Seattle and Vancouver still no match for Portland's laissez-faire food cart scene

The more serious Seattle and Vancouver will need to let down their hair a little if they want to match the Rose City's legendary food cart scene.

The more serious Seattle and Vancouver will need to let down their hair a little if they want to match the Rose City's legendary food cart scene.

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.

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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

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In Portland, food carts line a parking lot with lines queuing onto the sidewalk. Photo by camknows, flickr.

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 Crosscut archive image.

Vancouver's hungry street food crowd, but the city still caps the number of vendors. Photo by InvokeMedia, flickr.

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.

Approved carts vend at designated sidewalk sites picked by the city, or choose their own street parking location as long as they meet guidelines such as sidewalk accessibility. In both cases, vendors have to list their locations on permits and cannot venture elsewhere.

Outside of downtown, carts must be on the move daily, and vendors face even stricter regulations beyond city boundaries. Similarly, Vancouver vendors cannot sell food from private property, as Portland’s do, and they are required to use a licensed commissary, or shared kitchen for food storage and prep. The Oregon Department of Health, in stark contrast, treats mobile kitchens as sufficient, dispensing with the commissary requirement.

The preliminary results have been positive; food trucks in downtown are popular with the lunchtime crowd. The city ended the pilot in 2011, adding 19 carts that year and 12 more in early 2012. (Interestingly, the city awarded new permits partly based on the carts’ use of organic, local, and nutritious ingredients.) City officials plan to add 60 more by 2014, bringing the total to 130. But the program has been limited to downtown, preventing carts from entering surrounding neighborhoods where the lucrative nightlife market awaits.

Officials credit early success to the minimization of red tape. And it’s true that Vancouver’s regulations are less restrictive than before: the city’s efforts to both designate sidewalk stalls and allow vendors to find their own locations make it easy for carts to launch quickly, while not overly limiting locations. Crucially, city officials have expressed interest in lifting restrictions outside downtown — and perhaps even lifting the ban on vending from private property.

But unless the city changes its official plans, in five years, the city will have introduced only 100 carts, fewer than Portland added in 2010 alone. Why limit the number of vendors at all? This year, over 50 applicants sought just a dozen permits. Vancouver can close the cart gap with Portland by lifting the cap and letting vendors hit the streets.

Seattle: Still Lukewarm Crosscut archive image.

Aloha tacos from Seattle's Marination Mobile. Photo by ddaarryynn, flickr.

Like Vancouver, Seattle stifled street food for decades with laws that basically limited carts to hot dogs, popcorn, and coffee at the city’s professional sports stadiums. Several years ago, vendors started to sidestep the laws by setting up shop on private property; street food started to grow.

Then, in July 2011, came a big move: the city council passed new regulations meant to encourage street food. Councilors lifted restrictions on what carts can sell and created new guidelines on where carts can park. Unlike Vancouver, Seattle placed the onus on vendors to find locations that meet the guidelines (such as leaving adequate throughways for pedestrians).

In order to protect established businesses — and appease local restaurateurs — the city gave restaurants and bars a veto over mobile vendors operating within 50 feet of their front doors. At the same time, the city tripled fees for food-cart permits to nearly $1,000 dollars (about the same as in Portland).

Have the rule changes panned out? Not yet. Since July, the city issued seven new permits for food trucks — defined in Seattle as self-powered vehicles with kitchens onboard — to vend from public streets, and six permits for food carts — think hot dog vendors or push carts — to vend from sidewalk spaces. The numbers don’t signal an explosion of street food. In fact, the number of food cart permits actually dropped a bit since the new regulations took effect.

Seattle has pockets of success, such as South Lake Union, a quickly developing neighborhood just north of downtown. This neighborhood is where most of the street permits were issued, but most of the time food trucks ignore the city and frequent large, suburban businesses. Outside of South Lake Union, food carts rarely venture into Seattle, except for farmers markets and special events.

Barriers to food carts on public streets and sidewalks aren’t a deal breaker. Portland’s carts operate almost solely on private property. Likewise, carts in Seattle often stick to parking lots where rules are less strict. More restrictive are the city’s requirements that carts return to a commissary kitchen every day, prohibit them from remaining overnight, and prevent them from being near other food businesses. Portland’s rules say nothing on any of these subjects.

Of course, Seattle’s food-cart policy changes are still new. It takes about two months to get permitting for a cart and its site, and most of the last eight months have been cold and wet: street foods’ off season. Perhaps 2012 will bring a flowering of carts in the Emerald City. We’ll have to wait and see.

To entice carts downtown, Seattle could ditch the setback rule — it may be illegal anyway — and follow Vancouver’s example by identifying a few dozen locations with adequate foot traffic. The city could also allow lines of patrons at downtown lots to spill over onto sidewalks, as long as other pedestrians can still get by.

Hungry yet?

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Photo by Sara & Enrique, flickr.

While Vancouver was quick out of the gate, the city’s next steps will be crucial. Trucks have flourished downtown, but the city is still capping the number of vendors. And although officials have open minds about loosening regulations, they still impose weighty restrictions on carts venturing outside the city center.

In Seattle, street food is also on the rise, but largely missing from dense, walkable neighborhoods where it has much to offer. The city lifted many archaic rules, but there’s more to be done.

It doesn’t look like either city will rival Portland for the title of “Food Cart Champion” any time soon. But both cities at least recognize the benefit of street food and are taking moderate steps. Despite the remaining hurdles, Seattle and Vancouver could have tasty futures ahead of them.

*Chart notes: Permits are issued by King County’s Department of Health, and because mobile vendors are, well, mobile, officials can’t say how many operate within Seattle. Portland’s numbers come from, and Vancouver’s come from the city.

This article originally appeared on the Sightline Daily.


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