PORTLAND, Ore. — You’ve likely heard about how the pandemic is negatively affecting the hospitality industry. Restaurants have had to lay people off and some have closed altogether.
But a husband and wife team behind a relatively new food cart in Portland is managing to succeed even though they opened at the start of the pandemic.
If you’re active on Instagram and love Portland’s food scene, it’s possible you may have stumbled on posts from Nacheaux food cart. Anthony Brown and his wife are co-owners. It’s located on Southeast 82nd Avenue in Portland and is part of the Cartlandia food cart pod.
You can’t miss it. It’s bright turquoise with a giant unicorn decal on the side. On the Mexican/southern fusion menu, you’ll find all kinds of tasty creations, from Cinnamon Toast Crunch cheesecake to a stacked fried chicken enchilada.
“Everything I try to do is out of the box," said. Brown. "Like if it’s a tres leches molasses iced coffee or if it’s a cake donut bread pudding."
Growing up, his grandmother on his mother’s side was Black and his step-dad’s family was Mexican. For the holidays, Brown said he spent half the time eating traditional Mexican food, and the other half enjoying southern comfort food. The dishes he now offers at Nacheaux are often a nod to his past.
“I really like to tap into my nostalgia, like what’s happening this weekend is going to be salmon croquettes because that was something my mom made with my grandma all the time,” Brown said.
He said the food cart allows him to be creative, taking every day food items and making them differently. These days, in the middle of a pandemic, being different and offering highly “Instagrammable” food has helped their business attract customers.
“I started off as a baker, and so to me, breakfast is an acceptable version of eating dessert,” said Brown. “So, in the pictures you’ll see peanut butter sandwiches dipped in Fruity Pebbles. We do a whipped cream and Fruity Pebbles over top.”
He said the changing menu and unique offerings are his way of staying relevant.
Brown said they opened the food cart back in March, the same week Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced the first stay-home order. Since then, it’s been a big learning curve.
Brown said he’s worked in the service industry for 15 years. For a time, he said he was the general manager at Pok Pok, which has since closed restaurants in Portland due to the pandemic. He said he was also a bar manager at Screen Door, a popular brunch spot in Portland. This is his first time working in a kitchen, operating his own food cart, and of all times, during a pandemic.
“All the things you need on a food truck is higher than it would be. Like a box of gloves is $10, when before it was $3,” said Brown.
In addition to the increased cost for certain items, business overall has slowed for most restaurants.
“It’s also hard because people aren’t going out. There are a lot of people who don’t have jobs. There’s a lot of people that aren’t making the money they used to,” Brown said.
So, he and his wife are trying to adapt by putting new, creative choices on the menu, and fluctuating hours. They also offer full-service catering that helps supplement their food cart business.
Brown said they are keeping the business running on their own dime, without any help from government grants.
“The PPP and the government assistance, and all the funding for Black businesses I cannot get, A.) because I have a felony and B.) […] we have to be able to show loss of revenue but if you’re open and you’re new, how do you show loss of revenue?” Brown said.
That felony is from a long time ago. When he was 20 years old in Los Angeles, Brown said he pleaded guilty to grand theft.
“It was a pretty dark time for me,” he said.
That felony conviction is what partially led Brown into the service industry, because he said it was easier to get a job there versus, for example, a position in the corporate world.
“You can’t tell a person it was a different time in my life, I’m not there anymore," Brown said. "Because it’s still always going to be, for me, it’s always been this stigma. Like ‘you have tattoos.’ I have tattoos on my hands. I have tattoos on my neck. But it’s like, they’re my kids’ names. They’re expressions of the things I have gone through in my life,”
He said he knows there will be hurdles that will be difficult to overcome because of his past, stemming from the decision he made 15 years ago.
It was with the birth of his son, that came a strong desire to change.
“I wanted to be better and do better," Brown said.
Now, he’s got a family to support with three kids and one on the way in May. Nacheaux is the family’s sole income.
“We’re just in this pickle where I wear this […] weight of taking care of my family,” He said.
In an effort to take every opportunity possible, Brown said he and his wife have a “yes mentality.”
“If somebody calls on a Sunday, which has happened, and say they need catering on a Monday, we figure it out just because we cannot say no," he explained.
“I tell people, I don’t care if it’s five people or 1,000 people, I will do catering for you,” said Brown.
While it’s tough running a food cart in the pandemic, Brown said the business is doing alright considering the circumstances. Despite the difficulties, Brown said he loves what he does and couldn’t imagine working for anyone else.
“I really enjoy what I do now and the looks on people’s faces, and the excitement in people’s faces, when I tell them I’m making a red velvet, tres leches milkshake,” said Brown.
He said even though running his own business is expensive, he makes it a point to eat at other local restaurants. He hopes people do the same to support others in their community.