Before Jeremy Hansen and Becca Russell first opened their food cart, the Pidgin Hole, in 2017, they started looking at restaurant spaces. The couple, who had met working at Tony Starlight’s Supper Club 10 years earlier, wanted to run their own business, one that could celebrate Hansen’s personal culinary style. After touring a few businesses, they decided to go with a food cart, something they would own outright as opposed to renting. They named their cart the Pidgin Hole — a nod to Hansen’s melting pot heritage, growing up Cantonese American while cooking with his Hawaiian grandfather.
In those five years, the couple has worked through heat domes and freezing temperatures, extreme weather events that disproportionally affect food carts because of their lack of insulation. They stayed afloat through the COVID-19 pandemic, even when they lost event business. Hansen survived a hit-and-run accident, one that put him out of commission for months.
Over the last three years, many food carts have closed, unable to hold on as the weather becomes more unpredictable, labor becomes more scarce, and food costs rise. Some cart owners have transitioned into pop-ups or opened restaurants, grateful for the security of a physical building.
But still, the couple and their business have thrived in those five years: Hansen and Russell have expanded, opening a second cart specializing in sandwiches. While they could have opened a restaurant in that time, the cart owners have opted to stay in the mobile food business for good. In their perspective, the secret to their survival — beyond the food and service — is the fact they’re actually a mobile cart, a relative rarity within Portland’s food cart scene.
In Portland, most of the city’s carts exist within pods, lots that house a variety of stationary carts. Some — like many of the pods downtown — are essentially a parking lot with carts, with no real seating onsite. Others are home to fire pits, bars, brewery taprooms, and event spaces, drawing in families and parties who like the variety of food options in a single place. Many food cart owners have been drawn to pods for the built-in customer base and amenities. But Hansen and Russell see them as more of a challenge than an asset. “You have to be really good at social media to be at a pod,” Russell says. “Rather than sit and wait and hope that someone would find us at a pod, where we may or may not have a bunch of competition ... we go to where the people are.”
“Where the people are” varies over the course of a year. In the summers, the Pidgin Hole pops up at outdoor events, like concerts and festivals. They’ll park near the zoo, or Portland International Raceway. During wedding season, they often end up serving as caterers. In the winter or off-season, they’ll park at various business parks during the lunch rush; during the early days of the pandemic, when people were working from home, they switched up their strategy. “Our booking agent was really smart — she went from business parks to apartment complexes,” Russell says. “That’s what kept us afloat through COVID.”
Other than the cost of the booking agent, staying mobile allows Hansen and Russell to keep their overhead down. They cover the necessary amenities by keeping a generator, fresh water, and grey water tanks on board — a cost they can cover with the event booking business. “If we’re not at an event, making money, we’re not spending money,” Russell says. “We don’t have rent, we don’t have leases, we don’t have that stuff that we’re kind of handcuffed to.”
The event-specific flexibility keeps shifts shorter than the average cart’s — two- or three-hour lunch rushes vs. eight-plus-hour days — and helps them stay nimble when unexpected challenges arise. When Hansen went through his accident, the cart didn’t have to cover expenses while he healed. And when they did get back on the road, they could make up their losses with events — developing loyal followings based on their regular appearances helps bolster business. “We’re going to places that expect us to be there, so people are excited that we’re going to be there,” Russell says. “They don’t see us every week; we sometimes go [to business parks and apartments] once a month. So people will say, ‘I’m so excited you’re here again.’”
It’s not as if the challenges of operating a food cart completely evaporate by going mobile. Russell says the cart reached internal temperatures of 150 degrees Fahrenheit during the last heat dome, and in the winters, she’ll end up wearing snow pants in the cart while she takes orders. But for her, the cart life is worth it.
“We’re at concerts, we’re at events, we’re out in the city doing all these cool things, and the people there feel happy to be out in Portland at all these cool things,” Russell says. “We get to talk to other Portlanders about this cool city that we live in. That’s how we get through the hot days.”