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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Will the Bay Area's Street Food Scene Ever Rival Portland's? No.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 19, 2012 at 4:20 PM

click to enlarge Most of Portland's food carts group together in "pods." - THE COURTYARD/FLICKR
  • The Courtyard/Flickr
  • Most of Portland's food carts group together in "pods."

As I wrote several weeks ago, despite San Francisco city officials' attempts to help the city's food truck scene grow, the conflicts between brick-and-mortar restaurants downtown and food trucks applying for street-parking permits are intensifying. Trucks attempting to park in downtown Oakland are experiencing a similar push-pull from the city and neighboring businesses. (That's nothing compared to the fights happening in Manhattan.)

For all the public's interest in street food, the only American cities that seem to have fostered thriving food-cart scenes are Austin and Portland. Last week, I contacted city agencies and food truck owners in Portland, trying to get some sense whether there's anything Bay Area cities can do to become more like them. The answer: Probably not.

But it's not for the reasons you might think. Portland street-food vendors do have a few regulatory advantages over Bay Area trucks. A 1996 change in Oregon's health-code regulations was responsible for today's food-cart scene, explained Gregg Abbott, owner of Whiffies Fried Pies and a representative for the Portland Food Cart Operators' Cooperative. Before 1996, he says, any food carts or trucks had to prepare their food in an off-site kitchen, called a "commissary," which California also requires of every food truck and cart on the streets.

If you remember back to the 1990s, espresso carts were everywhere, and in Oregon they successfully argued to the state that they were simply preparing espresso drinks and didn't need a full commissary. The state agreed, dropping the regulation (and, consequently, a big chunk of the carts' operating costs).

Espresso carts faded, but in the middle of the last decade, the owners of food carts with full kitchens began taking advantage of the new rules. Over the past five years, they've proliferated -- first downtown, and then in the neighborhoods -- their growth turbo-charged by the recession. The city reports that, as of December 2011, 696 food carts are operating in Portland, most of them in permanent locations. That's more than double the number of trucks in San Francisco.

Most Portland food carts, like all California food trucks, have full kitchens

and are inspected twice a year. According to Abbott, cart owners pay

approximately $500 a year in licenses and fees -- roughly 5 to 10

percent of what Bay Area truck owners pay to cities, counties, and the

state.

But the real difference isn't regulations: It's the structure of the city itself.

The vast majority of the food trucks in Portland are parking on private land, not the street, says Matt Wickstrom of the city's Bureau of Planning & Sustainability. "It needs to be a parking lot that's commercially zoned in order to allow retail activity," he adds. But that's not hard to find. Downtown Portland is far less dense than downtown San Francisco or Oakland -- the city blocks are a checkerboard of buildings and parking lots.

Abbott adds that most of the parking lots are owned by the same business, which decided years ago that it could make more money charging monthly rent to a permanent food vendor than it could on parking fees. There are now five or six major food-cart pods downtown -- some big enough to wrap around the perimeter of the entire block.

Downtown, most San Francisco food trucks must park on the street, and must convince the city that there are no businesses selling "like food" within 300 feet of each parking spot they apply for. And restaurants have the right to protest trucks parking near their business.

Because Portland food carts are parked on private land, there's little that brick-and-mortar restaurants in Portland can do to stave off the onslaught of new competition. The closest San Francisco comes to a Portland-style pod are the Off the Grid events, which occur weekly on city property, and the Lunch Box, a small vacant lot in SOMA that rents out spaces to a rotating cast of trucks. But, with little vacant land in prime locations, San Francisco and downtown Oakland aren't likely to ever see the kind of thriving street-food culture that Portland boasts.

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Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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