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.


  1. I love the food carts, but I would really like the Planning Commission to consider how this jives with our ground floor active use requirements. These guys definitely compete with little delis and sandwich shops that have a higher degree of scrutiny from the health dept, building code and higher rents. I think we have a number of embarassingly under-utilized storefronts in our downtown core that would be an affordable lunch spot in any other city. In other words, I think it does the opposite of attracting other businesses. I think it more than likely gives preference to temporary/mobile businesses at the expense of permanent/fixed businesses.

    As for their contribution to the 20m neighborhoods, I think you have to consider that they succeed so well in the downtown core as a result of the influx and concentration of people who come in to work downtown from the rest of the region. For that very reason, I think you’d struggle to create a meaningful community space in the way that the food cart clusters in downtown Portland have. I think people are far less likely to stroll over to a cart for a snack when they’re at home in Rose City than when they are at work, and not just because the carts aren’t there yet.

  2. I would also point to several of the areas that have food cart clusters outside of downtown Portland to look for evidence regarding their use, services, clientele and role in attracting other businesses.

  3. It seems like the model depends on something restaurants do especially well: serving a relatively narrow variety of relatively cheap products at relatively large volume.

    To pick an example close to my heart: newsstands have been hitting the same formula for about 100 years.

    Beyond that, let’s see:
    Postal carts?
    Copy carts?
    Library carts (staffed by a helpful nerd, two desktop computers and lots of database licenses)?
    DVD carts? (The car people already have these at McDonalds, of course)
    Nurse carts?
    Pharmacy carts?

    But of course there’s one obvious component of a strong neighborhood that fits my pattern perfectly. And I won’t hold my breath for those sidewalk beer carts, Mr. Commissioner.

  4. Good thinking, Chris. Carts offer huge flexibility in getting the product or service to market where and whenever it might be.

    I love the idea of carts laden with CSA produce. What if they were stationed at various residential locations on a regular weekly schedule? Late afternoons would catch workers coming home and coincide with the end of the farmers’ day.

    Old Town Chinatown’s Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human {PHLUSH) is exploring the possibility of cart mounted public restrooms. Partners have already made good progress with waterless urinals. Portable composting toilets are available in France through a number of very local enterprises.

    The opportunity is promising. Everyone is aware that one of the biggest line items for any festival is chemical porta-potties. And customers at food cart pods need hygiene services. We’d love to hear from inventors, entrepreneurs, artists and angels.

  5. Sometimes those temporary/mobile food carts become permanent, if not in their cart staying in the same place for a long time (sometime longer than restaurants in real storefronts), then later in a bricks and mortar location. Witness Al Forno Feruzza, which started out in a mobile truck and now is thriving in a real permanent location on Alberta. If the carts provide a lower barrier to entry for businesses, then carry on.

  6. […] to Untangle West Hayden Island Veggie Cart? November 18, 2010 A while back I speculated about whether the “food cart” model could address other urban services needs in an affordable […]

  7. […] also repeat a question I first heard from one of Portland Afoot’s board members, Chris Smith: "How many of the essential services […]

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