Portland Crackdown on Food Carts?


KATU News is reporting this evening that the City of Portland will be “cracking down on structures related to food carts.” The structures they speak of are the awnings and decks some carts have built so patrons don’t have to stand in the rain. KATU did a whole series of stories last week arguing that the carts have an unfair advantage against restaurants. Interestingly enough, the two restaurants they interviewed were Huber’s and the new Morning Star Cafe. Huber’s menu for lunch is $10 or more and offers alcohol. Morning Star has beer and video poker. Which carts charge over $10 for lunch? How many carts offer alcohol and video poker? Unfair or just a different business model?

Needless to say, the city does have a role in ensuring safety and if the carts are building awnings or structures that could endanger patrons, the city should be monitoring that. Yet, I call shenanigans on the city’s sudden change of heart. Was this due to undue pressure from the restaurant lobby or because of KATU’s story. In last week’s video, Commissioner Randy Leonard admitted he was unaware of structures being built even though some of them were directly across 4th avenue from the Bureau of Development Services, his agency, and the agency that issues permits and is responsible for inspections.

As you know, we are here to promote the carts and tell their stories. Carts have been a fixture in this city for decades and are part of the city fabric, bringing people together and building community. In Portland, we do not have food carts operating illegally like in other cities. I credit and thank the inspectors and hard working individuals at Multnomah County for that success. We have 600 carts because we as a city and a community have chosen not to regulate them in the ways other cities do. This lack of strict regulation created the lots we now have both old and new and put Portland on the map as the #1 Street Food city in the world. Portland has garnered attention from major national and international new outlets and magazines. We are a model for other cities who are working to create a culture of street food and empower entrepreneurs who are chasing the elusive American Dream. Tourist come to Portland for the carts and the cuisine they offer.

I’m proud to live in this city and call myself a longtime Portlander, yet I hope the city leaders don’t use this one issue with structures/decks to shutdown or over-regulate a thriving industry that employs many and has become part of our city’s culture, persona and history.

KATU’s “Fight brewing over city’s food carts” video
KATU’s “City will be cracking down on food carts” video


  1. While this effort reeks of restaurants fanning the flames, the idea of the city inspecting add-on’s like sitting decks and awnings that hang over public sidewalks is probably a necessary one. Public safety needs to be a priority, and it’s in the cart’s best interest to make sure they have permits to show their construction is safe. A simple mishap would easily put an out-of-compliance cart out of business. Hopefully the city can issue permits and conduct inspections in a way that does not discourage new carts from entering the biz.

  2. Taxpaying worker says

    ‘In Portland, we do not have food carts operating illegally like in other cities.’

    That’s the lie the KATU report totally refutes. The majority have been and are operating in violation of fed, state and city building and health codes that every other food business are held to.
    What’s not to get?!?

  3. yeah, it’s bs! my husband and i once went to huber’s instead of the food carts across the street because it was cold and rainy. huber’s is weird and good, but the food carts do not directly compete in any way. totally ridiculous.

  4. Taxpaying worker:
    If someone wants to open a food cart in the city of Portland, they need to get a health and cart inspection from Multnomah County and a business license from the city. That is all. Once they are licensed they are legal. With regular inspections, usually 2 a year, the regulations are enforced.

    While I can understand that there may be an argument that some of the carts are violating “city building…codes,” please explain how the “majority” have been operation “in violation of fed, state and city … health codes?”

    Please educate us.

  5. Interesting story, can’t help but agree that it really is just a different business model. Many carts don’t have an option to protect patrons from the cold or seating that shelters from the rain, but that was their decision when they opted for a cart instead of a traditional brick and mortar establishment. In the same way, Morning Star, a brand new restaurant, was well aware of the benefits and drawbacks of opening a cart if they were so inclined. Kind of irritates me actually that they would move in RIGHT ACROSS from an existing cache of carts and then complain about it. You knew the risks.

