By Kenneth Kidd | TheStar.com
PORTLAND, ORE.—“Mr. Ma” would be as good a place to start as any.
He was the restaurateur whom Reid Barrett and Julia Filip came to know when they were working in Beijing, he in publishing, she in apparel. They’d spend Spring Festival together, which, in that part of the country, meant fashioning all manner of dumplings for a late-night nosh on Chinese New Year’s Eve.
Once back in the United States, the pair’s affection for dumplings scarcely diminished. Which is how they came to buy an old bakery truck last year and refurbish it as a dumpling dispensary they’ve christened The Dump Truck.
Their signature dumpling, with a wheat-based wrap, as opposed to the rice wraps favoured in southern China, is a pork and scallion creation dubbed the “Mr. Ma.”
But here’s the thing: Their “food cart” never moves. It’s more or less permanently stationed on the perimeter of a surface parking lot downtown, cheek by jowl with dozens of other “carts” selling all manner of ethnic food, as well as some unexpected fusions.
If you haven’t had pulled pork sushi, downed a bacon cheeseburger dumpling, or dipped into a Korean/Mexican kimchi quesadilla, then chances are you haven’t had street food, Portland style, where roughly 600 vendors across the city are vying to soothe that rumbly in your tumbly.
As Toronto struggles to come up with a new policy on street food after the disastrous Toronto a la Cart program, civic officials could do worse than look to the West Coast.
It turns out that the real secret to Portland’s exuberant culture of sidewalk foodies (aka “cartivores”) is that the city doesn’t actually have a specific policy aimed at food carts.
Instead, existing city and county codes on everything from food handling to propane and electrical use are simply applied as if the carts were regular restaurants. But with other rules, the authorities mostly turn an indulgent eye toward the food carts, with an almost playful tolerance of ambiguity.
It starts with the carts themselves.
This is, of course, a misnomer, seeing how most tend to be former cargo trailers, travel trailers or catering trucks. Technically, that makes them “vehicles,” and as long as they have wheels and a trailer hitch, that’s what they remain.
Never mind that most are parked — sometimes for years — around the periphery of privately owned parking lots, with flat tires and even painted windshields. In their celebratory book, Cartopia, Kelly Rodgers and Kelley Roy note how the city’s winking approach extends to nomenclature, since permanently parked catering trucks are dubbed “Stationary Mobile Units.”
Some have big awnings attached, but these are mostly cantilevered from the vehicle itself, and for good reason. Should the owners construct any addition to their carts, “if it doesn’t touch the ground, the building code doesn’t apply,” says Ross Caron, public information officer with the city’s Bureau of Development Services.
The resulting streetscape, rather than including a bleak, surface parking lot, instead resembles a wall of Lilliputian storefronts under a canopy of trees.
“Anybody can go to this block and say, ‘I can find something I like.’ The more carts you have, the more traffic it brings,” says Barrett.
During any weekday lunch hour, the adjacent sidewalks are a sea of people, and a testament to what Jane Jacobs wrote 50 years ago:
“Lowly, unpurposeful and random and they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”
As it happens, that’s much the same conclusion in a recent report by the Urban Vitality Group, done in partnership with Portland’s planning department. The report found that food carts had “significant community benefits” precisely because they foster social interactions on the sidewalks, bringing life to neighbourhoods.
The carts are now hailed as a point of civic pride.
“In the last two years, it just popped up everywhere,” says Yohhei Sato from behind the sidewalk counter of his family’s Samurai Japanese Cuisine.
If anything, the recession south of border has helped the carts proliferate. There’s the demand for relatively cheap food, for starters.
But the cart business also has low barriers to entry, in both money and regulation, which makes it attractive to first-time entrepreneurs and recent immigrants. Or, as Sato puts it: “It’s hard to start a restaurant. You need a building.”
Nancy Ettinger, for instance, had been working as a real estate agent before trying her hand as a personal chef — just the sort of endeavours that tank earliest in any recession.
A friend, though, was faring well enough with a dessert cart, and after supplying her with soup as an added item on the menu, Ettinger decided to try the business herself.
She bought a former espresso cart for $10,000, refurbished it as Savor Soup House, and now pays $510 a month to rent her private parking spot, including electricity. Two and a half years later, she’s still there, although she’s not without the odd seasonal challenge.
For some, a cart can also lead to bigger things. Ana and Pablo Ornelas, originally from Mexico, started with a single Loco Locos Burritos cart 10 years ago. Now they have a second cart, plus a 90-seat restaurant.
The Urban Vitality Group even recommends a twist on that trajectory — encouraging well-known local restaurateurs to launch food carts themselves.
“I don’t really see us competing with established, sit-down restaurants,” says Barrett. “There are 50 carts here and Jake’s Grill is doing fine. If we weren’t here, there would be a McDonald’s or a Subway on every block.”