Freeing Food Carts

Outdated rules 86 street food in Seattle and Vancouver; Portland thrives.
This post is part of the research project: Making Sustainability Legal
Portland's laws are Poutine-friendly. When will Seattle and Vancouver catch up? Photo by pkingdesign, flickr.

Portland's laws are Poutine-friendly. When will Seattle and Vancouver catch up? Photo by pkingdesign, flickr.

Editor’s note: Eric posted Seattle and Vancouver follow ups to this piece.

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.

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

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'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 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—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

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?

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 www.foodcartsportland.com, and Vancouver’s come from the city.

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Comments

  1. Matt the Engineer says:

    Some of the best street food streets in Bangkok are small side streets off main thouroghfares. What if Seattle allowed food carts in alleys? I can think of a dozen alleys where this would work well downtown. You’d need to add a few requirements, like requiring garbage and delivery truck access through one side of the alley or clearing out completely at certain times in the day, but this could work. I’m picturing a single truck parked perpendicular a good 30′ in, and push carts lining both sides of the alley from there to the sidewalk.

    • Eric Hess says:

      Alleys are certainly a great place for street food!

  2. Claire says:

    I love Portland street food. Some carts are good, some are not, but it’s a neat experience!

  3. JT says:

    The caption says “Portland’s laws are Poutine-friendly. When will Seattle and Portland catch up?”

    Should that second Portland perhaps be “Vancouver”?

    • Eric Hess says:

      Thanks, JT. Fixed. Vancouver should be most Poutine-friendly, given it’s a Canadian dish!

  4. Ami says:

    You’re including all of King County and Seattle in your graph, versus just Portland and Vancouver. That doesn’t really seem like a fair comparison.

    • Eric Hess says:

      I know it’s not perfect, and say so much in the note at the bottom of the post. Permits are issued by the King County health department, and because carts are mobile they can’t measure how many operate in Seattle. The King County numbers are also tough because they include Risk 1 food carts, which vend simple things like hotdogs and coffee.

      Even if there’s a higher concentration in Seattle than greater King County (and I actually think that a large share of the carts operate in the ‘burbs), it’s still nowhere near Portland’s.

  5. Paul says:

    “Street food is smart for sustainability” ? Huh? I like street food and I’m glad there are more coming to Seattle.

    But just because we like something, it doesn’t make it environmentally friendly. A sit down restaurant with washable and re-usable plates and forks is pretty much a clear winner environmentally over a type of restaurant that pretty much requires disposable utensils and food containers. Even if they make them compostable, that still isn’t as good for the ecology as a good dish washer.

    I think food trucks are great, but I don’t fool myself that they are good for the ecology (you will notice they are “trucks”, even trucks rarely moved burn more gas, with the attendant pollution, then any restaurant in a building)

    • Herman says:

      Your comment on sustainability is correct. There are a lot of things that could be done to help create a more sustainable food truck scene. One thing being done in Portland could move to Seattle, check out: http://www.goboxpdx.com/ . They have created a system of reusable containers which are washed in a commercial facility for use at the carts.
      Other things Seattle and Vancouver could do is harness the electric car infrastructure they are installing and create a way for food trucks to plug into the grid. Might be as simple as another plug in location right next to an electric car spot. Lots of things those $1000 permits could fund, which might create more incentive for trucks to pay the fee if there was a reason to pay it.

    • Eric Hess says:

      I think it’s a fallacy to assume that most food cart meals supplant restaurant ones. Sure they do, in some cases. But a lot of food cart meals take the place of to-go lunches from workers (where they’d also be getting disposables), or late night snacks.

      Also, while not superior to the dishwasher, I imaging Seattle’s rules dictating recyclable or compostable food containers covers street food.

  6. Kelly Rodgers says:

    One of the key reasons that Portland’s carts have thrived is because they didn’t fit neatly into existing code regulations. They are essentially regarded as “vehicles” in terms of city code, and hence able to park on lots as any car would. They are, of course, required to comply with Multnomah County health code (the same code as restaurants), so they have appropriate regulatory coverage there.

