Vegan sushi cart Mitate had only been open for two weeks when Portland’s record-breaking heat wave hit. Owners Summer and Nino Ortiz, who had worked in restaurants before opening their cart, struggled with whether they should stay open — it’s just the weather, right? “We went, ‘Well, if you close for this one, do you close every time it gets hot?’” Nino Ortiz remembers. But before the heat even reached its peak, the Ortizes decided to shut down. “After 95 degrees, I can’t even focus,” he says. “I’m managing my tickets and I’m not thinking quick enough.”
These internal debates have become more frequent within Portland’s food cart community. Portland is known for its food cart culture, with numerous pods scattered across town. For years, chefs gravitated toward food carts for their low overhead and flexibility, but as hurdles begin to stack on top of one another — labor and supply shortages, COVID-19 surges, debilitating heat — one of Portland’s most distinctive food scenes is fighting for its future.
Anyone who has tried to cook in the summer without air conditioning knows how hot a kitchen can get: The heat of a burner or oven will increase the temperature, even with ventilation. Now, imagine that kitchen is uninsulated and made of metal. That’s what it’s like to work in a food cart in the summer, even in double-digit temperatures. “It’s essentially a convection oven we’re standing in,” says Leah Tucker, founder of the Oregon Mobile Food Vendor Association. “When temperatures reach 95 degrees, and then you add a cook-top or a fryer, and you twirl that (heat) around with a fan, you’re at 125 to 145 degrees in a cart.”
Working in food carts through the summer, heat exhaustion has become increasingly common among food cart workers. When a human’s body temperature reaches above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, heat stroke sets in, which can be fatal. Mike Aldridge, the owner of MidCity Smashburger, originally planned to stay open through the June heatwave. But before temperatures hit 100 degrees, he shut it down. “We were exhausted, heat-stroked out,” he says. “It’s for the safety of staff and myself, but also I don’t want people standing in 108 degrees waiting for a cheeseburger. It’s not conducive to long-term business.”
Even closing early, Aldridge experienced financial losses beyond the lost days of revenue: His cooler broke down, spoiling $1,000 worth of product; the whole ordeal cost him somewhere between $3,000 and $4,000. By the time news of the projected August heat wave emerged, Aldridge decided to close early, to avoid wasting ingredients and let his employees make plans for the break; Aldridge headed out to Bend before the heat started to climb. “I didn’t want to risk the product, and I didn’t want to risk anybody’s health,” he says. “We’ve been busting our asses since January, we’re super busy, so we went, ‘Alright, let’s just call it ahead of time, not the day before. My team can make plans, maybe even enjoy the time like I did.’”
Jacky Ren, the owner of jianbing cart Bing Mi, has dealt with enough days above 95 in a food cart that the team has a standing heat wave plan: Ren moves all of the product into the cart’s stronger fridge, fills that fridge with extra ice, and sprays the cart down with cold water. The cart then opens for breakfast and lunch, closing before the weather gets too hot. This heat wave, however, Ren decided to close the cart altogether and head to Seattle for a pop-up. “Previously we only had to close on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and snow days when we can’t get running water... I don’t think I ever had to close for the heat, one day tops, but this year, we’ve had to do it so many times already,” Ren says. “Now, we were prepared... But other carts in the pod, they watched their fridges break down. When it’s 110 outside, it’s like 140 in the cart. It’s just a tin box.”
While temporarily closing down the cart is a potential solution, not every food cart owner can. After dealing with a tumultuous winter, a pandemic, and the financial challenges of product and worker shortages, many cart owners are bracing for the months ahead. “We try to make all of our money for the year during the summer so we can get through the winter. I don’t think it’s that way anymore,” says Kyle Rensmeyer, the owner of barbecue cart Holy Trinity. “The crew relies on us being open for them to make money, to get a paycheck. If we have to close down, they don’t get paid, and that’s really challenging as an employer.” Instead of closing, Holy Trinity stayed open for lunch, with a truncated menu that doesn’t require 16 hours in front of a smoker.
The heat hasn’t been the sole factor causing strife for food cart workers, in their perspectives; it’s the compounding challenges of running a food business right now. Distributors are dealing with worker shortages and COVID-19 outbreaks, which leaves the shelves at restaurant supply shops empty. Heat waves and wildfire smoke have made outdoor work physically dangerous. The stress of working through the pandemic has pushed some food cart owners out of the business. “I think the bigger issue this year and last year, we’re having hot days where we have to close on top of an already insane restaurant environment,” Tucker says. “When you have a hot day and you have to close, it’s just another nail in a coffin.”
As the delta variant fuels yet another wave of COVID-19, and environmental scientists project more hot days in our future, food carts remain in an increasingly precarious position. The good news, in the words of these food cart owners, is that Portland diners have been coming back in droves when the temperature drops. “We have a great fanbase,” Aldridge says. “As soon as we’re back open, people are lined up around the block.”