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Jan. 29, 2023

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Food trucks are not idling in Clark County

After decade in county, they bring innovation, but face challenges

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Little Conejo Norte employee Jacob Brill hands a bag of chips to a customer at Carts by the Park in Ridgefield.
Little Conejo Norte employee Jacob Brill hands a bag of chips to a customer at Carts by the Park in Ridgefield. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It’s been 10 years since Steve Valenta founded the Mighty Bowl food truck and ushered in a new era of mobile food units.

Valenta’s wasn’t the first food truck in Vancouver. Bob Buell and Ray Stephens opened the Weiner Wagon and Patty Wagon back in 1976, before the Weiner Wagon was taken over by Skip Ballweber at the corner of 12th and Main streets, but the Mighty Bowl led to a fleet of food trucks in Clark County inspired by their popularity across the river in Portland.

Though technically mobile, most food trucks park next to another business, pod, or activity. Clark County doesn’t have a high level of foot traffic like Portland, so trucks here anchor themselves to other businesses to draw customers.

Delicious Tacos on Andresen and Fourth Plain, Chalita’s Tamales on St. Johns Road, or Taqueria Don Jose on 39th Street near Main Street sit by gas stations. Funky Fresh Juice Truck, Hummus Hummus and Mighty Bowl have a designated pod next to the Vancouver Farmers Market. A new food truck pod with El Jefe, a birria and tacos truck; Maya, a juice truck; and Backyard BBQ recently sprung up in the parking lot of Living Hope Church on Andresen Road.

Nonetheless, it’s widely known in the food industry that alcohol sales boost business. Until recently, the only way to get this mix of alcohol and food trucks was to open a truck or pod near a brewery. Breweries can sell alcohol under state liquor laws without serving food.

Many of the taprooms lack kitchens. Brewers sought out food trucks to park near their taprooms to feed their beer customers. In return, this relationship creates a steady stream of business for food trucks. One of the first was Trap Door Brewing at 2315 Main St. in Vancouver’s Uptown Village. This trend spread down Main Street to Doomsday Brewing, Brother’s Cascadia in Hazel Dell, Fortside Brewing, and new kid on the block, Vice Beer.

Many food truck pods in Portland have a truck that serves alcohol like Bloodbuzz, based in a popular pod on Mississippi Avenue near Prost. Mychal Dynes and Mark Wooten of Little Conejo had a truck in the Prost food truck pod. They wanted to re-create that experience in Clark County by setting up a food truck, Little Conejo Norte, as well as a truck to serve coffee and alcohol called Little Canteen in the Carts by the Park food truck pod at 219 Pioneer St. in downtown Ridgefield.

They applied for a license from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board and discovered that businesses like Bloodbuzz aren’t allowed in Washington. After a year of discussions with the board, Dynes developed a model that was acceptable by buying a modular building (mobile units aren’t allowed) with a bar, food, and indoor seating.

Unlike breweries, bars constructed near a food cart pod don’t have a designated category in the state code for liquor licenses. They need to apply for a restaurant license. There are two types of restaurant licenses — one for beer and wine and another for beer, wine and spirits. Both require certain types of food service — minimal food service for a beer and wine restaurant and full food service of four entrees plus sides for a spirit, beer, and wine restaurant. A dedicated indoor dining area is also required. The size of these dining areas determines whether the venue can include minors and if they have to pay a higher fee.

Slow Fox Chili, in the space formerly known as the Columbia Food Park in downtown Vancouver, applied for a liquor license using a model similar to Little Canteen. Ashwood Taps & Trucks recently opened at 1535 E St. in Washougal with a large taproom next to some food trucks.

Despite Portland’s reputation as a haven for food cart pods, alcohol service was a controversial issue when Cartlandia applied for the first such license in 2012. The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission eventually granted the license, ushering in a new era of pods that offered alcohol as well as food. These new modular buildings and taprooms near food cart pods could do a similar thing for Clark County.

“It used to be easy to open a food truck in Portland. I don’t think it’s like that anymore,” said Dynes, “it’s almost as expensive as opening a small restaurant. I would rather open here, because we’re connected to Southwest Washington. I grew up in Vancouver, and I have family here.”

Nonetheless, getting more food trucks and food truck pods north of the Columbia River will require changes in how Washington regulates and licenses these businesses to make it quicker and easier to open.

For example, the El Viejon food truck next to Vice Beer at 705 S.E. Park Crest Ave. in Vancouver passed an inspection through Clark County Public Health only to find out a permit from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries was also required. According to Michael Perozzo, owner of Vice Beer, L&I said they would inspect in six to eight weeks, but that was four months ago. Across the state, 4,000 food trucks await L&I inspection, according to Perozzo.

For now, the taco business operates in a tent outside the brewery waiting for approval for the food truck. Perozzo attributes this to a lack of staff dedicated to food trucks at L&I, making it impossible to get questions answered or conduct inspections.

“Washington is not a small-business-friendly state,” said Perozzo. He said Portland has developed a food culture that has drawn widespread attention, but Seattle hasn’t been able to cultivate a nationally recognized food scene. He attributes this to laws and practices that make it unnecessarily difficult and overly expensive to run a small business in the state of Washington.

“We need food trucks. They’re vital to the restaurant industry. Someone starts out with a dream, they start working in the kitchen of a restaurant, then they open their own cart, then they open a restaurant. That’s only happened to one business in Clark County that I know of, La Sorrentina. Many others like Nomad or Mack Shack just close because it’s hard for them to run a small business here,” said Perozzo.

Mighty Bowl and Ingrid’s Good Street Food & Paleo Grill both started as food trucks before opening restaurants. Nonetheless, that’s only three businesses out of many that have come and gone over the years.

Adding an easy-to-understand, streamlined process, as well as laws that support these businesses, in addition to increasing staff dedicated to answering questions, inspecting, and licensing them could encourage talented chefs with limited startup money to follow their dreams and contribute to a unique homegrown food culture in Clark County.

Dynes has advice for those who would like to see more innovation in food businesses here: “Vote,” said Dynes, “vote for people who support these businesses.”