How to Open a Food Cart in Portland


Our good friends at Multnomah County Environmental Health wrote up the following article for you, our readers, eaters and potential cart owners. A big thanks to them for putting this together.

Whether they serve tacos, sandwiches, chicken, donuts or soup, all of the unique food carts in Portland started the same way; a creative idea, hard work and a health department license. At Multnomah County Environmental Health we help operators understand the Food Sanitation Rules and protect the safety of Food Cart employees and customers alike. Now, it is no mistake that the Oregon Food Sanitation Rules are often referred to as the food code. This long document can be complex and a bit convoluted at best. That is what we are here for, to crack the code. To help you navigate your way through the rules so you can open a creative and safe business. As many of you know, opening a food cart, or mobile food unit, is a process and for those toying with the idea of opening one, we wanted to provide a distilled version of that process, a nitty-gritty quick look. So here you have it…

Not all food carts are created equal

There are four classes of food carts, each have varying levels of what can be sold, cooked, prepared, created etc, onboard. Check out the classes and think about which one will best fit the needs of your operation.

  • Class I units are allowed to sell pre-packaged foods and non-potentially hazardous beverages. An example of a Class I unit could be a unit with pre-wrapped hot dogs or a mobile food unit with pre-wrapped sandwiches.
  • Class II carts can sell anything allowed in a Class I plus they can have a hot or cold holding display for unpackaged foods. No cooking or assembly can be done onboard. An example would be a unit that sells chips, soda and hot food items held in warmers made at an approved commissary.
  • Class III can sell anything allowed in a Class I or II, plus assembly and cooking is allowed onboard. The one exception is that no animal products (meat) can be cooked from a raw state onboard. An example would be unit that sells burritos or bento where any meat is precooked at an approved commissary and then assembled per order.
  • Class IV has no menu restrictions; you are a restaurant on wheels.

There are some other important features that all food carts share regardless of class. The application packet explains these features in more detail. Some of these common traits are:

  • All food carts must be “mobile”, meaning they need to be on wheels at all times and ready to move in case of an emergency.
  • All food carts that have unpackaged foods must have a way to wash hands.
  • All food carts need to have a base of operation, often referred to as a commissary, (or warehouse if you only serve packaged foods). There is an exception, you do not need a commissary if:
    • The food cart has all of the equipment on board to ensure foods can be kept out of the temperature danger zone (41°F – 140°F).
    • You can adequately wash your hands with warm water.
    • You can do all warewashing with hot water onboard and have a way to store them.
    • The food cart contains both freshwater and wastewater.
    • You can dispose wastewater via an approved sewage system.

Building or Buying?

Whether you plan to build a food cart from scratch, renovate an existing one, or take one over that has been inactive, you need go through the plan-review process. The plan review process is important because it helps determine if you will have the capacity to hold enough water, if you can support all of the equipment necessary for your kitchen and which class of unit is best for your business. The plan review specialist will look over blueprints and your menu with you to help you ensure that the food cart will meet your needs and be in compliance with code. Check out the application for all the details on the plan review process. Be sure to plan ample time for this process. We get a lot of plan reviews so a response may take up to ten business days. In a hurry? We offer rush or expedited plan reviews for an additional fee.

Time to open!

Once your plan review is approved you can start building or renovating the unit. When construction is done and you are ready to open, complete a mobile food unit license application and submit to Multnomah County Environmental Health Department. An Environmental Health Specialist will then do a pre-opening inspection to help you with any last minute adjustments and then you are good to go! After that you will get a visit from an Environmental Health Specialist twice a year. Explore our resources page for more information about food safety and what to expect during an inspection.

One important thing to note is that there may be other agencies you will be required to obtain approvals from. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Planning (zoning)
  • Building codes (structural, electrical, plumbing, prefabricated structures)
  • Fire Marshal
  • City or county authorities

Review the City of Portland Bureau of Developmental Services website for additional information or call them at (503) 823-7300.

Interested in learning more about opening a food cart? Review the Mobile Unit Operator’s Guide or call our office at (503) 988-3400.