  6. Bradford Brooke Howes says

    @nikeblog.com. Morning Star cafe opened before those carts were there. I know this because I own one. There were three carts on the entire square block of 3rd and Washington. Now there are twenty-three. As far as being in violation, I have a class IV operators and DHS 100% inspection. As far as saying that we don’t compete with Brick and Mortar places. Ask their accountants!

  7. Hart Noecker says

    The United States has the strictest food-handling laws in the world. This is KATU corporate media proving again it doesn’t understand the culture of the city in which it reports. It’s another bike vs. car fake controversy made to fill air time between commercials for Coca Cola and the Army. Next….

  8. i heart fascism says

    Wow, Taxpaying Worker, you chose your name right (suh-laaave).

    Note that it’s always existing businesses that complain (or buy stories on TV), not customers of the “offending” business. The complaint can be heard approximately as “We were forced to cough up protection money, so they should be, too! Or send in the thugs!”

    So it’s KATU job to argue for how and where coercion/violence should be used? Shame on them.

  9. The carts are certified under the “Mobile Restaurant ” division of the health dept.

    When you attach a permanent fixture to your cart it ceases to be a mobile unit and different regulations apply.
    The cart owners are all aware of the regulations we operate under.

  10. Fine, regulate building structure for safety, I agree with safety 100% … but take note restaurants who attack food carts unjustly, I will stop patronizing your business. Yes Huber’s, I will stop attending our weekly happy hour and turn to the carts.

    It’s called competition in a capitalistic society- learn to play the game, or fail and shut your doors. The way you choose to do this matters in light of the consumer. Listen closely.

    The carts are a huge part of Portland and truly enhance our city’s uniqueness, cool factor– and convenience. Food carts have used creative hands and minds garnering respect from consumers, don’t mess with it. Learn to adapt.

  11. This one is a bit hard for me. I am a new cart owner and have followed the rules to a T. I went to the City wanting to apply for a permit for a deck and awning to keep people out of the rain. Honestly, great people working there but they couldn’t give me any guidelines to follow or instructions on how to permit the deck. I do think it is fair to have the structures follow safety regulations and get a permit–but, they need to be able to tell you how to get one. I think food carts are a gray area that needs a small group to work with the City to address the unique needs of a food cart–or their only option will be the enforcement of brick and mortar rules in place. I also think if carts had kept it simple there wouldn’t be so much recent focus. A simple rain covering is one thing—but building enclosed rooms and then crying foul when you are asked for your permit is a risk you take when building it. I don’t like controls any more than anyone else—but, we need to work with the City to recognize the needs of the public while staying in business. Clean, safe alternatives to traditional restaurants makes food carts a good choice to our customers. Competition should not be a threat to existing business unless the competition offers something better than you have.

  12. While I’m a big food carts supporter, I think that some of the carts have taken decks and awnings a bit far and are just asking for trouble. I don’t want to single a specific cart out, but there are three or four at 3rd and Washington that are really pushing it.

  13. Bear Wilner-Nugent says

    I am a lawyer who loves food carts. I do criminal defense, renters’ rights, and personal injury, not code compliance, but if any food cart getting unfairly hassled wants legal advice, please send them my way and I’ll refer them to a good lawyer for their needs.

  14. Lisa, very true that some cart owners went too far. A simple retractable awning takes care of our customers in the rain and keeps our status as mobile.

    We’ve been in business and at the same location for ten years. We always had tables and chairs on the sidewalk along the curb but last summer someone complained that the sidewalks were too crowded making it difficult for one in a wheelchair to move easily along the sidewalk. The complaint was certainly valid, we had so many new vendors.
    We also found it challenging to keep our chairs in our spot, people kept taking them to other stands, they actually thought the city of Portland provide the seating!
    We all received letters from the lot owners reiterating the regulations regarding seating and providing bathrooms. We were all warned of potential fines if tables and chairs were set on the sidewalks. One by one, seating decks began to appear and mobile units changed their status but the health dept has been looking the other way.

    There are very few true mobile units in Portland.
    Koi Fusion and Violetta drive to different locations. Altengartz Bratwurst has their permanent daytime location but the roll their truck out three nights a week to do late night food service.

