After just a week on wheels, The Mighty Bowl, Vancouver’s first mobile food truck, sold out of food Thursday — a full 40 minutes before it was set to end lunch service.
Just outside City Hall, a throng of hungry office workers — The Columbian included — queued up for a brown rice and black bean bowl, topped with a housemade sauce, avocado, salsa, sour cream, cilantro and cheese. Some tacked on fruit smoothies. Nothing on the menu tops $6.75.
Clearly, Vancouver was ready to jump on the wagon with the hyper-trendy food cart craze. But it’s not just the bowl that’s had to be mighty: The new truck’s three owners have run a mighty 18-month gantlet of inspections and bureaucracy to get rolling.
The city’s still a far cry from seeing a pod of vendors pop up; county, city and state codes are far more stringent north of the Columbia River than in Portland.
“We’re just stubborn enough, we wouldn’t quit until we got it done,” said owner Steve Valenta, who cooked up the idea for The Mighty Bowl with his wife, Sherilee, and their longtime friend, Kevin DeGraw.
And so, after a debut last Monday, the trio, all age 32, and assorted friends have bustled about inside the stainless steel interior that’s no larger than your average office cubicle, feeding the masses with the goal of bringing people together.
“We really wanted to serve healthy but tasty food,” Sherilee said, with DeGraw adding, “There’s a niche of people who want to eat quickly, but not feel like crap after eating it. We want to get healthy food into a lot of people’s hands without a lot of money.”
Before downtown lunchers cry foul: Yes, the Wiener Wagon was here first. It’s been dishing up dogs since 1976. But the cart is a special case: It was grandfathered in before the city adopted its codes on selling in public spaces. State health laws also, rather oddly, expressly say only hot dogs and espresso can be sold from a push cart.
While the Mighty Bowl is clearly mirroring the unstoppable trend in Portland, the owners are quick to say their business is all Vancouver. All three live in Uptown Village, and the Valentas have two kids, ages 8 and 6. They all wear their hometown pride on their sleeves — and on their truck.
The side of the truck reads: “Vancouver WA, proudly.” And the top has a hidden message for those above: “We (heart) Vancouver.” All the fruit smoothies are named after local parks (Arnada, Hough and Carter Park), and one of their signature bowls bears the name Kiggins.
The employee “uniform” is a variety of T-shirts from other local businesses and restaurants.
“We want to do it Vancouver-style,” DeGraw said.
Doing a food truck “Vancouver style” also means doing it the hard way.
While Sherilee spent months fine-tuning the handmade house, spicy and peanut sauces, the team spent even more time, and money, making their truck bureaucracy-friendly.
It cost “more than you would think,” they said.
Plumbing was redone, three times. Electrical wiring, twice.
Last year, Community and Economic Development Director Chad Eiken told The Columbian in an article about the red tape that snares local food carts that some of the city rules regarding carts “don’t make sense.”
For example, a cart owner who wants to remain in a semi-permanent place is going to have run through a site plan review, which includes parking and landscaping plans, design approval and an accessibility assessment. If a cart owner wants to locate in the city’s center, downtown design guidelines (like mandatory awnings) would also apply.
On the state and county side, health laws dictate that a cart must return to a base location daily, so semi-permanent pods are nearly impossible.
With that in mind — and with helpful guidance from both the city and county — the Valentas and DeGraw bought a mobile truck in Portland that had never been used.
And modifications were still necessary.
“(The truck) was functional when we bought it, but it didn’t meet Washington standards,” DeGraw said. “Bringing it across the river, you instantly have a ton more rules and structures.”
The county inspection required the addition of a “prep sink,” bringing the total number of sinks in the tiny truck to five — they take up nearly one whole wall.
The state Labor and Industries requires a mobile truck to pass the same inspection as an office building or restaurant — thus the plumbing and electrical tweaks.
It can park in one spot for no longer than three hours, to avoid triggering city site plan review requirements. Instead, the owners hold a right-of-way permit and a business license.
At night, The Mighty Bowl returns to a rented space outside the HMP Food Store in Uptown to make the health department happy.
“One of our goals is to help people after us,” Steve Valenta said. “We want to help other people because we know now how not to do it.”
Eiken said that with the city’s planning staff severely cut, he doesn’t know when the department would be able to work on changing regulations. The city is compiling a frequently asked questions sheet to help those interested in a mobile truck like the mighty bowl.
As for those looking to start a cart pod on private property, Eiken said, “We’re still hoping to get that first food cart that will go through all the steps and help us figure out how that goes.”
The Mighty Bowl owners say that they also hope there are folks who want to expand the al fresco eating scene around here.
“There aren’t too many people that have $100,000 to $200,000 to start up a restaurant,” Steve Valenta wrote in an email. “But there are quite a few people that have maybe $20,000 to $30,000 that can start a food truck. Food trucks/carts can be an incubator to create more food options for Vancouver, resulting in a more vital city and exciting place to live and work.”