For more than three decades — before Cartopia, before Prost Marketplace, before the Portland Mercado — a line of food carts has stretched along Southwest Fifth Avenue in Portland between Southwest Harvey Milk and Southwest Oak streets. Its existence in downtown Portland predates the time the city thought specifically about “pods,” these clusters of food carts with shared seating, fire pits, and string lights. The Fifth Avenue pod had none of those things; it didn’t have a catchy name, like the Barley Pod or Lil’ America. It just had carts, ones that became lunchtime traditions for the workers downtown and tourist fuel during the city’s heyday.
That’s about to change. With the investment of financial app and neighboring business Expensify, the Southwest Fifth Avenue pod will get a major renovation and update, with room for 30 carts, seating for more than 300 people, a bar cart with beer on tap, and a stage for concerts and events.
Chefstable — the restaurant group behind places like St. Jack and Lardo — is helping out with the redevelopment of the pod, which will also get a fresh new name: the Midtown Beer Garden. Chefstable is also a partner in the BIPOC and LGBTQIA-specific food cart pod Lil’ America, which opened earlier this year. “What I like personally about the project is that we can make a big impact in a neighborhood, create something dynamic in a neighborhood, much faster than us doing another restaurant,” says CEO Kurt Huffman.
The Southwest Fifth Avenue pod has had its fair share of challenges in recent years. As the pandemic had workers telecommuting and tourists staying home, the pod lost the vast majority of its customer base. Cart owners dealt with consistent vandalism. And in the summer of 2022, a food cart exploded within the pod, causing damage to other carts nearby. In response, the updated pod will be completely fenced and offer onsite security at all times, including a security guard while the pod is closed and evening patrols.
The pod will also offer daily cleaning service and heated tents for seating. As a benefit for the cart owners, the pod is offering the full first month of rent for free to all businesses that open when the pod opens, theoretically in July 2023.
“The Expensify global headquarters are right next door to the food truck pod on Fifth and Harvey Milk, and we go there every day,” says David Barrett, founder and CEO of Expensify, in a press release. “It’s had a long string of bad luck, and we’re going to work with the rest of Midtown to turn that around.”