clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Jacky Ren and two employees make jianbing within the Bing Mi food cart in Portland, Oregon.
Bing Mi running its food cart during a heat wave.
Carter Hiyama / Eater Portland

Filed under:

A Tale of Two Portland Food Carts and a Stifling Heat Wave

As temperatures climbed above 100 degrees again on Sunday, two food cart owners on opposite sides of the Willamette adapted to stay open

Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

On Sunday, August 13, temperatures in Portland climbed past the 100 degree Fahrenheit mark yet again, the beginning of a multi-day heat wave in the Willamette Valley.

Historically a temperate area, Portland was not particularly designed for triple-digit temperatures: Many buildings in Portland don’t have air conditioning, which includes the city’s restaurants. But Portland’s food cart scene is particularly impacted by temperature spikes, because of the nature of their kitchen. Food carts, often giant metal boxes that trap heat, can get 10 or 20 degrees hotter than the outdoor temperature — sometimes even higher. It creates a challenging, if not dangerous, work environment for the cooks on board, and can create a host of technical problems, including failing fridges.

However, as these heat waves become more common, many Portland food cart owners have developed strategies to handle excessively hot days, whether it involves menu changes, closing early, or popping up elsewhere. Look inside the world of a food cart on a 105-degree day below.

Bing Mi Food Cart on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2023 in Portland, OR. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland
Jacky Ren passes an order out the window of his food cart, Bing Mi. Carter Hiyama / Eater Portland
An air conditioner unit in Bing Mi, which reads 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Carter Hiyama / Eater Portland
Jacky Ren prepares a jianbing within Bing Mi. Carter Hiyama / Eater Portland
A jianbing, prepared with a cracker, egg, and bing sauce, at Bing Mi. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland
Bing Mi. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland
Customers wait in line outside Bing Mi. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland

Jacky Ren knows his way around a heat wave. Part of the reason he opened his restaurant, Bing Mi Dumpling and Noodle Bar, was to have a safe haven for his food cart business of the same name, which specializes in the Northern Chinese crepe dish jianbing. In past years, he has taken Bing Mi to Seattle as a pop-up to escape the heat; he offered jianbing at his other restaurant during a week-long heat wave.

Ahead of this most recent temperature spike, he decided to close the cart on Monday and Tuesday, but open early on Sunday, to let neighborhood locals and tourists order jianbing as he set up for the day. A portable air conditioner-fan ran in the corner, as well as additional fans scattered throughout the cart. All of the hood fans ran on full blast. Still, at noon, the cart was already at 88 degrees, with a line of customers waiting for egg- and sausage-filled jianbing. By 1:30 p.m., Ren sent his employee home. “I’m not as concerned for myself,” Ren says. “I handle heat a little bit better, but my employees, they don’t have to show, or they can leave by one.”

As the heat continued to climb, Ren prepared to close early. The fridge began to struggle when the cart climbed above 100 degrees, so Ren transferred food into a low boy to keep it safe. “Those fridges are not well-insulated,” he says. “We’ll move food to a different fridge, the low-boy style, empty the other fridge, and then close early.”

Ren has rules set for himself. On days where the high is 95 or higher, employees don’t need to show up for work. If it’s over 100, he tries to close by 3 p.m. If it’s over 105 degrees, “it’s not worth it,” he says. “I can’t trust we can keep the food safe.”

The gate at the Lil America Food Cart Pod. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland
The closed carts at Lil America, including Bake on the Run, Speed-o Cappuccino, and Makulit. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland
The seating area at Lil America, under a shaded tent. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland
Frybaby Food Cart at Lil’ America. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland
Sunny Hatch dresses fried chicken at Frybaby. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland
Harvee Bird working the front window at Frybaby in Portland. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland
Fried chicken at Frybaby. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland
A mounted fan at Frybaby. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland
A thermometer checks the oil temperature at Frybaby. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland
Fried chicken at Frybaby. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland
The fryers at Frybaby. Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland

Earlier this year, Sunny Hatch opened his Korean fried chicken cart, Frybaby, during a snowstorm. Six months later, he is still dealing with extreme weather — just on the opposite side of the spectrum.

Hatch was a bartender for 11 years before working in kitchens, including time spent at the Psychic Bar pop-up Sunshine Noodles. “It kind of felt like a food cart, there’s no insulation or anything,” he says. “Whatever temp it is outside, it is unquestionably hotter.”

Like Ren, Hatch arrived at the food cart pod early. He was one of the few carts open, some shutting down for the full week. He struggled with keeping the fridge cold on Sunday, and essentially treated it like an ice chest on a camping trip, opening it as little as possible. More than cooking in the cart, Hatch felt the heat the most while he was trying to close down for the day at 4 p.m. “Obviously it’s hotter to cook in a food cart, but even closing was hard, washing dishes with hot water, so closing took a lot longer than it normally would,” he says.

But more than he struggled with the heat inside the cart, he struggled with the lack of business. During a different hot day, Hatch decided to close the cart; the loss of profits from that day’s worth of work, considering the already slim margins of the food cart business, made staying open during future heat waves imperative. Even so, business was even slower than he had anticipated. “At least if you’re working in a building, you’ll likely still get people who want to hang out in the building, especially if it has air conditioning,” he says. “Going to a food cart pod is much harder of a sell than going to a restaurant.”

A sign that reads “Closed August 8-16. See you Thursday, August 17. We appreciate you!” Carter Hiyama/Eater Portland

Ask Eater: Which Portland Bars and Restaurants Still Have Covered and Heated Patios?

Legendary Portland Restaurateur Brings Espresso Martinis and Buñuelos to Belmont

Portland Restaurant Openings

A Guide to Portland’s Bar, Restaurant, and Food Cart Openings