2009 - a Food Cart Bonanza

December 30, 2009

It has been an amazing year for Portland's food carts. While the country dealt with a horrific recession, Portland's carts seemed to not be affected by the economic decline with an expansion of something like 30%. I joined up here at Food Carts Portland just before the beginning of 2009 and am honored to have taken over as the editor of the site. I'm thankful for all the work Cuisine Bonne Femme did this year and continues to do for the site and for Portland. I have had the wonderful opportunity to eat some great food, discover some new tastes and meet some great people. I'm kinda overwhelmed trying to capture everything that happened. And now for a quick recap:

Some food cart highlights throughout the year:
  • Whiffies Pies opened with much fanfare down at SE 12th and Hawthorne. I highlight Whiffies because throughout the year, Greg Abbot has become an example of how a cart can be successful and be community minded. After a self professed vegan ate 5 Whiffies pies in less than 60 minutes back in the spring, Whiffies launched a pie eating competition. Since then, there have been multiple competitions with proceeds and donations during the events going to local charities. Well done Whiffies.
  • During the year, we saw 3 carts go brick-and-mortar. In December, Spella Coffee opened a cafe in downtown a few blocks from their cart on SW 9th and Alder. The original Spella cart will remain open. Los Gorditas Taqueria, a people's favorite in SE Portland will be opening a restaurant closer in. Finally, Al Forno Ferruzza jumped from cart to restaurant opening a pizzeria in NE Portland of Alberta. Well done all.
  • Mississippi Marketplace, a development specifically for food carts opened in the fall and now has 9 carts operating there focusing on all different types of food. Anchored by PROST!, a German pub, this new venture is a standout for the cart scene as it is the first "pod" that was built from the ground up. Until now, most of the pods had grown organically.
  • Twitter and Facebook became the medium for both carts and their patrons throughout the year. Carts like Koi Fusion, Whiffies, Big Ass Sandwiches, Savor Soup House and BrunchBox to name a few have used Twitter to build buzz, send out specials, let people know about hours or closures and to engage with their customers. Facebook provided the carts a simple and easy venue to have a simple web presence and gain exposure. When new cart owners ask for advice, I first tell them - "open a Twitter account."

  • Deep Fried Double Dog from Bro-Dogs and SideCart. Photo courtesy of elJustino on Flickr

    Food Cart Mashup. A fellow cart customer on Twitter posted about a meal he chose to concoct. He took the double dog from Bro-Dogs and had side cart deep fry it for him. Talk about a gutbomb! I understand it was a great meal.
  • Community - there were many wonderful stories about how the carts and the community came together. One story in particular is about Yarp?!. Throughout the year, they had challenges, but the community always rallied to help them stay open. Customers even did the dishes one day. Yarp?! is still open and loved by all.
  • Coupons and delivery. Again with the power of technology and the internet we saw the launch of services like ForkFly and Foursquare that allowed carts to engage with their customers differently and offer coupons direct to their smartphones. Early in the year, a bike delivery service launched named Fork N Spoon. Sadly, they are no longer around, but Portland Pedal Power filled the void and has become the delivery service of choice for the carts among other businesses downtown. Cater your next corporate lunch from a food cart.

  • Jesse Sandoval from Nuevo Mexico

    Portland Food Carts got a rock star. Jesse Sandoval, formerly of The Shins, opened Nuevo Mexico this past summer. I love Jesse's history since he worked in his grandmother's cart when he was a kid. How cool is that?
  • The Sugar Cube returned. Closed earlier in the year, Kir Jensen regrouped and moved her much beloved desert cart to North Portland and re-opened with a bang! With funding assistance from new programs offered by Mercy Corp and Albina Bank, Kir is an example of a tenacious food cart owner who couldn't be stopped.
2009 Food Cart Trends:
  • Twitter and Facebook - not much more to say other than Wow!

