Keep On Truckin’- Portland’s Portable Food Scene

Good morning, friends and neighbors.

Some time back, I asked a group of professionals what movies about kitchen life got it “right,” and which ones really REALLY got it wrong.

“Waiting” and “No Reservations” were among the “don’t mention that movie in my presence” list, but there was one movie that everyone- and I mean everyone- claimed hit the nail on the head: Jon Favreau’s 2014 father/son megahit, Chef.

Movie poster for

Whether it was the sweet story of a busy chef trying to keep a relationship with his son, that same chef bucking a demanding owner and going into business for himself, or just the gobs and GOBS of on-location foodporn, Chef struck a chord with every pro I met who’d seen it.

When my mother saw the movie for the first time, she said, “See Matt? That looks fun, and not that hard! You could do that!”

Thanks for the vote of confidence Mom, but as cool as it looks- running a food truck is NOT exactly the “easy mode” of the food world.

“It’s What You Do”

Portland remains an American food mecca- and a big part of that is the food carts.

I’ve written about some of them before– usually those run by friends of mine. It’s hard to write anything about being in Portland without mentioning lunch from a truck, or catching a mid-afternoon buzz in a beer garden.

Why do so many people flock to these mobile greasy-spoons every day? Because that’s what you do.

Getting a meal from a food cart (or eating in a food pod, as a group of carts is called around here) folds right in to the “go outside/ explore/ witness our weird” culture of the Pacific Northwest. Colder nights mean standing by the occasional firepit. Hot nights mean a cold beer and games of cornhole one-handed, while holding a burrito. Rainy days huddling under canopies, windy days holding on to your napkins…

It’s all part of the experience- and the experience is VERY popular.

Besides, what I mentioned before about food trucks being “greasy spoons” is actually really reductive. Yeah, plenty of trucks offer burgers, tacos, and other greasy goodness- but plenty more choose a “moving feast” M.O. to deliver on some truly quality food.

Limited space and limited menu mean you get to focus on doing a few things very, VERY well. A truck might “just” focus on steak frites… but damn if they aren’t the BEST steak frites in the city.

I’ve often theorized that this is the reason that fancier, white tablecloth restaurants don’t get the same exposure as their counterparts in LA or New York do… food trucks have democratized good food. If you want really quality eats, yeah, you can pay out the neck and get a reservation at Departure or Nomad- you won’t be disappointed either. They aren’t the only places to eat well in this city, though- and John Q. Public will happily hit up his favorite cart every day.

Interior of another Belmont food pod

Another food pod- home to vegetarian “fat” sandwiches, Thai, and Mexican

“Throw It At The Wall, See What Sticks”

So what’s the deal? Why are obviously talented cooks and chefs turning away from the well-appointed kitchens of brick and mortar establishments for trays and trailers?

Are they all, like Jon Favreau’s character, bucking oppressive management? Some make no secret that they were bitten by the entrepreneurship bug, and decided to put their kitchen know-how to work for themselves.

Without a doubt, the sheer minimalism and scale of a food truck are attractive. Compared to establishing a permanent location, the barriers to entry for a food truck- investment capital and start-up costs, for example- are MASSIVELY smaller.

It’s WAY easier to make a gamble of $5,000 on your new truck than $500,000 to get a space in a building. Celebrity chef Roy Choi rebooted his career after a painful tumble with a single truck, Kogi- selling his now-iconic Korean-inspired tacos in LA.

Some owners have used a food truck as a “proof of concept” for their menu or culinary style and used the resulting popularity to springboard TOWARD a brick and mortar later. “Guero” and “Fried Egg I’m In Love” are two such success stories.

In brief, a food truck is an excellent way for new business owners to “throw their idea at the wall, and see what sticks” while keeping their costs considerably lower.

In addition, the minimalist scale fits in exactly right with some owners desired work-life balance. According to Brian, who runs the “Captured Beer Bus” at the 23rd Ave. Food Pod-

“The start-up costs are way lower, and it’s easier to manage. If you only want to work some of the time, it’s a bit easier to find and train employees. Want to work more of the time? You just show up more.”

