Front-yard food cart is unusual but legal, to dismay of some
Fongchan Kaewfan, who serves hungry lunch customers Thai food from a trailer perched on the lawn of her North Portland home, has caused a bit of a stir at Portland City Hall, sparked a new round of talks about regulatory changes and touched off a lively debate among her neighbors.
'It's cheap food,' the native of Thailand said. 'I saw the front of my house and said, 'I could make business.' '
But the sight of the trailer prompts double takes from strangers.
'This was the first one we'd ever seen in front of a house,' said Jackie Phillips, customer service manager for the city's Bureau of Development Services.
The bureau sent out a code compliance officer to see if Kaewfan's Pad Thai to Go business Ñ at 2034 N. Killingsworth St. Ñ met city regulations. It did, but its location surprised the investigator.
'If in fact the neighborhood is affected, we would try to work with them in a mediation situation,' Phillips said. 'We write the code for 90 percent of businesses, and you can't write to every single situation possible. Most people wouldn't put it into a residential area.'
However, Kaewfan has every right to set up the eatery on her property, which is zoned commercial and sits amid a strip of North Killingsworth restaurants and convenience stores. Since June 9, she's served her green curry and pad siew to about a dozen diners a day.
Ben and Pam Yates, who live a block away, welcomed Kaewfan's business in the mixed commercial and residential neighborhood but wish it were more permanent.
But Bill Lockner, owner of Beaterville Cafe just down the street, at 2201 N. Killingsworth, called the white trailer 'pretty tacky. They can bust kids for selling lemonade, so how do they get away with this?'
Kurt Pierens, owner of Pierens Automotive, said it was discouraging to see the arrival of Pad Thai to Go because the neighborhood 'has really changed for the good: the restaurants, dog wash. The area has really improved. It's a nice little strip.'
George Spaulding, former land use chairman for the Overlook Neighborhood Association, said the group has no policy on food trailers but would discuss it at its monthly meeting.
Kaewfan's husband, Ron Fizzell, said the couple plan to keep the trailer in their front yard through the summer. By fall, he said, they hope to open a traditional storefront on North Interstate Avenue.
Meanwhile, if people are unhappy with the business, Fizzell said, he's willing to work with them. On Wednesday, the couple moved their trailer to the edge of the driveway.
'If the issue is being on the grass, that is really the only thing I could see as a potential problem,' he said. 'The city wants all businesses on a paved path. If it proves to be a problem, I'll do a paved approach to service customers, or move to a parking lot.'
Kitchen vs. kitchen
However briefly Kaewfan does business out of her humble trailer on Killingsworth, she has reignited a long-simmering battle between restaurants and food trailers.
Almost a year ago, downtown restaurant owners organized into a group called FARE, the Formal Association of Restaurant Entrepreneurs, to discuss what they saw as 'unfair competition' from food trailers offering lunch fare.
City officials researched Portland's licensing policy, taxes and fees and passed on their information to the Portland Business Alliance, which now is in the process of discussing the issue, said Sam Adams, Mayor Vera Katz's chief of staff.
'We asked the PBA to look at it,' he said.
With the economic downturn, the number of coffee carts and food trailers has proliferated Ñ a record 78 trailer licenses have been issued by the Multnomah County Health Department since January. There are now 384 mobile units operating, everything from push carts to small trailers to full-service restaurants.
'Food trailers can be a lower cost of entry to a (restaurant) venture,' said Michael McCallum, president of the Oregon Restaurant Association.
Because of the businesses' proliferation, both McCallum and city officials said it may be time to reconsider the regulations governing their use.
'I don't think current ordinances anticipate the entrepreneurial endeavors that exist today,' McCallum said. 'Clearly this is an innovative industry, and I don't want to stop it from being so. At the same time, there are some basic concerns that need to be addressed.'
Change on the range
The city probably will look to the restaurant industry to propose changes, McCallum said. They may include new ordinances related to trailer location and licensing as well as public safety issues such as hand washing, trash and restrooms. There are costs for providing sanitation for the industry that are borne by bricks-and-mortar businesses, he said.
'There is a basic fairness question that has to be reckoned with,' McCallum said. 'In some instances, the marketplace will take care of this. There's only a certain amount of traffic available for nontraditionals.'
The Bureau of Development Services is preparing a brochure to inform trailer and cart owners what the regulations are. The brochure will be published in the next two months, said the bureau's Phillips.
'We'll gather people together and have a discussion about what to include in the brochure,' she said.