    Whether or not this haphazard regulatory approach will continue to be a successful framework for the food carts remains to be seen. As the cart numbers increase, more issues have surfaced that are causing some grumbling in the restaurant industry and city hall.

    For more information about the background of the cart explosion in Portland – including the role of Portland’s culture, economy, and regulatory environment, please check out Cartopia: Portland’s Food Cart Revolution, which I coauthored in 2010.

    • Eric Hess says:

      Hi Kelly, love the book! I think you nailed it: food carts crept in to a regulatory gap, but now that they’re here the city has to deal with an established industry. In Vancouver and Seattle, the city can write the codes as they wish, because there isn’t an industry to consult with.

      I do think we’re seeing a bit of a balloon in Portland, one that will probably deflate a bit in the future. One thing I’d be curious to know more about is the shifting demographics of cart owners. The first carts were often immigrants, looking to continue a trend of small business ownership. I wonder if, with the boom, vendors now are a different demographic.

      • Kelly Rodgers says:

        Hi Eric -

        I’ll let you know ;). I’m doing some follow-up research with PSU faculty and students.

        Kelly

  7. Jay Becker says:

    I just read the Seattle-King County requirements for a food cart permit and I agree they are extensive, 13 pages of “first step” things to do. Draconian? No. Clear. Yes. All the things asked are what a savvy food cart operator would want to do anyway. Perhaps what’s needed are phased steps spread over a more pragmatic timeline to allow food vendors to conform in as they gain some experience. Oer, perhaps, some low cost consultants to help would-be cart operators take each step.
    Operating a permitting operation to protect the public and also insisting that it be paid for by cost fees undercuts community satisfaction with the service rendered (“All they want is money to operate,” is one gripe I hear repeated.)The larger public’s interest suggests the larger public should help pay pay for the permitting operation.

    • Eric Hess says:

      I didn’t call the new regulations draconian—I said that about the old ones, limiting street cuisine to hotdogs, coffee, and the like. I don’t think Seattle’s process is overbearing, but the attitude is still a bit over-protective of brick and mortar restaurants.

      Steps the city could take? Pick out two dozen spots downtown that meet their standards and list them for vendors. Nix the 50ft setback rule. Cut the commissary kitchen requirement.

      The problem isn’t so much with getting carts started, it’s about them finding convenient, profitable places to sell from.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      • Herman says:

        Your comment to nix the commissary requirement strikes me as shortsighted. Yes, it you want to see potential health incidents rise from truck food. Commissary kitchens are supposed to be sanitary, inspected facilities where food can be prepared commercially. I do not want to eat truck food that was prepared in someones house, as I know that it was never inspected for food safety.

      • Matt the Engineer says:

        It seems a good compromise would be to allow preperation anywhere that can be inspected – including the food truck itself.

      • Drew says:

        I completely agree that the commissary kitchen requirement is stifling. Finding a large commercial kitchen where you can park a food cart demands more overhead than the food cart itself. It would only be worthwhile to pay for your own commissary if you owned a company operating a fleet of food carts.
        As I recall, this is in the King County health code so it is beyond Seattle’s ability to regulate. Perhaps a solution would be the creation of a food cart hub with seed money from the $1000 permits and reasonable rent gathered from a collective of food cart owners.

      • Eric Hess says:

        Drew–The $1000 permitting basically covers the cost of inspections. You’re right that the health code is governed by the County.

        Generally, I’m in favor setting standards wherever the food is being prepped. If you want a commissary, get that approved. If you want to prep in your truck, a truck could be approved.

  8. Jay Becker says:

    I just read the Seattle-King County requirements for a food cart permit and I agree they are extensive, 13 pages of “first step” things to do, for example. Draconian? No. Clear. Yes. All the things asked are what a savvy food cart operator would want to do anyway eventually. Perhaps what’s needed are phased steps spread over a more pragmatic timeline to allow food vendors to conform as they gain experience. Or, perhaps, some low cost consultants to help would-be cart operators take each step and gain experience.
    Operating a permitting operation to protect the public and also insisting that it be paid for by steep fees, compared to possible income, undercuts community satisfaction with the service rendered (“All they want is money,” is one gripe I hear repeated about the county’s permitting operations.)The larger public’s interest suggests the larger public or the ongoing food cart operations should help pay for the permitting operation. More inspectors roaming around might be a better bet than steep threshold costs.