    Those cart owners who have affixed their carts to their spaces via decks knew what they were doing. They can follow the regulations for brick and mortar restaurants or get back in compliance like the rest of us.

  15. I’m an ardent food cart fan that works downtown and I agree with Andrew – there are a few carts (specifically at 3rd and Washington) that are taking decks and awnings too far.

    Now correct me if I’m wrong, but the licensing fee for a restaurant is higher than the licensing fee for a food cart. However, unlike food carts, restaurants don’t have the added requirement of being mobile at all times. An umbrella or an awning attached to a window is one thing, but when carts begin building these massive, immobile structures next to their carts shouldn’t they have to pay the higher restaurant fees?

    I especially dislike the enclosed decks built by some carts because I feel like it turns an otherwise cool cart into a lame version of a restaurant and takes away from the whole pod’s feeling of community. Instead, I’d prefer to see pods contribute toward some communal, covered seating (think Cartopia on 12th and Hawthorne).

    Finally, while I appreciate how a lack of regulation helped encourage cart growth, I think we have reached a size now that requires clearer rules and more oversight if only to help new cart owners like Lisa navigate the waters.

  16. Reposting what I posted here:

    True, but there are good points here regarding safety and “fair competition”.

    A co-worker of mine has a gash on their forehead from an ill-placed awning on a cart.

    And when does a food cart cease to be a food cart and become an outdoor cafe? I think when they add a wooden porch with roof that seats 10, we are approaching cafe, and thus should then have to deal with cafe zoning, taxes, etc….

    To quote a dumb movie from the 80’s, “Fair is Fair!”

  17. Thanks for all the comments and discussion. Great to have you here.


  18. Notice how we haven’t heard back from “Taxpaying Worker.” That’s because the shit he was shilling was total BS.

  19. If you think government licensing is about safety, here’s a question for you:
    Do you need a license to give away food for free? THINK ABOUT IT. What do they really care about?

    And it’s not just about food. In the news: Orlando cops raid an unlicensed black-owned barber shop SWAT style, guns drawn. Does paying the gang thousands of dollars per year somehow make their hair cutting safer? Google it.

  20. I’m on the Downtown Neighborhood Association and I love the foodcarts. Heck, the main reason I joined the DNA was to try to get solar compacting garbage cans placed near the cart pods so there wouldn’t be so much food waste spilling onto the sidewalks. One of the areas we are also looking at is trying to figure how to get better seating options at the various pods in downtown. I personally take my food over to Director Park and sit at the tables there, but there should be a better option at the carts. I’d love to hear some suggestions that I can take to the land use committee about how to improve the carts in downtown.

  21. Taxpaying worker says

    I should clarify – I regretted using the word ‘most’ as soon as I posted, in reference to passing codes.

    I am a total cart supporter – no fan of over regulation – and Lisa’s comments also hit on what I was going for:

    ‘Honestly, great people working there but they couldn’t give me any guidelines to follow or instructions on how to permit the deck. I do think it is fair to have the structures follow safety regulations and get a permit–but, they need to be able to tell you how to get one.’

    There just needs to be equal application under the law.

  22. I agree we do need to have safe places to eat and work. But, why is it whenever the little guy is more successful than the big guy, the big guy uses money and clout to whine. These regulations should already be in place so every new, and old food cart owner can conduct business with a clear legal conscience.Once again as we realize more and more that requires the government to actually act instead of react.

  23. While I absolutely love and support food carts, let’s not kid ourselves: it’s quite obvious that many of them *are* turning into fixed location restaurants. Look at the food trucks whose tires are deflated, obviously not having been driven in months or even years. Look at the $8 entrées at some of the high end food carts. The very name “food cart” is a misnomer when there are chairs, tables, awnings, etc.

