial crisis, food carts boomed, with chefs opting for a cheaper overhead as restaurants closed by the thousands nationwide.

People began to establish food cart pods — little hubs of food carts in shared lots — in neighborhoods throughout the city, where food carts encircled fire pits and picnic tables. Breweries started bringing carts onto their properties to meet Oregon bars’ food service requirement while the brewers focused on beer. And tourists flocked to the city’s pods, an inexpensive way to taste some of Portland’s most innovative culinary trends. “Carts have existed for roughly a decade, offering low-cost lunchtime grub, but in the last couple of years they’ve exploded in numbers and ambition, with cuisines ranging from Mexican and Thai to Korean and Kazakh to Dutch waffles and Belgian fries,” wrote Matt Gross in a 2009 New York Times piece.

In later years, food carts became the starting point for people who wanted to open restaurants. The teams behind barbecue hotspot the People’s Pig, vegan Indian standout the Sudra, and, more recently, Chinese restaurant Bao Bao and St. Johns pizzeria Gracie’s Apizza all started with carts, either keeping them alive as a secondary form of income or selling the carts to focus on their brick-and-mortars. Poonsukwattana even opened two restaurants, on either side of the river. For many, the food cart market seemed oversaturated, and the draw of a larger kitchen and more seats became alluring — especially in a city known not only for its outdoor dining, but also, paradoxically, for its rain.

Still, even as she succeeded in the restaurant market, Poonsukwattana had to say goodbye to her original cart in 2018, after her pod’s landlord gave her a notice to vacate. Slowly, major food cart pods started to close: In 2017, the Gantry Food Carts at Zidell Yards sent its food carts rolling, followed by the prominent Tidbit pod months later. But the 2019 closure of the longstanding Alder Street food cart pod — making room for a Ritz-Carlton downtown — seemed to signal a shift in the way the city valued the diversity of food carts and their impact on the overall food scene. “Portland has decided that food carts — which, unlike food trucks, are immobile unless towed — are an indelible part of the city’s culture,” journalist Brendan Seibel writes, “but the saga of relocating more than three dozen businesses on short notice, and working with a largely immigrant community who speak many languages, suggests that cities would benefit from planning ahead to decide which cherished institutions will be ushered through change, and how that will happen.”

Leah Tucker, the founder of the Oregon Mobile Food Association, saw 2019 not necessarily as a period of strife for carts, but rather as a moment of transition: Instead of food carts simply permeating any city block, more land owners outside of Portland’s downtown were seeing the actual development of a pod as a business opportunity. “Leading up to the pandemic, we were seeing some shift in the downtown region. Obviously with the 10th and Alder pod, that was a really big hit,” Tucker says. “There are two different kinds of pods: You’re going to have the ones like 10th and Alder, and then you have the pods like Happy Valley Station and Cartopia, Hawthorne Asylum, where the pod is designed specifically for carts. We started seeing more and more of these very thought-out, well-planned business models around food cart pods.”

In early 2020, food cart owners were coming out of a cold winter, getting ready to open for the peak season. Then, on a Thursday evening in February, Oregon health officials announced the state’s first cases of the novel coronavirus.

Han Ly Hwang stands in front of his cart, Kim Jong Grillin, with his arms crossed. He’s wearing a backwards baseball cap.

Han Ly Hwang of Kim Jong Grillin
Kim Jong Grillin / Official

Han Ly Hwang, the owner of both the Korean cart Kim Jong Grillin and Italian sub stand Demarco’s Sandwiches, has been a celebrated and successful figure in the local food cart scene: Kim Jong Grillin sat on the Eater 38 for years, and his cart is usually a big hit for its “bibim boxes,” travel-sized bibimbap with a choice of various meats. He’s used to the winter slowdown, but he says in the beginning of March, things had changed significantly. “For a food cart, March-April is when you start seeing the turnaround of being open,” he recalls. “But on March 1, it was just dead, like so dead that we were doing 20 percent of our winter numbers.”