**** Useful Resources ****
Multnomah County Environmental Health – 503 988 3400
Mobile Unit Rules
Food Handler’s Website



  1. Janet K. Tandy/Circle the Wagons says

    A must read!

  2. pdxmomma says

    Excellent work, once again, dieselboi!!

  3. This is great a must for all to check out, for those of you builders of new carts that do not know there is a local business you can get some of the essentials from, Restaurant equipment from restaurant depot over Haden island, se Portland, Roses Restaurant equipment, and the other stuff such as holding tanks,fresh water tanks,water pumps,strainers,filters,water heaters(that operate on lp gas) and much more from Curtis Trailers also home depot and lowes for other kinds of water heaters (electric) good luck all keep Portland Weird

  4. Wow, that’s complicated. It looks like Class IV is the way to go. Does the commissary have to be in a commercial space or can you prep food at home?

  5. @retirebyforty no the kitchen has to be compliant with dhs rules unless you home kitchen is but that is a question best answered by dhs

  6. robb sloan says

    Great info. Never be afraid to ask questions about how somebody did something or where they got it from. And most importand, why. For the most part, cart people are very friendly, proud of what they have done and what to share.

  7. Great post!

  8. Are there any resources to help find available commissary space??

  9. dieselboi says

    Multnomah County inspects and licenses those also. You could contact them to see if they would provide you with a list of licensed commissaries.

  10. FoodCartLover says

    So if i understood this correctly in class 4, if I have a fridge onboard I do not need a commissary?! Also is anyone out there know where to get a decent blueprint for a cart. I’m trying to build one and having a hard time deciding where to place sinks, tanks and power outlets. Please help.

  11. @ FoodCartLover i know of NMK (northwest mobile kitchen) Rich might be able to make a c.a.d. blueprint for you, or you can contact me i can see if i can help too my number is linked to my website just click my name and call me. As for your question class IV does not necessarily mean you don’t need a commissary, the use of a commissary is for food prep,dish washing and food storage, you have to be able to do all of this from your cart or you will need a commissary.

  12. Trying to figure out how to dispose of the wastewater. How are most carts taking care of this problem?

  13. LMCruzmus says

    We are getting an oven for the unit. We looked at a Black & Decker in Walmart – has broil, bake, rotisserie & warm. Does it need to be an industrial oven or will this do? Can’t find a requirements list for appliances that should be used on the food cart.
    Need a response asap, Please!

  14. The health dept. would accept a model like that as long as temp. is correct for warming, more likely that model would not have a warranty if used in a business though i know of at least 12 food carts that have residential stoves call me if i can answer some questions for you

  15. What class would a kettle corn cart be if the corn was popped on-board. Is scooping the corn into bags considered assembly? Guidance is appreciated. -Sara

  16. Stephane Boghossian says

    So I am reading this article and the first thing that they mention is… that
    quote “All food carts must be “mobile”, meaning they need to be on wheels at all times and ready to move in case of an emergency.”

    well I have been to the food cart courts in Portland a couple of time… can someone explain how these units can be considered mobile ? some don;t even have wheels….

    As I am looking into this business myself, I would love to understand this point….. note that I am not judging but I am just wondering how people get around these rules.

  17. dieselboi says

    The law is written that the carts need be able to move. Most if not all carts do still have wheels and the tongue for a trailer hitch. While there may be flat tires or it may appear the wheels are gone because they are hidden, they are required, so most if not all still have them. Hope this helps.

  18. Stephane Boghossian says

    yeah it helps… I am just putting all my pieces together… lol

    So I have another question about the process.
    Is it hard to find a commissaries ? can it be a commercial kitchen ?
    from the article it really sound that it is possible to avoid it if you have a class4 with everythng…

  19. Stephanie:
    You can search Craig’s List in various sections to find offerings for commissary kitchen rental. A better bet for you or anyone needing legit kitchen space is to try to network and find someone who owns a restaurant, coffee shop, bar, bakery, etc, with a full kitchen, that is closed the hours you need one, and make an arrangement. You do still need to complete the required commissary agreement from the Mult Health Dept. Kitchens who advertise these services charge an arm and a leg; the right private business owner will be into the idea of making a few extra bucks per month (or bartering) while their space is being unused.

