Food carts aren’t unique to Portland, but for many locals and visitors, they’re common hot spots. This cart craze brings vendors from all corners of the world to share their recipes with the hungry customers that come daily. They’re the definition of fast food, but on closer inspection, there’s a mosaic of actual people with stories to tell behind the counter. These vendors make up the the diverse yet close knit community of the Portland food carts.
Monika Thakur, 29, and her family came to the United States four years ago and set up their cart, Taste of India, in the heart of the food cart community on SW Washington and 9th. Seemingly worlds apart, life in India and in the U.S. is vastly different, according to Thakur.
“My uncle decided to come to America and decided to sell Indian food,” Thakur said. “In India, it’s very hard to get a job. But here is different. Everything is so clean and free. We built the truck and put everything in there ourselves.”
Their business is completely family-operated; her uncle, 40, owns the cart and taught her the business. They depend on each other to work hard and work as a team, according to Thakur. So far, their only plans are to keep the business going and to possibly expand. Four of her family members work at Taste of India, and her brother operates another cart in another location.
“When it’s busy, we get over 200 customers. On slow days, we get 50 to 60,” Thakur said.
From the other side of the world is Jensen Yip, born in Oahu, Hawaii. His cart, 808 Grinds, specializes in fusion Hawaiian food. After graduating from Oregon State University, he and his friends decided to set up their cart in the emerging food cart community.
“[My friend] actually lost his job, so that was one of the biggest reason for starting this,” Yip said. “Together we saved up a whole bunch of money and did our own thing. We both wanted to be entrepreneurs, always wanted to own our own business. So we got our recipes together, and set it up step by step.”
Establishing a business from the ground up is no easy task, however. Whether it be opening up, serving food or even closing for the day, Yip is fueled by his love of business and food.
“There’s very, very few dislikes,” he said. “Every day I come to work and I’m passionate about what I do. I’m passionate about feeding the people and giving them what they want. And I also get a high off of businesses in general.”
The Portland food carts showcase a vast array of different foods, ranging from grilled cheeses to European and Korean food. Despite their differences in culture, background and experience, these food cart vendors have managed to form a tight-knit community. Though the food world is a competitive one, the vendors still support and help each other, according to Yip.
“We all help each other out,” he said. “If one of us runs out of forks or chopsticks, or anything like that, we borrow from each other. It’s a great relationship. It’s a great community.”
Charlene Wesler, owner of the Gaufre Gourmet waffle stand, also agrees that the community of food carts in Portland is strong. She’s the treasurer of the Oregon Street Food Association, a nonprofit organization made up of food cart owners that provides support and advocates on behalf of food carts.
Wesler began her business in 2010 after having fallen on hard times.
“I was a catering chef, and then I spent about a year on unemployment looking for a job and there wasn’t much out there that was going to pay me what I wanted so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just work for myself, I’m not going to get paid what I want’ so I started a cart,” Wesler said.
Wesler had been a catering chef and graduated from Western Culinary Institute. The cart specializes in “liege style” waffles, though she makes a variety of sweet and savory waffles as well.
“The idea [to make waffles the theme of the cart] came about because you can make anything into a waffle,” Wesler said. “We wanted to use our talent still and we wanted to be able to cook different things. We needed to be able to do that within some sort of realm; waffles were that realm.”
The multitude of food carts in Portland, understanding the value of such a close community, have joined to form the Oregon Street Food Association, their very own group that supports and addresses problems within the food cart businesses. Wesler is the treasurer of the association.
“We have a nonprofit organization where all the food cart owners can get together and talk about things that affect us like law and all sorts of things,” Wesler said. “We’re pretty much the voice of the food carts, whatever they need really.”
In a city whose motto is “Keep Portland Weird”, these food carts have high reputations to uphold. The diversity, the tastefulness and the sheer number of food carts in Portland both increase their popularity as well as keep them close and connected. Rather than fighting for the top spot, these carts have formed a well-oiled food cart coalition machine.