Restaurants opening mobile kitchens to compete with carts

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - No problems have been reported at Cartlandia on Southeast 82nd Avenue, the first food cart pod to get a state liquor license.Lisa Wood, co-owner of Big-Ass Sandwiches, had no idea the sides of fry containers needed to be marked with the time they started cooking during their double cooking process. But after a Multnomah County biannual inspection, she learned that and a few other things that needed to be altered in her food cart last year.

“It’s mostly just changing a few ways of how we do things,” Wood says.

Wood wasn’t the only food cart operator to learn new ways to handle food last year. The Multnomah County Environment and Health department completed 1,220 inspections and 61 re-inspections for various violations in 2012. They also received 21 complaints about carts, but every food cart in Multnomah County was inspected twice in 2012, regardless of whether or not any complaints were made.

Environmental Health Specialist Christie Sweitz says the number of violations last year was about the same as in previous years.

“Everybody can always improve,” Sweitz says. “It’s just through learning how to handle food safely.”

The most common complaints include rodents outside of carts, workers failing to wash their hands before handling food and leaking water tanks. All complaints were followed up with an extra inspection, though workers tend to be more careful when inspectors are around, says Sweitz.

The most common violations were improper hand washing and carts failing to have the proper equipment to cool and store food. And again, those leaking water tanks.

Water tanks tend to be the most common violation, Sweitz says, because they are unique to food carts among food purveyors.

Overall, the food cart industry continued expanding in 2012, ending the year with about 750 carts. That’s about double the number of licenses that were given five years ago, says Sweitz.

Brett Burmeister, editor of the blog, says the numbers might be reaching the point where the industry’s growth is unsustainable.

“I think there is some saturation,” Burmesiter says. “There are a lot of vendors and only so many eaters.”

In addition, restaurants are fighting back by opening their own food carts. Esan Thai opened two carts in downtown, and Bunk Sandwiches opened a food truck in 2012.

Conversely, the number of mobile vendors turning into restaurants also increased last year. The Baowry, on the corner of Charleston Avenue and Ivanhoe Street in St. Johns, took that route.

Alan Torres, owner of The Baowry, decided he wanted to turn his modern Chinese cuisine food cart into a restaurant about two years ago.

“It’s hard to make money during the winter time, even for restaurants. We’re such a seasonal town,” Torres says.

His restaurant is behind the spot where his food cart used to stand. Torres says he’s looking forward to being able to serve higher quality food with more unique preparations, and he expects to see more food carts turning into restaurants in the next few years.

Another change Portland already has seen is the impact of the state liquor license that food cart owners are able to obtain. As of December, only a few food carts had sought liquor licenses, Burmeister says. Most are at the Cartlandia food cart pod on Southeast 82nd Avenue.

Cartlandia was the first food cart pod to get the license, and had no liquor- connected health or safety problems in 2012. Roger Goldingay, owner of Cartlandia, says being able to sell beer and wine is helpful, especially during the winter months, when most food carts see a decrease in business.

This year, Burmeister expects to see an increase in mobile food carts and trucks, new cuisines, more regional food and an increase in baked goods. Burmeister also predicts that many vendors will begin seeing food carts as more seasonal rather than something that can be operated year-round.

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