Just before the pandemic brought the restaurant industry to a grinding halt, XLB, a Chinese spot known for its eponymous soup dumplings, was on a path of expansion that many restaurants aspire to. Owners Jasper Shen and Linh Tran had just opened their second location in Slabtown, and their original North Williams location was going three years strong. In the wake of laying off three-quarters of their staff and scaling back to one location, Shen and Tran decided to shift their focus.
“[We] started to have this discussion of what’s happening in the Portland food world,” Tran says. “What does it look like? What is going to be the future of it? Who is shaping it, and how are these things developing?”
Years later, Shen and Tran have found a way to be a part of that change. In early fall, a melting pot of cuisines represented by a handful of food carts will land in their new Southeast Portland food cart pod, Lil’ America, specifically focusing on carts owned by BIPOC and LGBTQ Portlanders. Lil’ America, which is set to open on Southeast 10th Avenue and Southeast Stark Street, will consist of four to eight carts, anchored by a new taproom from Fracture Brewing and Dos Hermanos bakery. The new community-focused restaurant group Win Win — founded by Shen, Tran, and multidisciplinary artist Catie Hannigan — will help run the pod and choose its tenants, with the help of established restaurant group Chefstable, a longtime partner of XLB.
With a combined 35 years spent working in restaurants, the founders of Win Win want to use their experience to help guide new restaurant owners, whether they’re in the early stages of putting together a business plan, want assistance with fine-tuning their menu, or need support with hiring and training. By providing structure and guidance, Win Win hopes to break down the barriers to ownership that BIPOC and LGBTQ communities often face.
At the same time, Win Win wants to carve out a space free from the toxicity the industry is known for. “The food industry has systemic issues and I don’t know what it’s going to take to overcome that,” Tran says. “But I do know that we need to start trying and I think that Portland is a perfect place to do that.”
Although Shen and Tran come from a background of brick-and-mortar restaurants, they’re energized by the food cart scene, which has created a strong narrative in and for Portland. But Tran says that realistically, the local food cart industry isn’t the best when it comes to accessing facilities. “There are some people who are building food cart pods for profit, and they just don’t offer enough,” Tran says. In other cases, carts are simply parked in an empty lot. Through their partnership with Chefstable, Lil’ America will provide structure, with cold and dry storage, electricity, access to restrooms, and a support system.
Makulít, a forthcoming Filipino cart from XLB sous chef Mike Bautista, is the first business to sign on with Lil’ America. Ideally, the pod will integrate a mix of other fledgling businesses and established food carts. The restaurant group’s next step is figuring out sustainable funding, which they hope to secure through partnering with local nonprofits and organizations such as Prosper Portland and MESO.
“We just want to get to a place where people know that there are people they can reach out to that want to open the door,” Tran says. “We’ve seen the power of community. I think that if we can just embrace that a little bit more and make an effort, we can help a lot of people be a part of it.”
Lil’ America is projected to open in September 2022 and is now accepting applications from interested food businesses.