In 2019, a fixture of Portland’s downtown, the Alder Street Food Carts, all rolled away from the city block they called home for years. The food cart pod, home to 55 carts, was shut down to make room for the development of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which is now seeking new investors. In its prime, the pod included carts that became massive Portland hits, from Nong’s Khao Man Gai to the People’s Pig.
One of the largest champions of the carts since their departure has been Keith Jones, the executive director for Friends of the Green Loop. The Green Loop is an initiative to create a car-free, six-mile park encircling the core of the city. Jones also has a vision for the Alder Street food carts: to have them run along the park, as part of the future Green Loop.
The City of Portland agrees: This month, Portland City Council voted to approve Mayor Ted Wheeler’s budget, which sets aside $269,000 to relocate Alder Street carts to Ankeny Square in the North Park Blocks; City Council will vote again in June for the final vote. The Green Loop pod will host 22 to 28 carts to start, before the team addresses the rest of the carts looking for a home. (Ultimately, not all 55 will land on the park, as some have permanently closed or move into other pods.) The funding from the city may also signal a shift in how Portland food carts could operate in the future — away from pods on privately owned land, which are vulnerable to development, and toward public grounds like parks.
In the past few years, many food cart pods have been displaced to make room for larger developments: Some Alder-area carts had previously moved out for the Moxy Hotel development, and the Tidbit pod shut down in 2017. Some developers have poured real money into developing more intricate pods — with taprooms, bars, and fire pits — but the potential for displacement has always made some food cart owners nervous.
In his closing announcement back in March, Grilled Cheese Grill owner Matt Breslow addressed the looming risk of development: At the end of 2020, he found out that his Alberta lot was going to be sold to a developer; he had two years to relocate, but he wasn’t necessarily interested. “Having been through an awfully difficult 2019 when we all got kicked off our downtown lot for the indispensable construction of a Ritz Carlton and moving unsuccessfully 7 blocks away, I realized that no matter how much love I had for this business, it just wasn’t enough to have to reopen after a year-plus pandemic closure just to have to relocate and start from scratch some place else a year or so later,” he said in the statement.
Jones is hoping that building a model for more public food cart pods may be a solution to the constant risk of development displacing food carts. Traditionally, food cart pods existed on privately owned land, with those land owners behaving like landlords; Friends of the Green Loop, a nonprofit, will act as a sort of management company for the carts, and any revenue from those rental and utility fees will go into maintenance of the park and the larger culinary corridor project along the Green Loop. This private-public option also makes room for more input from cart owners, with funds going back into the pod at large. “As Portland develops, [food carts] were always going to be displaced on these lots,” Jones says. “We want to show the city how a private-public partnership could work on this.”
Moving these carts from Alder to the North Park Blocks has been a long process, one that predates the most recent budget. Back in 2019, Friends of the Green Loop began fundraising to relocate the carts, and Jones helped move some of the carts out of the pod. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jones lost one of the main investors on the project and was struggling to get permits. Former City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who Jones described as the project’s “champion,” lost her re-election bid. But now, with the new budget approval, the new food cart is moving forward, and should open in July.
One challenge to opening a food cart pod in a park is the infrastructure. Carts need access to power, water, and greywater disposal, so part of the city’s funding will go into building the carts what they need to operate. “If we’re going to move the food cart from a parking lot to a street, how do we do it?” Jones says. “The power has been the most difficult part of this... I’m looking at a food digester that takes food waste and turns it into energy.”
But Jones is thinking beyond the logistics — he wants the cart owners to have more of a say in how the pod is run and managed. The food cart owners will have an advisory committee for the project, and food cart owner Jane Kim, who owns #1 Bento, is a part of the Friends of the Green Loop’s board of advisors. “I want it to be a collective, where we can grow together,” Jones says. “Portland cares about these carts, food cart culture. The people who reach out to me are always coming from a place of emotional connection.”
• Friends of the Green Loop [Official]
• Portland City Council approves funding to give displaced food carts new home in downtown [O]
• Can Portland’s Food Carts Survive the City’s Development Boom? [E]