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Four-day event wipes off dust, moves away from the waterfront; patrons can taste great food from food cart operations and restaurants

COURTESY: KURT JOHNSON - Great food and libations are on the menu for The Bite of Oregon, Friday-Monday, Sept. 1-4 at the Rose Quarter.A great many people make and serve food in Portland — restaurants, of course, and in recent years carts of all sorts — but not all of their establishments survive.

It comes down to quality, service and location — and marketing, as in branding and storytelling. The reinvigorated Bite of Oregon, which takes place over Labor Day weekend and at the Rose Quarter for the first time, features many food carts, some of which hope to make it big enough to go the "brick-and-mortar" route. But it's not easy.

"Most of the food carts that stay in business have very good food. Five years ago some weren't," says Steven Shomler, a podcaster, culinary personality and author. "Most people know you need really good food. And, you have to have a good brand and be good at storytelling and market it. It's the nature of the beast, same thing with breweries."

He adds: "Food carts have a high failure rate. If a food cart can make it through the second winter, they usually do pretty good. By then they've learned the routine. ... You need to have good food and an interesting sounding name and be good at social media — get your name out there."

Shomler, who has written "Portland Food Cart Stories" and "Portland Beer Stories," has helped recruit food carts and other eating establishments to show their stuff at The Bite. And, he will host the first Food Cart Cook-off, showcasing top food cart chefs. He and a chef friend, Rodney Woodley, will do the judging.

Shomler says most food carts feature high-quality foods, it's a reason many of them decide to go brick-and-mortar. "It's a good way to get started and build your brand," he says. "It makes it easier to make the leap to brick-and-mortar."

COURTESY PHOTO - The Bite of Oregon features food from food carts and brick-and-mortar restaurants, each looking for their niche in a highly competitive culinary market in Portland.Leah Tucker, owner of City Slickers, an Americana food truck that features inspired creations from around the country, says she wants to take her business brick-and-mortar. She has received positive feedback — and customers — over the past two years at her location at Piknik Park on Southeast Tacoma Street in Sellwood. She's looking to The Bite to help raise her standing in the highly competitive food cart world even more.

"I think I'm doing well for a startup," she says. "I've survived this long, through one of Oregon's worst winters.

"I've never seen myself as this giant chef. My dream has always been to have one of those anchor restaurants, a place where your kids go as they grow up and their kids go there, the place the community knows."

It's still in the planning stages. For now, she has become noted for her sandwiches — Philly cheesesteak, Chicago Italian beef sandwiches — as well as Cincinnati chili and hot dogs with Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Seattle flair.

The competition's tough out there. Food cart pods have sprung up all over the city and suburbs. Many have transitioned into permanent restaurants.

"I think Portland has made a name for itself doing that, starting with a food cart or truck, and you hope what you sell and make is viable," she says, "that people like it enough to make it big and better.

"It can be hard to separate yourself from the rest of field. I'm super passionate about Americana, I love the history of food. Bringing that set me aside from the standard burger joint and Philly cheesesteak place."

Food carts and regular restaurants will have new dynamics at The Bite, with the event taking place over four days (rather than three) of Labor Day weekend and now at the Rose Quarter, rather than earlier and at Waterfront Park. And, the Trail Blazers have become partners.

"We've been looking at potentially moving (location) for three years," says Chad Carter, senior director of marketing and communications for Special Olympics, which organizes and benefits from The Bite. "Waterfront Park was a great home for a long time. ... In talking with the Trail Blazers, and what they want to do with Rose Quarter space, it was the perfect fit. Now was the time to go ahead and give it a shot."

Logistically, the Rose Quarter has close access to public transportation, provides $5 parking in the Garden Garage and the Veterans Memorial Coliseum provides shade. And, because it's on concrete surface, The Bite won't be affected by dirt and dust, which became problematic at Waterfront Park in August.

"The heat has always been a big issue," Carter says. "Moving it two weeks later provides a little bit of relief from that."

He adds: "By doing the move, we get the opportunity to freshen up the overall experience; anything after 35 years could stand to be livened up. The move in its totality was something people were really excited about."

Tucker is happy to be part of The Bite, and reiterated that a food event in a dusty area can be troublesome. "I love the location. It's like a first year starting over, you're laying the foundation for future years," she says.

The Bite is one of the biggest fundraisers for the Special Olympics. Tucker has a 15-year-old special-needs son, who's on the autistic spectrum. "What Special Olympics does is crucial for the special-needs community," she says. "They honor and celebrate individuals and their abilities and disabilities, and that's what we need more of."

The Bite details:

The Bite of Oregon is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Monday, Sept. 1-4, at the Rose Quarter. The theme is Savor the Seven Regions, as in the seven regions of Oregon. There'll be top chefs, wines, the Oregon Craft Beer Garden, and spirits and foods featuring Oregon products from around the state.

In addition to the Food Cart Cook-off, the Iron Chef Oregon competition returns, featuring Josh Dorcak of MAS, George Morris of Bos Taurus, Alejandro Cruz of Novo, and Billy Buscher of Seven Feathers Casino Resort.

And, spectators can join in the action by entering to compete in the Major League Hot Dog Eating Contest, presented by Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs, on Monday, Sept. 4.

Advance tickets are $5. For more: www.biteoforegon.com.

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