The business of running a food cart


What does it take to launch and run one of these mobile food businesses?  

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OBM1In case you hadn’t noticed, our food cart scene here in Portland is booming. Heralded as the most vibrant street food culture in the country, if not the world, it’s been breathlessly written about in glossy food magazines from Saveur to serious newspapers like the Guardian. A sample line: “Portland’s food carts have fed millions, launched careers and contributed to urban regeneration.”

According to Brett Burmeister, managing editor and co-owner of Food Carts Portland, there are currently about 525 year-round food carts in town, more if you count catering trucks and trucks that only come out in summer: to street fairs, the farmers’ market and such. 

With a friend about to open her own food cart, I started to wonder, what does it take to launch and run one of these mobile food businesses?   

First, obviously, you have to find a cart. Sometimes the cart comes with with the spot its parked on; sometimes you buy (or rent) it separately.

McKinze Cook and Sean Fredericks were Peace Corps volunteers in the Republic of Georgia for two years, and fell in love with the country and its cuisine. When they moved to Portland in 2012 with the idea of opening a Georgian food cart, they checked out all of the main pods to assess their vibes before deciding on the Alder Street pod.

“We knew we wanted to be downtown because it’s such a high traffic area for food carts,” says Cook. “We saw that a cart was for sale, and so we moved on it.” They had to make major improvements to the cart, which had variously turned out pizza, Argentinian fare, and Thai food. In addition to a commercial dough sheeter, which they use to make their khinkali (dumplings) and Georgian flatbread, they upgraded to a commercial fridge and added a flat-top grill and a few burners. They opened their business in March of 2013, calling it Kargi Gogo (good girl).

When Rick Gencarelli opened Lardo in 2010, he ordered a custom-made cart because he wanted to stand out out from the fray. “It was like a little cottage,” recalls Gencarelli, sounding wistful. “The detail on it was so great.” The cart, which was outfitted with a 24-inch flat-top stove, two burners, a counter-top fryer, and a three-basin sink, cost him $25,000. Having a unique-looking cart paid off, though. Whenever Portland food carts got any press, Lardo was always the one that got the photo.

The cart, which has changed hands a few times since Gencarelli opened his bricks and mortar Lardos, is now owned by Fried Egg I’m in Love on MLK.  Gencarelli, who drives by it all the time, says he calls it “Fried Egg I’m in Lardo.”

Gencarelli chose the pod on Belmont and 43rd (known as Good Food Here) without a second glance. “It just felt right,” he says. It wasn’t far from where he and his wife lived, but also it had a welcoming, community feel. “I didn’t really like the whole downtown cart scene. It seemed like such a grind. I wanted to be part of a neighborhood.”

The rents for food carts vary depending on the pod but also on cart location. City Center Parking, which supplies electrical and water hook-ups (and porta-potties) at the Alder St. pod, charges anywhere from $700-$1000 per month, according to Fredericks. City Center Parking offers a six-month lease, and after that, it’s month-to-month. (It’s a high-demand pod, so if you bail, presumably they won’t have much trouble filling your spot.) Then you also have to buy an annual license with Multnomah County, which ranges from $370-$425, depending on which class of food cart you are. 

Working at a food cart is not for sissies. You cook in a 7 by 10 foot space. In the winter, your revenue may plummet to one-third of what it is during the rest of the year. And you rarely get a day off. “It doesn’t matter if you’re there or not, you’re always working,” says Gencarelli. “You’re at Cash & Carry, you’re getting calls from Provista, doing e-mails, social media. It’s absolutely endless. Endless!” And because food carts are so tiny, if you’re doing a booming business you often run out of food before the lunch rush is over.

Gencarelli used to have to shut down Lardo in the afternoon to do food prep for dinner. He learned quickly that Porchetta, slow-roasted pork loin and belly with savory herbs, while delicious and unique, was not a cost-effective sandwich to serve. “Porchetta became my Moby Dick. I just couldn’t keep up with it,” says Gencarelli of the traditional Italian street food, which he still serves on Saturdays at all three Lardo restaurants. “There’s a horrible yield on it.”

This is why Cook and Fredericks have kept their Georgian food menu small. They serve just five dishes: cheese bread, khinkali (both pork and wild mushroom), lobiani (a hearty red bean and onion bread), badrijani (strips of grilled eggplant stuffed with a purée of walnuts, garlic, and Georgian spices, topped with pomegranate seeds), and a tomato-cucumber-onion salad. “Our focus is on a small menu, executed really really well,” says Fredericks. “So far, that’s been working for our customers.” 

It may sound odd, coming from someone who now has a thriving chainlet of Lardo restaurants and one Italian restaurant, Grassa, but Gencarelli cautions potential food cart owners from jumping into this business lightly. 

“If someone said to me, “Look, I don’t need to make a lot of money, but I want to make a name for myself,’ I’d say it’s an awesome low-cost, low-risk way to test out what you’re doing. To see if people like your dumplings or falafel. But as a viable way to make a living, I’d say definitely don’t do it.”

For Gencarelli, the former head chef at Vermont’s Inn at Shelburne Farms, having a food cart was always a stepping stone to his own restaurant. (Before that, he opened Todd English’s Olives at the W Union Square in Manhattan.) When he launched Lardo, he promised his wife that if he didn’t have a bricks and mortars restaurant in two years, he’d sell the truck and find a job. Fortunately, at roughly the two year mark, he was able to persuade restaurateur Kurt Huffman from ChefStable to help him launch a restaurant.

Meanwhile, there’s been some bad news for Portland food carts and the people who love them. The Oregonian reported last week that developer Vic Remmers has a contract to buy the parking lot on Hawthorne and 11th, site of the popular late-night pod Cartopia. And the pod on Belmont and 43rd is also under a sale contract. What with the disappearance of D-Street Noshery (on Division and 32nd) last year (to make way for—what else?—condos), does this spell the end of our food cart revolution?

“These are the original gangstas,” says Gencarelli of Cartopia and Good Food Here. “Whiffles and and Potato Champion, they kind of put food carts on the map.”  

While this trend is a bummer, Burmeister of Food Carts Portland is hopeful.  “We’ve been doing this for 30-some odd years, we’re not going away,” Burmeister says. “Food Carts are part of the Portland Business Alliance, part of this city’s culture and fabric. We’re just going to have to evolve.”

 Hannah Wallace blogs on food and farms for Oregon Business.