  24. I work near the pod at 9th/10th and Alder, where there are about 39 carts in operation. I do enjoy the options there from time to time, and I think the carts there are a net benefit. However, I don’t think we can follow the frontier model of development any longer. Here are the main problems I see at the pod near my office:

    1) Encroachment into the public right of way. The seating and sandwich boards are packed into the tree well zone on the sidewalk, so there is no place to stand while waiting for an order. Large crowds end up milling about on the sidewalk pondering their options and waiting. It’s difficult to walk through on the sidewalk, and I’ve seen people in motorized scooters and wheelchairs have a lot of problems. Some limits on how many carts can front a given sidewalk would help a lot. And, to be fair, some of the cafee seating that restaurants provide aren’t meeting existing codes, either. E.g., there’s supposed to be more than 7′ clearance on umbrellas, but I know from experience that that is often not the case.

    2) Waste management issues. This is mainly in nearby O’Bryant Square in the nicer months. People take their lunches over there, but there aren’t enough wastebins. Maybe some of those solar compactors would help, but the Parks Department hasn’t figured it out yet, or hasn’t the funds. It would also help if people would just carry their lunches a couple of blocks back to their office. Or if the parking lot owners were required to provide some extra and obvious collection facilities.

    To address the seating issue, the carts are now starting to lease extra space and building covered decks. That seems fine, but there are safety issues to consider, even if most of the decks are less than 18″ above grade. Appropriate materials and construction techniques should be checked by a competent authority. [I’m still amazed that Sawasdee’s awning drains directly onto the Samurai cart, with zero clearance.]

    I think the cart owners are generally trying to follow the appropriate rules. The problem may mainly be with the city, where we are missing any appropriate regulations, oversight is shared between multiple departments, and no one seems to know how to deal with the phenomenon.

  25. www.speedy-dawg.com says


    Please take a moment to review this website regarding what is mobile and what is not. Might help you with further comments. http://www.portlandonline.com/bps/index.cfm?c=52798&a=303164

  26. www.speedy-dawg.com says

    Should add–Best I can tell, even though it is from 2007, I have not been able to locate any changes made since then. http://www.portlandonline.com/bps/index.cfm?c=52798&a=303164

  27. Welcome more regulation and intervention from Uncle Sam.

  28. A cart ceases to be a cart(by which I mean, mobile) the second any permanent or semi-permanent structure is built adjoining or attached to it.

    Having been in construction for many many years, I know why these cart owners are having a hard time getting the building department to tell them how to permit a permanent, commercial space that is open to the public…….the parking lots are zoned for parking lots, not commercial builiding space! Now, if what they are after is some special variance, simply because they are the “new hotness” and think they deserve it, let me tell you that the building dept. in PDX is the single worst municipality or county to work with.

    Here is what you will have to do: submit a proposal to change the zoning from structure free commercial(ie, parking lots), to low density commercial building(oh, yeah…once you do this, your landlord is going to kick your ass to the curb since his property value just went up about 100 fold!), then apply for a building permit with the city. Sounds easy right? Well, prepare yourself for about a 6-8 month wait/review period and the need to shell out a couple thousand dollars for that deck/awning(yes even those add on awnings need to be permitted….everyother buildings overhead awning/signage must be permitted/reviewed/engineered(not to fall on people) just like if you were building an entire building.).

    If all this sounds unfair, i’d agree. Then again, I am all for the levelest of playing fields.

    So you wanted to open a cart because it was simpler/cheaper/easier? well, then you can’t then complain later that they won’t let you build some ramshackle POS deck bullshit that looks more at home in Tijuana than Portland. Seriously, some of these “structures” are absolutely laughable. All this backlash of rules/regulation enforcement just sounds like whining that you have to play by the same rules as everyone else….and that is, as they say, weak sauce!

  29. That link supported and confirmed previous comments. Perhaps you need to review it as well as the Environmental Health Dept Mobile Food Unit divisions page.


  31. Garden State says

    Gotta admit, all this talk about structures sounds whiny to me also. It’s clearly stated in city and county information that you can’t be licensed as a “mobile” unit if you have any structures attached to the unit that would prevent it from picking up and moving on at a moment’s notice. If the structures which do not adhere to this rule are the only target of a crackdown we’re going to see, it’s a just and fair one.

