Will the Bay Area's Street Food Scene Ever Rival Portland's? No.

Categories: Street Eats
Portland_Food_Carts.jpg
The Courtyard/Flickr
Most of Portland's food carts group together in "pods."
As I wrote several weeks ago, despite San Francisco city officials' attempts to help the city's food truck scene grow, the conflicts between brick-and-mortar restaurants downtown and food trucks applying for street-parking permits are intensifying. Trucks attempting to park in downtown Oakland are experiencing a similar push-pull from the city and neighboring businesses. (That's nothing compared to the fights happening in Manhattan.)

For all the public's interest in street food, the only American cities that seem to have fostered thriving food-cart scenes are Austin and Portland. Last week, I contacted city agencies and food truck owners in Portland, trying to get some sense whether there's anything Bay Area cities can do to become more like them. The answer: Probably not.

But it's not for the reasons you might think. Portland street-food vendors do have a few regulatory advantages over Bay Area trucks. A 1996 change in Oregon's health-code regulations was responsible for today's food-cart scene, explained Gregg Abbott, owner of Whiffies Fried Pies and a representative for the Portland Food Cart Operators' Cooperative. Before 1996, he says, any food carts or trucks had to prepare their food in an off-site kitchen, called a "commissary," which California also requires of every food truck and cart on the streets.

If you remember back to the 1990s, espresso carts were everywhere, and in Oregon they successfully argued to the state that they were simply preparing espresso drinks and didn't need a full commissary. The state agreed, dropping the regulation (and, consequently, a big chunk of the carts' operating costs).

Espresso carts faded, but in the middle of the last decade, the owners of food carts with full kitchens began taking advantage of the new rules. Over the past five years, they've proliferated -- first downtown, and then in the neighborhoods -- their growth turbo-charged by the recession. The city reports that, as of December 2011, 696 food carts are operating in Portland, most of them in permanent locations. That's more than double the number of trucks in San Francisco.

Most Portland food carts, like all California food trucks, have full kitchens and are inspected twice a year. According to Abbott, cart owners pay approximately $500 a year in licenses and fees -- roughly 5 to 10 percent of what Bay Area truck owners pay to cities, counties, and the state.

But the real difference isn't regulations: It's the structure of the city itself.

The vast majority of the food trucks in Portland are parking on private land, not the street, says Matt Wickstrom of the city's Bureau of Planning & Sustainability. "It needs to be a parking lot that's commercially zoned in order to allow retail activity," he adds. But that's not hard to find. Downtown Portland is far less dense than downtown San Francisco or Oakland -- the city blocks are a checkerboard of buildings and parking lots.

Abbott adds that most of the parking lots are owned by the same business, which decided years ago that it could make more money charging monthly rent to a permanent food vendor than it could on parking fees. There are now five or six major food-cart pods downtown -- some big enough to wrap around the perimeter of the entire block.

Downtown, most San Francisco food trucks must park on the street, and must convince the city that there are no businesses selling "like food" within 300 feet of each parking spot they apply for. And restaurants have the right to protest trucks parking near their business.

Because Portland food carts are parked on private land, there's little that brick-and-mortar restaurants in Portland can do to stave off the onslaught of new competition. The closest San Francisco comes to a Portland-style pod are the Off the Grid events, which occur weekly on city property, and the Lunch Box, a small vacant lot in SOMA that rents out spaces to a rotating cast of trucks. But, with little vacant land in prime locations, San Francisco and downtown Oakland aren't likely to ever see the kind of thriving street-food culture that Portland boasts.

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6 comments
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Bigcucunci
Bigcucunci

It is inaccurate to say that "San Francisco food trucks can only park on the street."  In fact, parking on private property is allowed.  Check the rules...

Joe
Joe

Excellent reporting! Two keys to success: 1) legal, inspected onboard kitchens and 2) private, dedicated truck stops

Richard McCamy
Richard McCamy

The SOMA StrEAT Food Park, across from Costco at 428 11th, has received it's Building Permits, and will be breaking ground next week.(1-25-12) Shooting for a late March opening, SSFP will have room for 11 trucks, seating, both covered and open air, for close to 300, and Accessible Restrooms, all operating on private property. The Food park will be open seven days a week, with vendors leasing stalls both on a monthly basis and by the shift.Perhaps this part of a new direction Street food needs to take.somastreatfoodpark@yahoo.com

swagv
swagv

San Jose's street food scene thrives better and longer than anything in SF, Oakland, or even I dare say Portland for that matter. Decades of history, authentic food, and 100% less hipster gringos watching too much Top Chef.

I swear, yet another East-meets-Latin-America truck of precious fusion food offerings is only going to make me vomit.

jackterrier
jackterrier

Bullshit... Fruitvale has had roach coaches forever.

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