Matt at the “Dinger’s Deli” Vegan Deli Truck made another interesting point when it comes to joining a food pod full of other more-established trucks.

“Yeah, you need to look after your own marketing- your own online presence, social media, signage and that- but if you get into an existing food pod, that’s already drawing some traffic. People are coming in for their favorites- they’ll see your menu too.”

Panorama shot of the Ankeny Food Pod

My personal favorite- behind Crema Cafe, this pod is home to the Captured Beer Bus, Saint Burrito, FOMO Korean chicken, Thai, “Meat and Potatoes” Steak Frites, Teriyaki, “Wolf + Bear” Mediterranean and “Egyptian Bros.” Middle Eastern/ Mediterranean

Not All Sunshine and Fry Sauce

Working out of a food truck has its difficult spots too. For one, your financial overhead may not be so brutal… but NATURE’S overhead can be. Seasonality strikes food carts with a vengeance, as Portland’s famous rains and infrequent snows can prove a bit more than customers are willing to tolerate.

“Yeah, there’s a real blessing and curse to being outside,” says Brian as we nurse a couple of his select beers. “You’re THE place to be in the summer… but you wonder if you should even bother opening in the winter.”

Matt at the Deli cart tells me how certain locations can be problematic.

“We have a second cart located on a college campus- and it’s got certain rules we need to follow. We can’t be open if students aren’t there- so that truck is closed over breaks. We also can’t be open on Saturdays, so we don’t compete with the vendors at the farmers market that comes through.”

Matt and Brian are also on the same page on the touchiness involved in joining a food pod.

“When you join a food pod, you need to be careful whose toes you step on. If you want to put burgers on your menu, and there’s an established burger truck already there- guess what, you’re not selling burgers anymore. Just selling *your*burgers or *different* burgers doesn’t cut it.”

The Bivy/ Saint Burrito Truck

The Bivy/ Saint Burrito Food Truck. Swing by and, depending on when you go, get either a carnitas burrito or a “Prigo” egg sandwich.

If, like Brian, you decide to include- or ONLY sell- alcohol, there are even more hoops to jump through. Per the OLCC (Oregon Liquor Control Commission,) all bars make last call at a specific time. For bars, that’s around 2:30 AM. Brian, however, must stop serving at 10pm.

Why? Because he’s a cart. His license cost the same to get, and is otherwise exactly the same as that of a regular bar- but his “exclusive outdoor” license is relatively new. Its creation back in 2010 sparked surprisingly little backlash and was seen as a compromise between the OLCC and the City of Portland. The city, interestingly enough, was opposed to a separate license.

On top of this, all place in Oregon that serve liquor MUST provide some kind of food as well, unless they serve as part of a brewery’s tasting room or a tour. Some bars skirt this law by offering simple food, bags of chips, or inviting people to bring their own and eat on their premises. Brian, being in food pod, simply points to his neighboring trucks.

Taking Another Road

“Chef” is an excellent movie, and one of my favorites too. Roy Choi apparently consulted on it and taught Favreau how a chef would behave in a kitchen. Favreau apparently staged for a few weeks in a restaurant to get everything down.

All the same, they glossed over some of the hard realities of running a food truck. Permits, insurances, and inspections are all REAL things that need to be handled. (Yeah, they would have had to have had permits for EVERY stop along the way.)

Plus, for trucks that rent their spaces, there’s always the risk of having to move on if the lot owner decides to develop. Some food carts form co-ops, buy their land outright, and manage it together to KEEP it a food pod.

Despite the difficulties, food carts remain a mainstay on the Portland food scene, and an alluring- yet more affordable- taste of the entrepreneurial life for those cooks and chefs hungry for a little more.

Stay Classy,

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Currently Reading:  In Search of the Unknown by Robert Chambers

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