  9. Daniel R. Miller says:

    So Seattle requires carts to return to a commissary at night, and can’t be adjoining another food business? There’s the reason right there that only a few new carts have opened! In Portland the carts team up together in quasi-permanent pods (no requirement to leave every night and return the next day anew, what a drain that would be on an already challenged new business!), oftentimes adjoining an established restaurant or tavern. This is a recipe for a very successful synergy in several locations (for ex. the carts next to Prost tavern at Skidmore and Mississippi, where like at many pods there is an outdoor rain/shade shelter and picnic tables for customers. And Prost allows customers to bring cart food onto its premises, to enjoy along with their beer.)

    Until Seattle modifies its regulations to allow this kind of rootedness and synergy to arise in cart locations, I’m afraid the city’s cart scene will struggle to grow.

    • Cassandra Seaman says:

      I was just talking to about the POD on Mississippi and its relationship with the bar next door. I know that there is one location on the hill that works well with a truck next to a bar that already serves food. I think it does nothing but make a positive effect more people come for different reasons. I lived in that neighborhood for a bit when the POD started and it wasn’t a very good area. Things where up and coming and the shops did okay and then that POD opened and more clothing and food operations opened and more focus on the area started. It is now a young hip area to hang and shop and weather or not the POD had anything to do with it I can’t for sure say but I think it helped.

      Overhead for a food truck in Seattle is really crazy. The average cart in Portland pays about $700 a month for its location. I would have 5 trucks by now if that is all I had to pay a month. Kitchen space is limited and I hear of one kitchen wanting 2 grand a month. When people come to my truck and ask how they can open up a truck and how long it takes I just smile. My friend opened his cart in 2 weeks in Portland to get through LNI and a backed up Health Department it took me starting in Jan and opening in September. Street food isn’t booming because it takes too long to get through the red tape. That is good for existing trucks but not good for people who think they will be open in a timely manner.

  10. steve says:

    I live in northwest Seattle (Ballard) and there is food cart food available daily throughout the “downtown area”. This area is a bit funky as it includes industry, retail, entertainment and residential use. Most of it is advertised as taco, tortilla cusine.

  11. Ethan says:

    An early Food Cart study by our students can be found at: http://www.pdx.edu/usp/master-of-urban-and-regional-planning-workshop-projects

    Look for the “Food Cartology” project included under the 2008 batch of projects. Also, check out the info on temporary uses in the “No Vacancy” project posted under 2009.

    • Eric Hess says:

      Love the Cartology study, Ethan. I’ve linked to it in earlier posts. I’ll look up the No Vacancy one, too.

  12. greg says:

    I am one of the six new food carts that opened in Seattle. The opportunity for a new business looked good when I attended every City Council meeting last year that discussed the changes in policy. The long process time is daunting, however every operator has to go through the same paperwork.

    The point on having an operator find their own location is a good one. I have walked for days scouting a site. The sidewalk conditions in the high traffic areas do not meet the criteria posted by SDOT. Even in newly built neighborhoods, there are not 12′ sidewalks with 6′ unimpeded pedestrian access. All conditions are reasonable for safety; they just don’t exist. If I’ve not discovered the spaces, let me know! By the way, the parking lot operators charge a high daily rent, nearly prohibitive for a single operator cart.

  13. JR says:

    I try NOT to eat at any of these ptomaine food carts in PDX for health reasons, not to mention all the trash they generate. I’d much rather support our local restaurants where you can sit down and eat off dishes, which can be washed.

  14. Traci Wilson says:

    Wow. Ive been really excited by the dream of opening a food truck here in Seattle. After reading this page I feel like my dream is crushed.

  15. Linnie says:

    When I originally commented I seem to have clicked on the
    -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on
    every time a comment is added I get four emails with the same comment.
    Perhaps there is a means you can remove me from
    that service? Thank you!

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