Upcoming food park project to tap into Vancouver’s evolving workforce

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

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Vancouver may get a whole shipment of restaurants this spring.

Columbia Food Park, proposed at C-Tran’s former Seventh Street Transit Center in downtown, would deposit five metal shipping containers outfitted with kitchens into the site’s 4,500-square-foot courtyard. Co-founders Kylan Johnson, 24, and Alex Mickle, 29, hope to launch by May.

The two former neighbors, who only started working together within the past few months, envision the site as both a food cart pod like those in Portland as well as an incubator for the local food scene.

The business model isn’t set in concrete, but they want to recruit vendors not yet ready to invest in restaurant space.

“We want this to be a graduating step,” said Johnson. Columbia Food Park, meanwhile, would take on the hodgepodge roles of landlord, marketer and event manager.

Unique as its shipyard look would be, the project would also cater to the changing workforce in downtown Vancouver who put high priority on working close to bars, cafes and food carts. For local officials in economic development, the project could help keep and attract the young, professional workforce.

Trade winds

Johnson, a web designer and entrepreneur, kept his on eye on the site for some time. It was notably a bus mall for several years before cycling through tenants, such as clothes store Fleur + Dot and The Urb Garden. But the courtyard, at 108 E. Seventh St., looked fit for food carts.

“For whatever reason, downtown Vancouver hasn’t caught on to these as much,” compared with other metropolitan cities, Johnson said.

Mickle, who works in sales for DiscoverOrg and a self-professed “foodie, beerie, and talkie,” came into the picture as he started learning web development from Johnson. The two say they found a common vision and a rapport.

“It’s like we’re playing Legos with food,” Mickle said.

The shipping containers will be 80 to 120 square feet and could allow for creative brainstorming. There is already a similar, if more advanced version in Las Vegas called Downtown Container Park, a plaza of the stacked metal crates containing restaurants, clothes stores and the like.

The co-founders are close to a deal with a company specializing in supplying these containers, but the deal is not finalized. Vendors aren’t lined up, but the pair is gunning for a diversity of flavors such as ramen noodles or pastrami sandwiches.

If and when there are vendors, the co-founders want them to focus on food, while the food park would help out with branding, event planning and presenting a unified space.

“We want them to have their own branding. But we want to assist. They’re masters of their craft, not SEO and marketing,” Mickle said.

The whole project will cost close to $300,000, according to Johnson. The co-founders will seek private investors to help reach the goal, and have a Kickstarter coming to raise funds. They are quick to point out they are most interested in the project for its potential impact on the community.

“It’s very much not a financial reward that is driving this project,” Johnson said. “We appreciate this different style of business. We both have a passion for the community.”

Sea change

A large cut of Columbia Food Park’s customer base could be just a few blocks away.

DiscoverOrg, the market intelligence company dominating two floors of the 805 Broadway building, is made up mainly of the demographic that launched food carts in cities across the country. It has 300-plus employees, mostly college graduates between 25 and 35 years old who often hunt for restaurants, bars and cafes, said company managers.

It’s a “work hard, play hard environment,” according to Michelle Brewer, vice president of human resources.

The wide-open floors are alive with chatter. Its robust sales staff, on a separate floor from programmers, work staggered shifts in order to make calls around the globe 24 hours a day.

To try and stay closely knit is a clear objective for the company. There is a committee dedicated to putting together events and groups, such as a voluntary “lunch club” that sends co-workers from disparate departments out to eat together.

“When I was a part of lunch club, we would say ‘where are we going to go, what are we going to do?’ I think if they had this food cart area it would definitely attract a lot of people in lunch club,” said Morgan Tacke, a manager with the company.

Brett Kindschuh, human resources manager, added that there isn’t exactly a scarcity of food right now, either.

“Once they get here they seem to think there’s enough places to eat lunch,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like a pretty big issue to me. They really like The Mighty Bowl. We have Mighty Bowl Wednesdays, that’s a big thing for us.”

There will be probably be enough business to go around. Kindschuh said the company expects to add at least 150 employees this year, and the multimillion dollar company is consistently named among the fastest-growing companies in its industry.

Plus, DiscoverOrg is just one company within a growing scene. The Innovation Partnership Zone, located in downtown Vancouver and along Southeast 192nd Avenue, aims to foster technology firms in those respective areas. The state Department of Commerce designated the areas in 2013, when the city knew of 15 firms in downtown. Today, according to city planner Rebecca Kennedy, there are 50 firms.

A survey sent to the partners last year revealed that respondents were very interested in a “vibrant downtown and urban core.”

“A place people can stop in after work,” in other words, said Kennedy. “A place where there’s activity, it’s vital.”

The city did not recruit Columbia Food Park, she added.

Max Ault, with the Columbia River Economic Development Council, agreed.

He wrote in an email that the influx of coffee shops, tap rooms, creative and creative space has “catalyzed the growth of the downtown core that is attractive to both individual employees and businesses.”

Food on the plate

Of course with a sudden influx of a pod like Columbia Food Park, there could be other restaurants biting back. That could still be true, but many have been supportive so far.

Tommy Owens, owner of Tommy O’s downtown for the past 24 years, had been a vocal opponent to food carts in the past and feared there wouldn’t be enough customers to go around. But, he said, “downtown is growing.”

“Just make it good, that’s all I ask,” Owens, 66, said. “The demographic is growing enough, there’s a lot of people. Look at how many bars we have. There’s so many new brew pubs. Business is good.”

Bryan Shull, who co-owns Trap Door Brewing and already has its own food cart pod near their location in the Arnada neighborhood, said he has already offered advice and mentorship to the co-founders of Columbia Food Park. He called the park a “game changer” for the area.

“I hope that location is ready for them,” he said in an email.