On March 17, when restaurants across the city closed, he watched thousands of people in his industry lose their jobs. He closed both carts a few days later, but he decided to give out free meals for the last few days he spent open. “It was super bleak, no matter what,” he says. “The last few days were us giving food away … profits were the last thing on my mind.”

Kim Jong Grillin is just one of many Portland food carts that started providing mutual aid to their neighborhoods: Vietnamese cart Matta, fried chicken cart Jojo, and soul food destination Kee’s Loaded Kitchen have all served free meals to those in need. For cart owners, the ability to keep their businesses alive allowed them to provide aid to people who couldn’t work, as well as to communities most affected by the onslaught of suffering 2020 has delivered. Mark Guzman, a manager for the Mexican cart chain Azul Tequila Taqueria, started a nonprofit with another Portland chef, feeding unhoused Portlanders through meal donations to shelters. Nelson took to Instagram, promoting days or weekends when she exclusively served free meals of fried chicken and brown sugar ribs to the city’s Black residents, during a period of vocal protest against years of police brutality and systemic racism. Richard Le, like Hwang, distributed free chicken and rice to unemployed restaurant workers, with bright-green pandan doughnuts for dessert. The choice to focus on aid during a moment of relative success resulted in a new wave of support — once those carts reopened for regular service, they were selling out within hours.

Kiauna Nelson — wearing in a red jacket and black shorts — stands outside a bright-red cart, shoulder-to-shoulder with two men. She’s holding wads of dollars in her hands.

Kiauna Nelson, standing outside her cart
Kee’s Loaded Kitchen/Official

Since 2016, Kee’s owner Kiauna Nelson has served massive, family-meal-style dinners of mashed potatoes, crispy fried catfish, and mac and cheese out of her bright red cart. However, since the first day restaurants closed across the city, her business has been steadily busy. She felt grateful that her business was able to stay open, unlike so many other chefs’. “I definitely couldn’t have survived being closed,” she says. “We had a couple of chances to go brick and mortar, but I’m so glad we’re still in the cart — for now.”

After those first few months, however, her community was feeling the impact of another, longstanding crisis: the systemic racism killing Black people across the country. Nelson began using her Instagram platform to talk about police brutality and racism, posting photos of Black men killed by police on her cart’s Instagram account. Soon, she started to gather donations from community members, activists, chefs, and customers so she could serve free meals to Black Portlanders. For days at a time, she would give away takeout containers full of ribs and fried chicken, accruing lines down MLK. Nelson says she has seen exponential growth at her cart, hiring new employees when so many have had to lay people off. People — from fellow food cart owners to nonprofits — have continued to send her donations of meals, ingredients, and money, which she has turned into more free meal days and menu specials. And on the days that customers had to pay to eat, people were just as ready to load up.

To describe 2020 as a year of unbridled success for food carts, however, would be a mistake. Although some carts have opened or stayed open in the last few months, not all have survived. According to Tucker, the combination of the stay-at-home order, the high costs of delivery apps, and unreliable access to masks, gloves, and ingredients has made 2020 even more challenging for food cart owners — some business owners are seeing serious markups on masks and gloves because of the increased demand. “The carts that are open and able to keep functioning, they’re seeing people come in. But the tradeoff is the excessive cost increase to run their businesses,” she says. “They’re just in constant flux, just trying to accommodate the demand with micro-margins.”

Even worse, because carts could legally stay open for takeout during the pandemic, Tucker says some landlords tried to take advantage of food cart owners, threatening to raise the rent on their spots in pods or even evict them. “Until we spoke with the governor’s office, we weren’t considered in the first draft of those commercial eviction protections,” Tucker says. “In terms of rent protections, we’re often overlooked.”

Although some cart owners chose to keep their businesses open, many others, like Hwang, decided to take a break at the beginning of the pandemic. Eric Gitenstein, the owner of the Williams cart MF Tasty, wasn’t sure he wanted to stay open in the beginning. He was serving customers into the first days of the shutdown, but he started to feel uncomfortable about his own safety and the safety of his coworkers. “Younger people weren’t taking it as seriously,” he says. “There were few times I had to stop and tell people they couldn’t eat there, they weren’t great about it. It added to an already stressful work environment.”

