Will the Bay Area's Street Food Scene Ever Rival Portland's? No.

Most of Portland's food carts group together in "pods."

As I wrote several weeks ago, despite San Francisco city officials' attempts to help the city's food truck scene grow, the conflicts between brick-and-mortar restaurants downtown and food trucks applying for street-parking permits are intensifying. Trucks attempting to park in downtown Oakland are experiencing a similar push-pull from the city and neighboring businesses. (That's nothing compared to the fights happening in Manhattan.)

For all the public's interest in street food, the only American cities that seem to have fostered thriving food-cart scenes are Austin and Portland. Last week, I contacted city agencies and food truck owners in Portland, trying to get some sense whether there's anything Bay Area cities can do to become more like them. The answer: Probably not.

But it's not for the reasons you might think. Portland street-food vendors do have a few regulatory advantages over Bay Area trucks. A 1996 change in Oregon's health-code regulations was responsible for today's food-cart scene, explained Gregg Abbott, owner of Whiffies Fried Pies and a representative for the Portland Food Cart Operators' Cooperative. Before 1996, he says, any food carts or trucks had to prepare their food in an off-site kitchen, called a “commissary,” which California also requires of every food truck and cart on the streets.

If you remember back to the 1990s, espresso carts were everywhere, and in Oregon they successfully argued to the state that they were simply preparing espresso drinks and didn't need a full commissary. The state agreed, dropping the regulation (and, consequently, a big chunk of the carts' operating costs).

Espresso carts faded, but in the middle of the last decade, the owners of food carts with full kitchens began taking advantage of the new rules. Over the past five years, they've proliferated — first downtown, and then in the neighborhoods — their growth turbo-charged by the recession. The city reports that, as of December 2011, 696 food carts are operating in Portland, most of them in permanent locations. That's more than double the number of trucks in San Francisco.

View Comments