Whatever you’re craving, you can probably find it on sale at a parking lot in Portland. Barbecue jackfruit fried pie? Try Whiffies on Hawthorne. Foie gras over potato chips? Eurotrash on Belmont. Kimchi quesadilla? Koi Fusion on Mississippi. It’s no wonder Portland has been heralded as a world-class purveyor of street food.
But North American attention to the Rose City’s food cart scene has cities to the north green with envy.
For decades, Seattle and Vancouver, BC, had draconian laws limiting food cart cuisine. In the last few years, however, both have tossed old rules in the dumpster, hoping to unleash legions of carts.
Street food is smart for sustainability: It makes urban living more desirable to many, improves neighborhood walkability, provides affordable dining options, and opens doors for diverse entrepreneurs.
So far, though, neither Seattle nor Vancouver, BC, has cleared the way for street food to the same extent as Portland.
Portland: Ground Zero
Street food in the Rose City traces its roots back to the 1970s, but it really started heating up a few years ago when the economic downturn dovetailed with the city’s reputation as a foodie mecca. Today, Portland boasts nearly 700 food carts, thanks to the city’s laissez-faire approach.
Operating in semi-permanent “pods” on private parking lots, food carts have become go-to destinations for workers looking for cheap lunches, tourists wanting to sample street-side dining, and after-bar crowds with cases of the munchies. Elsewhere in Cascadia, only street festivals and fairs attract similar clusters. A profusion of carts, loads of hungry supporters, and the city’s long track record of encouraging these local businesses all help explain why Portland’s policies have become so welcoming to merchants of dishes like Potato Champion’s poutine—cheese curds and gravy over French fries available at 12th and Hawthorne.
Because pods operate on private property, vendors avoid a thicket of regulation covering street usage. The city often turns a blind eye when lines spill onto the sidewalk, responding to complaints but not otherwise policing violators. And Portland doesn’t make trouble for vendors who leave their carts in the same spots for months at a time.
Still, Portland continues to push the limits. As more carts settle in for long stays, they’re building adjoining structures, like decks, which raise safety concerns for the city, and the city has been accommodating in its rules. The State of Oregon has, too. It’s on the brink of granting its first liquor license to a food cart.
When problems arise in Portland’s cart pods, the city’s policy goal has been to resolve the problems without unnecessarily constraining the booming industry. Vendors are even starting to gain political clout: they recently teamed up to form a new advocacy group.
Vancouver: Early Growth
Vancouver, BC, has had street food since the early 1970s, but it wasn’t much. City rules limited vendors to packaged consumables and hot dogs. In 2009, the city caught a case of Portland-envy and cut the red tape, allowing mobile vendors to sell what they wanted, as long as they were in compliance with the Provincial health authority.
Afraid of opening the floodgates wide, though, the city has moved only slowly. In 2010, a city-appointed panel picked 17 vendors as part of a pilot program downtown, adding to the 55 hotdog vendors already operating in the city. Panelists selected the carts to ensure a variety of cuisine and prevent head-to-head competition.
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