Instead of just the two food carts that have long called the park home — Honkin' Huge Burritos and Steaks Fifth Avenue — the park is planning to have up to six carts in the square later this year. According to Jennifer Polver, executive director of Pioneer Courthouse Square, the nonprofit that oversees the city park, both of the existing vendors have been invited to take spots in the new lineup; only one has decided to stay on.
"I’m actually pretty excited about it,” said Chris Schenk, owner of Steaks Fifth Avenue, which has been in the square since 2003 and will remain. “It’s the best location, really. It’ll be a definite change, but I think it’ll be nice.”
Whether Honkin’ Huge will relocate has yet to be determined. Owner Shelly Sorenson said she was not able to comment on the changes coming to the square.
Those changes, in the food cart lineup anyway, will include sturdier carts — essentially the enclosed trailer types that are in use in other parts of the city. There will also be a substantial rent increase for the carts who operate in the park. Schenk said he’s been paying around $600 a month for several years; the increase will push his rent up by $1,150, which includes a new $150 utility charge.
While that sounds like a big jump, Schenk said there hasn’t been an increase in years.
“Quite honestly, they were giving us a great deal for a while,” he said.
Polver noted that the new rent rate will be phased in over the next year and that the increase is a move to make the square “consistent with the market rate carts are paying in other downtown locations.”
The rent also covers some services and extras that other food cart pods may not offer, such as security, some storage, access to utilities and a steady stream of events that draw millions of people to the square each year. According to the nonprofit, more than 10 million people "use and enjoy" the square each year.
“We are excited to bring a diverse collection of food vendors to support an active, healthy and vibrant square for downtown,” Polver said.
In addition to the rate hike, Schenk said he’ll have to invest about $20,000 in a new cart. The timing isn't great. Schenk just built a cart for a new location at Northwest 2nd Avenue and Northwest Davis Street, but he sees this as part of the cost of doing business in the square.
He also said he might have to bump his prices, but nothing substantial. In addition, the new setup will push Schenk to expand his menu and add sandwiches, like Cubans or Reubens, that he’s been wanting to add for a while.
According to Polver, the Multnomah County Health Department is driving the move toward the enclosed and substantial carts. She said that the county informed Pioneer Courthouse Square that the carts will need to be fully mobile, enclosed and outfitted with a pressurized water source.
Jeff Martin, environmental health supervisor with the health department, said the county isn’t necessarily requiring the enclosed carts. He has talked with the square about the different options for carts, including the benefits of having enclosed ones — cleanliness, safety and keeping employees out of the elements, for example — but he said it’s not a requirement.
What is required is a pressurized water source. Martin said a policy enacted in 2012 requires mobile food units in the county to have pressurized water. Those that didn’t have that in 2012 have been grandfathered in until Jan. 1, 2018, after which time they will need to upgrade.
According to Martin, there are currently 868 mobile food carts in the county; only about 10 or 15 of those don’t have pressurized water.
Mike Thelin, the Portland food consultant who co-founded the Feast Portland festival, has been working with the square to narrow down the new food cart lineup. He said more than 100 carts replied to an RFP issued earlier this year.
“The idea is to curate a group of carts that really reflects the food scene here in Portland,” Thelin said. “The issue in Portland is never who do you put in, it’s who do you not put in.”
The full lineup won’t likely be announced for at least another month.
In addition to the new carts, there will likely be some shared infrastructure between the operators, as well as a new seating area to accommodate customers.
Asked if the upgrades are just another example of Portland becoming more expensive and less affordable, Thelin said that’s not the case. He also said the square’s efforts to expand its food cart offerings will actually help preserve the food cart scene as other downtown pods get displaced by new development.
“The great thing about food carts is that it’s a low-overhead model that provides great food at good costs,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect that to change.”
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