Mapping the Food Cart Ecosystem

November 30, 2010

I just completed the excellent “Cartopia” by Kelly Rodgers and Kelley Roy and it has helped fill in my understanding of why food carts have blossomed here in Portland and what their impact on the economy is.

Some of the success factors include:

  • Carts are treated as vehicles (even if mostly stationary) and therefore avoid building code regulation (attached structures like covered seating areas are covered by building code).
  • Multnomah County health regulations, while thorough (the same as for restaurants) are reasonably streamlined and fees not too expensive.
  • The building slowdown of the last few years has meant that there are property owners motivated to collect rents from their otherwise vacant lots.
  • Start-up costs for carts have been assisted in part by micro-lending (loans on the order of $15,000) by Mercy Corps and other non-profits.

In addition to the direct economic effects of carts (the 500+ carts in Portland are estimated to collectively pay several million dollars per year in rent), the ‘cart economy’ has spawned secondary enterprises like commissary kitchens (regulated spaces where vendors must prepare any food not actually prepared in the carts themselves), several specialty cart builders and related services like gray water management.

So what’s the take-away learning here? I think three things are core to the phenomenal growth of food carts in Portland:

  1. A passionate food community willing to experiment and innovate
  2. An efficient and cost-effective bureaucracy for the essential government involvement (health inspections)
  3. Benign indifference on the part of government to non-essentials (i.e., carts are not regulated as structures because they are ‘vehicles’)

I highly recommend the book and continue to enjoy the energetic urbanism of our food-cart scene. I’d like to think this kind of micro-enterprise model could provide the ground-floor opportunities in other sectors of our economy!



  1. I have started to notice a few brick-and-mortar style food carts popping up, like the pod on Mississippi just north of Fremont. I was baffled because I thought the whole point was to avoid the building codes, but perhaps this approach to foodcarts as veritable concession stands might be good news for the future of cart city.

  2. […] Planning Commissioner One Planning Commissioner in Portland, Oregon « Mapping the Food Cart Ecosystem The Regulators Strike Back December 7, […]

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