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Ahead of the Heat Wave, Portland Food Carts Are Forced to Get Creative

While some carts are shutting down completely this weekend ahead of the triple-digit temperatures, others are trying out brunch specials, grill kits, and picnic fare as a way to bring in revenue before things get too hot

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A takeout container filled with kimchi and marinated meats.
Some of Kim Jong Grillin’s grill kit accoutrement. Owner Han Ly Hwang is selling meal kits as a way to bring in revenue without working in the extreme heat.
Kim Jong Grillin / Official

Skidbladnir owner Patrick Carney knew this wouldn’t be good: His Nordic food cart — known for meaty, cold-weather dishes like Swedish meatballs and lamb sandwiches — relies on an almost 20-year-old fridge. But with meteorologists expecting potentially record-breaking temperatures in Portland this weekend, he’s nervous the entire fridge will give out. If the fridge dies, he’s out $1,500 to $2,000; if the fridge is full of food, he’s out another $500 to $800.

So, he got crafty: He drilled holes in the metal doors of his cart to let heat escape. He’s changing his menu to avoid turning on the oven entirely, to reduce the potential for radiant heat. And he plans to open and close early each day, with a new brunch menu for the occasion: smorrebrod with chilly shrimp salad, salads with house-cured salmon, omelets. “This whole year has just been, like, pivot after pivot after pivot. Now, I’m almost dizzy just trying to stay open,” he says. “I’m going to make less money this way, but I just have to make enough to survive.”

Food carts have dealt with extreme temperatures for years; it’s a fact of the job. In years before 2020, a heat wave generally resulted in a cart shutting down early for a day or two, if that. But after more than a year adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfire smoke, and snowstorms, many cart owners feel like they can’t sacrifice the lost revenue. Instead, they’re figuring out yet another solution to the escalating number of problems food service workers face day-to-day.

Food carts are nimble out of necessity: Due to their sheer size, things like storing food can be challenging, and the saturation of food carts in Portland forces folks to take risks in an attempt to stand out. They’re also more exposed to the elements than other restaurants and bars, which makes it hard to control the temperature inside a cart during extreme weather events. Food carts are essentially kitchens in big, metallic boxes; when it gets hot outside, temperatures rise another 10 to 15 degrees inside a cart. Those temperatures get even hotter when carts are reliant on ovens or hot stoves.

Extreme temperatures are, of course, extremely dangerous: When someone’s body temperature reaches 104 degrees, heat stroke begins, causing headaches, dizziness, nausea, and fatigue; by 107 degrees, organs start to fail. As a result, many carts have chosen to simply opt out of working this weekend. “I’m going to be closed on Saturday and Sunday. It’s too damn hot,” Erica Montgomery, the owner of Erica’s Soul Food, said in an Instagram post Thursday. “What do I have to prove? Nothing... I’m not trying to get no brain damage to prove a point.”

Some food cart owners, however, still feel a need to make just enough to get by over the weekend; so, as opposed to flipping burgers or packing up pasta in 100-degree heat, cart owners are adapting menus to avoid the stove, sticking to brunch and shutting down early. Richard and Sophia Le of Matta will actually open their cart this weekend, but only in the mornings; from 10 a.m. to noon, customers can pick up their take on picnic fare, including bún (vermicelli noodle bowls) topped with pork and pan-fried catfish sandwiches. The cart will also have watermelon slushies and mint-lime sodas to cool off. “Let’s be honest y’all, we’ll die in our metal box if we open for usual service this weekend,” an Instagram post on Matta’s page reads. “So instead, we’re gonna come up with a fun takeaway menu for y’all to take to the river or a picnic or an air conditioned situation.”

Han Ly Hwang, the owner of longstanding Korean cart Kim Jong Grillin, decided to close for most of the weekend, but to combat the lost revenue, he’s packing up boxes of grill-ready, marinated meats for customers to make Korean barbecue at home. Customers could pre-order kits to pick up on Saturday morning, and then he and his staff could leave the cart behind before the heat got too unbearable. For him, it was an obvious decision, one born out an innate scrappiness that comes from working in food carts for years. “I’m a food cart, I’m used to being broke, it’s fine,” he says. “I’m not new poor, I’m old poor. I know what I have to do. We’ve always been very scrappy when it comes to this fight... This happens to us every year with the heat: I have built up a little bit of credit, I have an emergency Capital One card, that’ll get me to the next day.”

Looking forward, however, it’s likely these extreme-heat days will become more frequent in Portland; summers are getting hotter and hotter, making some question the sustainability of food cart work altogether. Kyle Rensmeyer of Holy Trinity Barbecue will close his cart all weekend, but in an Instagram post, he hinted at a grim future for him and his fellow cart chefs. “I’m just going to say it right now, the summer is no longer the oasis in the desert that Portland food carts look to in order to make it through the winter months,” he writes. “It’s too unreliable with heat waves and forest fires that threaten our climate and viability. We used to at least be able to look forward to the summer with nice 80 degree days, but I think we’re going to have more closures in our foreseeable future.”

A Running List of Portland Restaurants and Food Carts Shutting Down for the Heat Wave [EPDX]
The Scrappiness of Portland’s Food Carts Made Them Leaders During the Pandemic [EPDX]
Portland-area cooling centers open 24 hours a day during heat wave [O]

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