Archive for July, 2010


Food Carts: Affordable Urbanism?

July 26, 2010

Anyone who’s paying attention has noted the explosive growth of food carts in Portland over the last decade and particularly in the last couple of years. At a City Club tour and discussion a few weeks ago, I gained a better understanding of why. I think there are three factors converging in this economy that fuel the recent growth:

  • Low Barriers to Entry – Multnomah County (Health Department) provides relatively affordable inspection and licensing of the carts. About $800 in fees will get your business launched and used carts start at about $10K (new carts are about $25K locally, driven by the high demand – many entrepreneurs travel to other states to find used carts). So carts represent a relatively low cost way for someone to start a business in these tight credit days.
  • Land Pricing for Underused Property – Carts are an attractive proposition to folks who own some pavement – the rent a cart can pay is greater than the revenue generated by parking fees, even at downtown parking rates.
  • A Receptive Market – Carts provide an affordable meal for customers who may find their own wallets under stress.

Remarkably, food cart pods are popping up all over the City – as far east as 122nd Ave – and in the suburbs. And they’re not just about food. A pod on N Vancouver includes dry cleaning and shoe repair. We even have a blog specializing on these carts, and I’m told an iPhone app is not far away. Despite being distributed around the region, these carts are essentially urban. Folks don’t generally drive to these carts, they arrive on foot or sometimes by bike.

How far can we take this? The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability has just issued a challenge to see if a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) can deliver via a cart (it’s been done in New York City).

Which leads me to wonder if we could use this phenomenon as a low-cost way to seed new 20-minute neighborhood business districts? Once we have figured out where these districts want to be, and have created suitable zoning, could we clear a couple of sites, put in water and power  hookups, and rent them out to carts? Would this attract other businesses to the area? How many of the essential services for a neighborhood could be delivered via a cart? Let me know what you think.