  32. I looked into this and got so pissed that I had to write an article about it. If you think Dan Tilkin is an idiot, check this out: http://madmoikey.wordpress.com/2010/11/17/wtf-katu/

  33. In addition to deck being build and attached to the trailer/truck itself, I’m also seeing a lot of food carts hard wired their trailer to a electrical box. I looked into the city records, and did not see any permits being pulled for these hard wiring, which to me it is not inspected. Please correct me if I’m wrong. Besides zoning and structure safety issues, shouldn’t there be concern for hazards related to potentially improper wiring? Also, I’ve seen quite a few downtown carts has seating now, shouldn’t there be bathrooms provided if the food carts have seating? Some cart pods downtown has one single honey bucket shared by probably 20 carts, some completely void of any kind of a bathroom. Besides I thought the idea of having the bathroom is so that the customers has the choice of washing their hands before sitting down and eating their meals. Most honey bucket does not provide hand washing, am I right?

  34. true, i can find somewhere to go potty, but what i really want to do is wash my hands! handwashing is the whole reason for the bathroom facility! asking where i can actually wash (not gel sanitize) my hands gets some puzzled looks from food cart operators. and going to a porta potty to make my hands cleaner from the sink thing in the wall just isnt doing the trick. what id like to see and use (for the pods at least) is a sink, a faucet, a drain, soap, some water, towel, and a garbage can, just like is required for FOOD SAFETY inside each and every cart, cafe, etc…

  35. That’s another advantage the restaurants have. You need to wash your hands? I’m sure every restaurants have sinks, soap, paper towel, etc for your need. If you’re going to get food from food carts, majority of them offer “take away” or “to go” type of food. You can either take the food back to your office or your home where you can wash your hands. So….I’m not quite sure if food carts that have seatings for customers would require a sink for hand wash or not. That again will have to be work out with the city since a lot of things are so unclear.

    I eat food from food carts as frequent as I dine in restaurants. I prefer food carts on nice weather day because I like to be outside but to say food carts have a lot more advantages? I’m not going to freeze myself or get myself wet waiting for food in front of food carts. I’d rather just sit in a nice warm restaurant. I see restaurant owners say on the news their income is gone by $200 per day. I’m sure food carts income is gone no less during this season as well. Fair competition?

    I agree with the safety issue , of course, you wouldn’t want something to fall onto your head while waiting for food in front of food carts, would you?

  36. What a coincidence that restaurants are losing money, laying people off, and/or closing and suddenly the City is concerned about covered “patios”. I think if you follow the money trail you’ll find the real reason why food carts are coming under so much scrutiny suddenly. I own the Burger Jerk on 4th and College and I have a covered order window that is affected by this crackdown. I have been researching this and I have found that you only need a permit to construct a deck greater than 30 inches above ground. If it’s less than 30 inches there is no permit required. So maybe the city is trying to say that a deck is an “addition” to our carts but this is really unclear in what Randy Leonard has been saying. Ok, so we will just work around the system at our cart by making our covered deck an awning which doesn’t require the permit, but will that be the end of this? Probably not. I think that if the city were really worried about safety of it’s citizens then it should be scrutinizing the amount of carts being operated without health inspections. Next time you’re out at a cart ask to see their inspection receipt and their report showing their score. I eat at carts quite often and I always ask to see it. If they don’t have one I don’t eat there. If they got less than a 90, I don’t eat there. I believe this whole mess is about money that restaurants are losing to carts and it’s all a matter of them being a sore loser. Instead of altering their business model to compete effectively, they are trying to shut us down so that you have to spend $10 for a burger and fries instead of getting it from us for $5. Follow the money trail and see where it leads. Sorry to ramble but this whole permit business is an attack on my livelihood and therefore an attack on my family. Maybe us cart owners need to get together and form a lobby of our own to protect us from idiots like Mr. Leonard.

  37. City of Portland. You are welcome for all the free positive press you have received due to your beautiful food carts. Randy, Suck it slacker. Where were you the past 20 years? Are you going to hire inspector s before we get evicted? Too inspect all of us before Dec. 15 th? No vote for you dbag.


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