Red tape snares food carts

A big trend in Portland, a lack of rules halts Clark County growth

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Earlier attempt to establish food cart fizzled

Seventh Street Courtyard held a few vendors during the summer

Flip open a foodie magazine, turn on the Food Network, or just drive 10 miles south — you’re probably going to find a food cart.

As food carts, which usually have small menus centered around one cuisine or ingredient, proliferate nationwide and just across the river, Clark County has very little in the way of this hot-trend-on-wheels.

It’s not for a complete lack of interest, although Vancouver planners say they haven’t exactly been inundated with requests.

Rather, the local authorities, and their regulations, are lagging behind the hot trend.

Clark County Public Health officials are still grappling with how to define the units, and what exactly would be required to make them safe for consumers.

And Clark County cities don’t have food cart-specific codes, meaning a 10-by-10-foot sandwich cart must jump through the same regulatory and financial hoops as an Applebee’s.

“I think like most jurisdictions, it sort of caught us by surprise,” said Battle Ground Planning Supervisor Sam Crummett. Battle Ground is leading the pack in revamping its codes to include food carts. “We had all these inquiries and saw the trend in Portland.”

Battle Ground recently allowed its first cart under a temporary permit, and its city council is considering a permanent policy. But in Vancouver, and at Clark County Public Health, the issue is more on the back burner. They have discussed finding a way to accommodate the carts, but it’s moving slowly.

“Nothing is impossible — we’re just not there yet,” said Gary Bickett, program manager at Clark County Public Health.

Vancouver

Rumblings about food carts in Vancouver have been happening for months, but so far not much has rolled up.

Food carts are lauded by supporters as a way for ambitious young chefs to serve their cuisine without the high cost of entry into the restaurant business.

But in Vancouver, a cart owner is going to have run through a site plan review, which includes parking and landscaping plans, design approval and an accessibility assessment. If a cart owner wants to locate in the city’s center, downtown design guidelines (like mandatory awnings) would also apply.

It’s a bit much — parking guidelines for a cart “don’t make sense,” Development Review Services Supervisor Chad Eiken said last week.

It’s just a matter of how many codes are necessary.

“I would be open to being more flexible,” Eiken said. “But we’re still struggling with what category these types of food carts and mobile food units fit into. They’re not permanent, but they are in other respects, since they’re intended to be there seven days a week.”

City code also basically prevents anyone from selling on the public right-of-way, with codes saying a cart must move every three hours and cannot be in a parking meter zone.

The Wiener Wagon, which has been selling hot dogs downtown since 1976, is a special case. It was grandfathered in before the city adopted its codes on selling in public space. State health laws also, rather oddly, expressly say only hot dogs and espresso can be sold from a push cart.

The county is also struggling with state health laws. Mobile units like the Burgerville truck are covered, as are food booths at farmers markets. Semi-permanent food carts, however, create a headache.

“What the code says is the cart shall return to (a base) location after operation closes for day,” said Bickett of Clark County Public Health. “Right now, it’s a near impossibility, for a permanent cart.”

He said the county is working with both Vancouver and Battle Ground to find a way to make it work, particularly around the areas of hand-washing, hygiene and restrooms.

It’s slow going in Vancouver, however, because there just hasn’t been an outpouring of interest, Eiken said.

“If there were more people coming to us asking for these, it would move up in our set of priorities,” he said. “Right now, it’s just the occasional person asking about it.”

A venture on West Seventh Street downtown opened for a few months last year, but folded in late October.

The former C-Tran pocket park, leased by Kelli Crocker of Vancouver, closed in large part because of a landlord-tenant dispute, but city and county public health codes contributed.

“Yes, the city and health department’s requirements are cumbersome and overwhelming and make it difficult for the little guy to get going,” Crocker said.

“But the city didn’t require anything they weren’t clear about. They were upfront from the beginning about what they needed — it’s just a lot of work.”

Portland

The number of permits issued by Multnomah County for mobile food units has gone from 380 to 600 in two years, said Brett Burmeister, owner and managing editor of foodcartsportland.com, an online guide to the city’s extensive scene.

He described Portland’s approach as more laissez faire than Clark County’s.

It all started at Southwest Fifth Avenue and Southwest Oak Street in the 1990s, when a parking lot owner allowed some carts to open up.

“Nobody walked up and said, ‘You can’t do that,’” Burmeister said.

Since then, they’ve sprung up all over downtown and spread all over the east side of the city.

The carts have to pass a Multnomah County Health inspection for proper food storage and grey water removal, among other measures. A fire marshal inspects any cooking equipment.

It’s the food cart “pod” owners who go through the rigmarole about restrooms, electricity and city permitting, not the often much more cash-starved cart operators, he said.

The arrangement has worked out for the most part, with an exception being Portland Commissioner Randy Leonard’s December announcement that the city would be cracking down on illegal additions to carts, like decks, awnings and seating areas.

On the health side, no major food-borne illness outbreaks have happened at a food cart, Burmeister said.

He encouraged Clark County authorities to loosen their ties.

“People should allow for less regulation in this economy,” Burmeister said. “The more you regulate, the more fees you tack on, the less it is an entry point for an entrepreneur.”

Battle Ground

In the Value Giant parking lot, MaKayla Hopper has been serving Battle Ground eaters Kansas-style barbecue from her cart, Holy Smoke … It’s Big B’s BBQ, for the last couple of months.

Hopper, who was given a one-year permit to operate her restaurant on wheels, could be the first of a few carts, if the city council passes new proposed food cart regulations.

They’re more restrictive than Portland, to be sure: The code would allow only three mobile food carts in the city. Carts must be connected to city water through food-grade hoses and adequately contain and dispose of used water at designated disposal sites, the city’s Crummett said.

The proposal also includes regulations about where the carts can be located — not in residential zones, on city property or within 100 feet of an established restaurant, for example — and requires an inspection by the fire marshal, he said.

Crummett said they also tried to write the code to appease nervous county health inspectors. Wheels are required for all carts (as they are in Portland), and the code emphasizes “mobile” aspect of the carts, he said.

He said he hopes the county will be amenable to their proposal.

“Whether this is permanent or mobile shouldn’t be too much of a concern for county health, given that their focus is food safety,” Crummett said. “We’ll take care of zoning: We’ll decide if it’s one night, one week or one year (that carts may stay in a location).”

Still, he said that Battle Ground’s small size could be the key to get these small businesses going there.

“In larger agencies, like Portland or Vancouver, it’s a little trickier,” Crummett said. “By nature of their size, it can create more bureaucracy.”