A man in a baseball cap, black face mask, and black gloves holds a beer and a paper bag from the inside of a food cart. A disco-ball hangs over his head.

Eric Gitenstein, serving a takeout meal out of his cart.
Nicole Piech-Gitenstein / Official

So, on March 23, he closed the cart and took a few weeks to pause, donate some meals to health care workers, and think about what he wanted to do next. He noticed certain ingredients were starting to disappear, and he decided to switch up his business model — instead of offering a standard menu with a few specials, he’d just do menus of one-offs: smoked pork chops, breakfast burritos. “I’m trying to do as much fun stuff as I can right now,” he says. “Every week it’s going to be something different, and that’s a way to keep people excited.” It was a smart move: Now, he’s working shorter hours than he did beforehand, with higher-than-normal numbers of people coming to the cart. “At first we thought we would just limit our hours to help minimize exposure, [because we were] concerned more about safety than sales. However, we’ve found that limiting our hours really drives people to show up when we are open,” he says. “And it’s been a little freeing to work without the constraints of a consistent menu.”

Deepak Saxena, the owner of Desi PDX, decided to close his cart in March, right around the time restaurants shuttered during the stay-at-home order. But before he closed up the North Mississippi pod, he gave out dozens of meals, letting people pay whatever they could afford. “My main goal is to not waste food so I’m gonna let you decide what makes the most sense for you to pay at this time,” he writes in an Instagram caption. “If you’re feeding a family of 4 and broke, I’ll send you home with some quarts of food.”

When the cart reopened a month later, he was slammed with orders, quickly selling out of family meals for the week. Things slowed down for a bit, but he says sunny weather has created another high for the food cart scene: Multnomah County just happened to reopen dining rooms as the summer began, and while some Portlanders don’t feel comfortable dining inside, the open air of outdoor dining felt like a safer option. While restaurant owners worked with the Portland Bureau of Transportation to figure out outdoor dining spaces, pods could simply open up their outdoor seating and continue doing what they were doing.

Saxena says that some days, at the Prost Marketplace food pod, it feels like any other year. “On the weekends, there are definitely moments of ‘What pandemic?,’” he says. “’The pod can be insanely busy, and our sales are comparable to last year.”

Still, the only thing worse than too much business is not enough. He’s concerned that once things get cold again, he could be back at square one. “I think business will drastically drop when it’s too cold to sit outside, and people are not going to want to be in enclosed spaces with the heaters recirculating air,” Saxena says. “I’m basically taking a slow and steady wins the race approach, with the goal of making enough right now to get through the winter months and hope that by next spring we’re back to some sort of normal.”

Many food cart owners, like Saxena, are nervous about what may happen in the months — and years — to come. Eventually, the rain will return, and people won’t want to sit outside and eat. Down the line, when restaurant owners are able to fill their spaces to full capacity, and the majority of diners feel comfortable sitting down in a dining room again, will Portland’s food cart scene continue to thrive, or will the increasing number of carts and desire to dine in a restaurant cause the bubble to pop?

The Browns, back at Cartlandia, are very nervous about the future. Stephanie was recently furloughed from her job, and Anthony thinks the lack of stimulus has started to slow the business within the pod. “The combination of the extra $600 [stimulus] going away and COVID still happening, plus the winter coming — I’m already thinking about how to get specials going, how to build something up,” Anthony says.

Still, the Browns are hoping for the best. Customers continue to roll through for Nacheaux’s specials. The couple has started working events across the city to access new groups of potential customers. Anthony even went out and bought another food cart, which he hopes to turn into a traveling coffee and dessert business. “Being in a food cart opens the doors to be more innovative and creative with how you deliver food and the people you can reach,” Stephanie says. “You’re not limited in the way brick and mortars are.”

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