If you had asked a lot of Portland small businesspeople back in 2019 about the future of Portland’s lauded, Wild-West food scene, they would have told you that food carts and food pods were on their way out.
“How could they justify such a stance?” I wondered. Portlands’ Weird ™️, eclectic, and pioneering attitude toward food business put it on the national map. The entrepreneurial, low barrier-to-entry, “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” attitude embodied by the food truck and food pod (outdoor food courts comprised of several carts on the same property) has led to an absolute blossoming of fine food in the city for all cultures and classes.
Alas, they say, the laws and fees required by the city to maintain such a business (some seemingly to protect brick-and-mortar businesses, others just nickel and dimeing,) as well as rising property values encouraging landowners to kick out food pods in favor of development had made running a food cart involve a bit more investment, anxiety, and heartache than a lot of prospective entrepreneurs were prepared for. The rise of delivery services- accommodating of which is sometimes overwhelming for the small team of a common food truck- have also deprived newer food carts of the all-important foot traffic exposure they get from people coming into a pod to visit more-established neighbors.
Then COVID-19 came to town, and food carts were the best and safest way to do business.
New Normal, New Problems
With the lifting of mask mandates in Oregon, indoor dining is back on the upswing and food pods are, interestingly, not seeing the downturn you might expect. They are still facing the same problems they knew before COVID came ashore- but they are also taking their bite of the industry-wide shit sandwich that Business Writer-types are calling “The Great Resignation.”
Beyond the death toll that COVID took (many of whom WERE lower-income workers unable to afford healthcare or take time out when sick,) so many service industry people who were jettisoned in the face of lost business have realized the industry they loved for so long didn’t love them back. They’ve moved on. Some have changed industries, others have taken the downtime to reinvest in themselves. Those who are still interested in food service have learned the hard lessons from COVID and are demanding more pay, more security, and benefits that a lot of small businesses simply can’t afford to offer yet.
The old wisdom of “You get what you pay for” doesn’t stop at consumerism either. When it comes to finding people who are willing to work for the wages carts can pay, the odds are good but the goods are odd. Posting sites are flooded by recent students, industry first-timers, experienced-but-damaged veterans looking to make some money by doing the “easy work” of serving out of a food cart.
There are diamonds in the rough to be sure, but picking them out requires leaps of faith, training, and hiring procedures that food cart owners may be hesitant to take- or they simply might not have the time. Demand is growing, and so is the competition.
“Go West Young Man”
Close to six years ago, I moved out to Portland with Emily on the same logic that a lot of culinary pros had and still have- “Portland! Food capital! Weirdness and curiosity! I’m gonna get to see and try and learn so much new stuff and make my own thing happen. That’s just what you DO out there!” Much like the settlers who came out here, we found everything they expected and a lot we didn’t.
After my days at the pie shop are finished, sometimes I like to jump off the bus a little early and get a beer and snack at Moore Food and Co.,a food truck run by Tom Amick. Tom is the father-in-law of one of my old cafe buddies with decades of kitchen experience under his belt and, until a few years ago, an absolute determination to retire. A Philadelphia expatriate who moved out west to be closer to the kids, he rolled his eyes constantly at the local attempts to “Portlandize” that pinnacle of flat-top grilling art- the Philly cheesesteak.
“No, you don’t fucking make ‘house whiz,’” he grumbles. “It’s shitty cheese from a can. That’s the damn point. People who order it know what they’re getting. You don’t put lipstick on a pig, especially if people already know it’s a pig.”
He also has opinions on anyone who claims to get the famous Aversa’s rolls shipped in special. “Bullshit artists. You can buy the things frozen from most restaurant stores. Same with Taylor Pork Roll. Hey, I could double my prices telling people that- but I won’t because I’m not a liar.” After prodding by his family, Tom started up his cart serving cheesesteaks, pork roll, and more to the homesick East Coast expat and curious West Coaster alike.
Some weeks ago, I came in and Tom is raging in his truck. Megan standing outside rolled her eyes as she poured me a beer. “He just got some annoying zoning news. He’ll be like this a while until he figures out what the answer is and calms down.” I took a sip of the locally-made lager and peered through the service window. Tom is pacing- he sees me and waves, then grabs a clipboard and comes outside.
“It’s fucking stupid, man. Environment Health came out here the other day, and I’ve got 30 days to make these changes or I’m shut down.”
”What changes?” I wonder. Everyone knows that even small restaurants and food trucks can’t change on a dime, and nothing can easily change when COVID still has a stranglehold on practically any process. In addition, Tom hates dealing with inspectors. He had all of his plans and setup checked out before he even thought of opening to make sure everything would be up to code. Code, apparently, has changed.
“Closed-door meeting of the city council. They’ve decided that I need to have all these trash cans on skids, an extra vent and pipe for the grease trap… how am I supposed to make that happen in thirty days?!” He had just been inspected a month or so ago and been given full marks, so he called the inspector to find out what gives. It turns out she had no idea about this either and would call him back once she had answers.
Clearly it all got sorted out since Tom is still slinging steaks, but for a bit it was a microcosm of how good intentions can lead to headache and heartache. Tom knew why the decisions were made- tidier spaces and reduced risk of fire spreading, specifically- but it didn’t make the problem easier to deal with, and it doesn’t excuse the baffliing lack of communication.
As I write this post, I’m sitting on the patio of Belmont Station, one of my favorite biercafes, and having just had lunch from Monster Burger. Monster Burger is doing swift business as the weather warms. It’s hard to type with the regular beeping of buzzers letting people know their orders are ready. I have been waiting ages for them to bring back their smoked tomato bisque, so once I got a cup of that with some of. Their fries, all was right with the world.
Like I tend to, I’ve gotten to know the owner of the truck and we’ve discussed the fate of our industry. His concerns are a common refrain for todays Portland- rising cost of ingredients, regulations, and the frustrations of finding labor. He and Tom are both frustrated by it all, but they don’t necessarily buy the “no one wants to work” refrain. The truth is they both know “no one wants to work for that little anymore.”
What can bring in workers if not better pay? Better culture, better environment, and better management mean a lot but can only go so far. The culinary world- not just Portland- is facing a “come to Jesus” moment. COVID-19 was arguably “rock bottom” for the industry, and the allure of cutting out, starting your own thing and “doing it right” is eternally tempting. The West Coast, however, is not the Land of Tomorrow new entrepreneurs may be dreaming of. There’s gold in these hills still- but the digging has gotten harder.