In Portland, Ore., during the recession, empty parking lots and empty commercial buildings littered the city. Food entrepreneurs saw an opportunity and created food cart pods in these lots that attracted hoards of hungry neighbors. It was the perfect set-up. Customers could sample great good for pretty cheap, have a place to sit and eat and enjoy their food. Around town, these pods were omnipresence and even possibly helped accelerate Portland’s food Mecca status. Ironically, many of these pods have shut down now that economy is stronger and developers are using the prime land to build (many times out-of-scale, but that’s another post) housing and mixed-use.
On The New School beer blog, I write profiles of new breweries and stories of how these new places are building community while making local beer. I was recently sent to the newly opened Happy Valley Station out in Portland’s burbs to review its beer selection (45 taps!) but what I also discovered was a food cart pod that wasn’t set up in an unused parking lot with a few tents and tables. What I found was a permanent structure with heating, plumbing and seating, bathrooms, kid’s play area, and a “taproom” constructed from its own cart. I spoke to the developer, Valerie Hunter, who had to jump through hoops to get the land zoned for such an endeavor. Many meetings, much money, and more meetings later, she got the land, in the middle of a residential neighborhood, zoned for her food cart pod.
Most customers have to drive there (yep, there’s a parking lot), it’s not organic to the neighborhood, and some existing neighbors have inevitably complained that customers are taking up their parking. And yet, the business is wildly successful. Hunter said she built the pod because there weren’t many options for locals to eat good food. That’s not the only reason. Based on the popularity of the business, she also saw a niche that needed to be filled. (Local residents now don’t have to make the drive to Portland for food carts, they can now sample more than 20 in their own neighborhood.)
It will be interesting to see how the path this business takes and see if other Portland suburbs follow suit. For instance, Milwaukie (a mere 10 minutes from Portland) has just approved public land for a pod in its growing downtown. It could be the spark that the city needs.