  20. niramon gypmantasiri says

    I am looking forward to buy a food cart from a person who have a food cart that is in operation. Do I still need to do plan review with the health department? Do I need to register my business online. What else do I need to do? Where can I get help or advice about opening the cart? Thank you

  21. Hi. Great site and thank you.

    Is there a waiting list or lottery for the food cart licenses. I know NYC and maybe other cities do.

    Thanks again

  22. Does anyone know the rules on licensing as far as renting an established food cart?

  23. I would recommend contacting Multnomah County Health.

  24. Hi, I am planning on opening up a food cart around the middle of summertime and I am wondering if part of the pod owners agreement is that you are responsible in disposing of your carts greywater is there a service that does this in Portland?

  25. Fuchia Martinez says

    I have been thinking to maybe start my own food cart business but it seems so complicated. I would much rather go into business with someone interested in having a Jamaican food truck. Since Portland really has nothing like this, I think this would be a great idea. Is there anyone out there who would love to be in a joint venture. hit me up..

  26. Daniel Florea says

    Please tell me how much is the cost of a class 1 permit ? Nothing else Just the cost of the permit!

    Thank you

    Dan Florea

  27. You need to contact Multnomah County. Phone 503-988-3400. Or Google it. Information is available on their website. Probably best to contact the County though so they can answer your questions. Thanks!

  28. This is great but I have a Question for you Guys. Does anybody know where I can install a suppression systems for A food truck hood?

  29. I am interested in slowly entering the food cart business. Initially there is a need for serving great coffee and associated snack food prepared for adults and children at kids sports events. I am located in Southern CA and look for suggestions and advice on the route to a successful plan plus finding a used cart that I can pull with a small truck in Portland. Any ideas? Thank you.

  30. As a clarification, I look to purchase the cart in Portland and move it to Southern California.

  31. Hi! We would like to offer our kitchen as an option. The Micro Mercantes kitchen is an affordable & licensed commissary kitchen in SE PDX that welcomes food businesses at the beginning stages or who are looking to expand. We:
    • Are a non-profit, so 100% of our profits go back in to our program
    • Offer our kitchen at an affordable rate
    • Connect each business in our kitchen with free business advising & training
    • Can guide each business as they apply & start in our kitchen

  32. tommy golberg says

    you should learn from south east asian countries food truck owners , simple and edible , no body dies from food poisoning , and the taste is excellent .

  33. I have land on N. Lombard for food carts. How can I get started?

  34. Hello,

    My name is Kate and I run Tr3s Creative – a Design and Advertising Firm for Breweries, Food Carts/Trucks, and Cannabis. I’ve been in business for two years with many satisfied customer who love excellent service, awesome design, and great prices. Let me know if any of you could use some assistance with Graphic Design, a Website, or Vehicle Wrap Design for your new Food Cart or Truck!

  35. Hi,
    My partner is planning on opening a Mobile Bakery/Coffee (class III) I am trying to find out what requirements are in place ( if any) for food safety, beyond a three compartment sink and minimum water requirements. We have been brick and mortar bakery owners in southern california where health department regulations are, to be frank, EXTREME. I can’t find any information on flooring, walls, ceilings, mechanical (hood requirements, hot water) etc…
    Any information would be greatly appreciated.

  36. I have a food trailer in payson utah it is usually the County can tell you what you need i had to get ahold of the manufacturing place in NY because they wanted to know what the floors were made out of and the ceiling and what the light covers were made out of so when I called the manufacturer they were very helpful then you need to go to the city and regulations and fees and then getting the fire marshal to sign off on the safety stuff and found out they just passes new laws that all fod trucks now need to have fire suppression system thats between $2000- $3000 b4 i can open

  37. Hi All,
    Thinking of starting up a pulled pork food cart. Just wondering how many customers most carts will see in an average week? Can anyone set my bearing on this?

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