  • Addys Sandwich Bar

    Sandwiches - new carts opened featuring new approaches to the traditional sandwich. Addy's with duck confit on a small baguette; Built to Grill with their muffalettas; DC Vegetarian with their veggie sandwiches; The Big Egg and breakfast sammies and most recently, Big-A** Sandwiches with..well, self explanatory.
  • Vegan food. I think 10 new carts opened this year featuring Vegan food - Native Bowl; Ruby Dragon; Sushi Tree; DC Vegetarian just to name a few. With the trend gaining exposure, we also saw other carts learn and embrace vegetarian and vegan cuisine.
  • Late night: Cartopia, the pod down off SE 12th and Hawthorne defined late night cart food throughout the year. During the summer, that pod is a crazy party atmosphere. Now, other carts are opening by the club area in downtown Portland in order to cater to the late night crowd.
  • Fish! This year welcomed The Frying Scotsman and Rick's Wild Seafood. The Frying Scotsman offers up some amazing fish and chips from a true Scotsman - how much more original can you get? And it is tasty!
  • Throughout the year, we have profiled 56 new carts here on Food Carts Portland. Can I get a collective WOW! for that? And honestly, there are about 20 other carts that have opened and let us know, but we have yet to visit.
  • According to Multnomah County, approvals for food cart licenses are up 30%
  • There are 10,000 plus fans on the Food Carts Portland Facebook page and we love you all!
Portland Food Carts in the media:

Not only is Portland seeing a surge in carts, so are many other cities including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and others. It is a national trend that doesn't seem to be slowing. Some of the newsies included the following: New York Times; Los Angeles Times; MSNBC; Good Morning America; Gormet Magazine; Bon Appetit; The Portland Tribune; MIX Magazine; The Portland Mercury; The Oregonian; StrangeLoveLive; KBOO; OPB Morning Edition and Oregon Business Magazine. Without this wonderful coverage, I don't think the growth would have been as huge.

Some highlights from our readers and friends:
  • A.C on Facebook: In 2009 I began seriously visiting carts thanks to the pod across from the engineering building on PSU campus, and I fell in love with Parker's Waffles and Coffee and Chipollo's, I love me my 4th and College carts!
  • E.J. on Facebook: I tried many new food carts this year. So many new experiences, yet so many more in to come in the new year. Wow, there's a lot of good food out there, but my outstanding experience still lies in Nong's Khao Man Gai. Super Delicious Yum! So simple. So complex.
  • E.B. on FB: K-TACO!!! K-TACO!!! K-TACO!!!
  • E.B (a different one) on FB: Addys Sandwiches! Where else can you get duck for less than $6?
  • N.M. on FB: After my husband and I got married in a small restaurant in SE Portland this summer (The Press Club) we took the after party with our kick-ass friends up to Potato Champion. We ate at picnic tables with bums and riff-raff until 1:30am, still clad in wedding gear. Loved. It. : )
  • B.O on FB: Lunch w/ my kids today on the Grilled Cheese Grill bus. New day after Christmas tradition.
  • @saramurphy on Twiter: 2009 highlight: wood-burning oven (not to be confused w word-burning dogloo) in @pyropizza cart + #vegan pizza
  • @PDXYarp on Twitter: my best experience as an (ex)owner was seeing the community step in to help Yarp?! when I got too ill to work.
  • @webtramp on Twitter: experiences: 8 mi. early a.m. summer bike ride to @brunchbox for the OMG on a fresh english muffin.
  • @yoganutrition on Twitter: love @whiffies, the pies and the ppl who work there! also love potato champion, and savor soup house. love em all!
  • @Whiffies on Twitter: @PDXfoodcarts experiences: you and me on @strangelovelive
  • @wchogg on Twitter: best experience was my wife getting poutine from Potato Champion when I was really sick. Best comfort food ever!
There is no way I can capture all the wonderful experiences of the year. I know I've missed some, so please forgive me. What were your favorite carts? Any special experiences? A special meal?

In the end, a great year. We did see some carts close, but less than 10, so I call it a win for the year. We love this! We get to eat some great food, meet awesome people and have fun. I am really looking forward to 2010 and hope you'll join us at the carts.