Food trucks seek foothold in Clark County's eating scene

Handful of mobile eateries has cropped up locally in recent years

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

To those who love a taste of city life, there's something about the presence of food carts that makes a city feel real.

But food carts haven't established much of a foothold in Vancouver, even in the pedestrian-friendly downtown district that has the county's largest concentration of office workers and some out-of-town visitors. And despite the desire of some downtown promoters and city planners to create urban ameneties that would appeal to young entrepreneurial workers, Vancouver appears far from embracing even a semblance of the food cart culture that has become entrenched in Portland.

"You need a lot of foot traffic, which Portland has," said Gary Bickett, a Clark County Public Health department program manager in charge of food cart inspections. "I don't think we're there yet."

Bickett isn't alone. Heidi Batchelor and her husband Donny have operated food carts in Clark County for more than a decade. They've managed to make a living mostly at special events, but Batchelor recalls establishing a sidewalk burrito cart at Esther Short Park in 2002.

"We were the first ones to get a street-use permit (for a food cart)," she said. "We had no business whatsoever." It took the couple about five years to become profitable with their Chewy's Really Big Burritos food stand, which they set up at special events and, recently, at Clark College, she said. She sees limited potential for full-time food carts, and even worries that expansion of carts and trucks in Vancouver's downtown could harm existing restaurants.

Certainly, a handful of mobile food entrepreneurs have entered into the fray in recent years. Newcomers have favored costly mobile food trucks over the more Portland-like food carts, which allow them to move and create what Steve Valenta, an owner of the Mighty Bowl food truck, calls "artificial pockets of density" in various locations in the downtown and uptown districts. And at Clark College, three carts are operating under a two-year contract during a reconstruction of the college's culinary arts program kitchen. Downtown, the Weiner Wagon at East 12th and Main streets has survived for decades with a small, low-cost menu.

Food carts and mobile trucks must win approvals from state, county, and city regulatory agencies that deal with health, land-use and business-licensing issues. The regulatory structure is quite different from that of Portland and Multnomah County, Ore., and with fewer applications, existing policies are not always clear and logical, say those involved in the process.

One big difference is that it's easier on this side of the river to license and operate mobile food trucks, which generally are allowed in commercial districts. One challenge for the food trucks in Vancouver: the city's two- or three-hour parking meter time limits crimp the ability of trucks to stay in one place for a full lunch hour.

Both the city of Vancouver and Clark County are considering a review of policies affecting mobile food operations, with the intention of smoothing out some rough edges. But policies more friendly to carts and food trucks won't be well-received by everyone. Restaurant owners in particular worry that any expansion of mobile food offerings will erode their own businesses.

Tommy Owens, owner of Tommy O's downtown, said he would have little patience with a food truck parked curbside outside his restaurant, even it the law allows it.

"I've spent the last 23 years trying to build a profitable business," he said last week while preparing for his lunch-hour crowd. "We're all sharing the same market, and I don't see a lot of new businesses coming in."

Sign of vitality

Vancouver's Downtown Association hasn't taken a position for or against promoting policies that would open the way for more mobile food outlets. But Lee Rafferty, the association's executive director, said food carts and trucks send a signal of vitality.

"The VDA sees them as part of a vibrant downtown," said Rafferty. "It's a great option for folks." But, she added, "we understand there's a bit of tension."

Stacey Donovan, Vancouver's special events coordinator, said she sees growing vendor interest in special events including park concerts and movie nights.

She maintains a list of about 15 vendors for those special events, but says it's up to others to decide whether vendors should be established longer-term in such places as Esther Short Park and Turtle Place. "As a resident of Vancouver, I like the thought of having more choices and options," she said.

Policy issues

No one expects a rush of food carts anything close to what has happened in Portland, a nationally recognized food cart mecca with an estimated 500 carts in numerous business districts and neighborhoods. But officials in all levels of local government are looking for ways to simplify and coordinate the approval process for mobile food outlets.

Chad Eiken, the city's community and economic development director, said the city Planning Commission is likely to launch a review of regulatory processes as part of this year's work plan. Among the issues: whether to regulate the proximity of food trucks to existing "brick-and-mortar" restaurants, whether to allow food cart enclaves at such places as downtown's Block 10 or Turtle Place, and whether to make it easier to establish food carts in the city. Such food cart pods would raise environmental and health issues to a whole new level in terms of sewer and water systems, said Bickett, the county health department program manager.

Eiken says the city isn't seeing a surge in demand for carts, but says Vancouver should be ready if that demand develops. "We think it's essential to have food options for a variety of people," he said.

Parking remains a touchstone issue. Food truck operators can't stay beyond a meter's time limit without paying the $18 parking fine, and they can't simply move to a new meter on the same block. That's considered evasion under city code, so at least one truck operator said he simply moves around the corner when the meter runs out. Valenta, the Mighty Bowl owner, said he's paid hundreds of dollars in fines.

Mike Merrill, the city's parking services manager, said time limits are established so that spaces are available for business customers. He worries about what would happen if a number of trucks roll up on downtown streets.

"My concern is that we are prepared to deal with the issue if it becomes a major issue," he said. "From a parking perspective, it's my job to make sure parking rules are maintained."

The Clark County Board of Commisssioners last week approved new standards for small coffee and food stands, which previously had to meet the same standards as a full restaurant.

"The board was wanting to make it easier for these small food operations to come in and set up shop," said Marty Snell, the county's community development department director. The county has just a handful of small food stands now and a few applicants were waiting for the new regulations, Snell said. The rules faced no opposition from restaurant owners, he added.

'Different customer needs'

Valenta says he has a strong personal ethic of not parking his truck in front of restaurants. He reaches out to restaurant owners if he hears they're complaining about food trucks. He hopes to convince them that they can work together rather than fight.

"If you're having a lunch with other people," you'll go to a restaurant," Valenta said. Mobile food sites, he said "fill different customer needs." He recognizes that Vancouver, with far lower population density than Portland, will never be a cart haven.

But Valenta has found a business model that works, moving the truck to different locations and using social media to keep his customers informed. His menu of healthy foods is a big draw, Valenta says. The former banker now has nine employees and is managing to make a modest living.

While Owens, of Tommy O's, suggests that food trucks should serve isolated industrial areas with few food choices, Valenta has no interest. Nor is he interested in finding a location on the affluent east side of the county.

"We want to grow urban Vancouver,"he said. We want to make it interesting and bring customers downtown."