Portland: Dining Heaven at Moveable Feasts

By MICHAEL MCCARTHY | Postmedia News

In Portland they are tourist destinations that serve up fun with their fare

When it comes to tasty street food, Vancouver has it all wrong. If multicultural Vancouver purports to be following the Portland, Oregon model of encouraging “food carts” on city streets, it really needs to spice up the mix and lighten up on the dough.

Portland boasts more than 450 food carts — serving up everything from Swedish meatballs to Turkish falafel — and that number is growing rapidly. Its obvious the people of Portland can’t get enough new food sensations, often served up in the strangest of places and always at terrific prices.

The silent argument against food carts in Vancouver, aside from paranoia that customers will somehow die from food poisoning, is that such operations will put established bricks n’ mortar restaurants out of business. In Portland, that hasn’t proved to be the case. Established businesses love the carts because the increased foot traffic brings more customers to the neighbourhood. Art galleries and museums in Portland now invite their favourite food carts to openings, in effect curating a new attraction that’s as much an art as the event they are promoting.

Perhaps the most alluring aspect of the Portland street scene is that carts often park together in groups known as “pods,” frequently on empty lots. Together they form an instant tourist destination just like a farmers’ market. There’s something tasty about eating outside, and the freshness of the food, and the picnic aspect of it. It’s a moveable feast, and you need a Twitter account just to keep track of where the carts are parked and where new ones have popped up.

At the Mississippi Street pod, dozens of picnic tables are set up under a giant tent like a circus. At Cartopia, the bike racks are packed (everybody cycles to the pods) and at night people dance to live music. You can even bring your own choice of beverage. Some food carts are located in industrial areas, usually empty of any traffic at night, and so the pods there become a destination unto themselves.

With nearly 500 carts employing between two to four workers each, that’s 2,000 new jobs created with zero investment by the taxpayer.

The Downtown Eastside of Vancouver immediately springs to mind as a perfect location. Lots of vacant lots, a neighbourhood badly in need of urban revival, an easy destination to bike or bus, and local residents in need of work and new investment.

I talked to the owners of a Thai food cart in downtown Portland that were so excited they pulled out their account books. In their first month of business they grossed $9,700; by summer they were making $13,000, of which only about $3,000 were expenses. Paying back their $20,000 start-up loan was a piece of cake and they have plans to expand. The line-up for their pad Thai was six deep. A heaping plate was $5 and came with free rice. The noodles were delicious and stuffed two people.

Vancouver city bureaucrats should do the math. Not every cart is making $10,000 a month, but 500 carts earning $5,000 each adds up to $2.5 million a month, or nearly $30 million a year in new revenue. Many other new trades are being created like the design, manufacture and painting of the trucks; servicing the trucks with food and beverages; new community gardens growing the food; and new retail stores popping up near the pods.

In Vancouver, planners are missing the real story. The creation of this huge new revenue stream in Portland came at no expense to taxpayers.

Michael McCarthy is a freelance travel writer. His travel stories can be found at www.intentional-traveler.com.