The food cart pod on Southwest 10th Avenue and Alder Street in downtown Portland is arguably the largest and most well-known collection of food carts in the city. It’s been around since the late 1990s and at its peak, it had about 60 carts with food ranging from Thai to German and Mexican to Italian.
Later this summer, developers are breaking ground on the lot to build the Pacific Northwest's first Ritz-Carlton hotel. The food carts have to leave before the end of June.
End Of An Era
Jameson Wittkopp runs Altengartz, a German food truck. He's the longest-standing current member of the Alder Street pod. He wasn't surprised to hear about the upcoming development.
“To be honest, I thought it would happen sooner. It’s a prime piece of real estate,” Wittkopp said. “I feel fortunate to have been here 18 years and eight months.”
Wittkopp got his start running a coffee push-cart in Salem before opening Altengartz in Portland.
For him and many others, owning a food cart or truck is the first step into the region’s culinary scene — whether looking to eventually start a brick and mortar restaurant or just making a name for yourself.
Wittkopp opened a second location in Beaverton last year.
The introductory nature of these carts is especially important when looking at the diverse communities who operate them.
"These are, a lot of these are immigrant businesses, you know? And we talk about diversity and inclusion in Portland; this is it," said Keith Jones, co-director of Friends of the Green Loop. "So, it's time to step up and make sure that these things continue to exist."
The Green Loop is a six-mile linear park concept that is slated to eventually loop through downtown streets, over to the east side and back. Portland City Council unanimously approved the concept for the loop last year in its Central City 2035 plan.
Jones is working with the city, specifically Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s office, to find a temporary home in the area for the bulk of the Alder Street carts until eventually moving them into a part of the Green Loop.
Jones says he envisions the carts as part of a “culinary corridor” on Southwest 9th Avenue between Portland's Director Park and O’Bryant Park, but in the meantime, he and the city are working on moving most of the carts to the North Park Blocks, between Northwest Davis and West Burnside Street, replacing the metered parking spots currently there.
“It’s a pilot program to see how we do things with the right-of-way, and if we can figure it out there, we can start looking at it in different spots throughout the city,” Jones said.
A Changing Portland
The high-rise building replacing the food cart pod is one of the biggest private sector projects in downtown Portland since the U.S. Bancorp Tower, or Big Pink, in 1983.
“[The] Ritz-Carlton will have 251 hotel rooms. There will be 138 residential units including eight spacious penthouses,” said Pat Walsh, with BPM Real Estate Group, the developer for the 35-story building.
It’s expected to open in 2023.
Along with amenities for guests, it’ll include business, retail and restaurant spaces.
Compared to the food carts, Wittkopp said he doesn’t think it will have much use for locals.
“I think that’s something that no one in Portland is going to use and this is something that thousands of people a day in Portland use,” he said. “So in terms of servicing the local community, I don’t think it’s really even in the same ballpark.”
Angie Johnson owns Eat Adventures, a food tour company in Portland. She's been showing visitors Portland's food scene, and in a specific tour — its food carts, for more than seven years.
She said food carts are a beloved piece of Portland culture, by both locals and tourists alike.
“It’s approachable,” Johnson said. “It’s a price point that can meet any of our needs and it doesn’t matter where you come from, there’s something for anybody.”
And Johnson isn’t really surprised the pod is relocating, because she says food carts are designed to be transient.
“It’s like puzzle pieces and in the neighborhoods or downtown, when a pod closes, the carts go different locations,” she said. “Some of them begin a new pod somewhere, some of them get absorbed in existing pods, so I think as a whole, the food cart scene, whether it’s downtown or in the neighborhoods, you’re just always watching the pieces shift.”
The Future Of Portland's Food Cart Scene
After almost two decades at the Alder Street pod, Wittkopp has decided to work on a mobile schedule in Oregon City and locations in Washington County, while still operating his second location in Beaverton. He’s not sure what the future of food cart pods looks like in Portland.
“I think it’s sad,” Wittkopp said. “I think it’s a huge piece of Portland culture going away, and there’s this cultural void that’s going to be developing downtown where Portland culture’s kind of being moved to the suburbs along with the food carts and then the culture that’s going to be here is going to be I think a bit artificial. It’s going to be comprised of a Ritz-Carlton hotel and whatever demographic that brings."
Jones, with Friends of the Green Loop, has a rough estimate of $300,000 for plans to relocate the carts. That money would go toward costs for towing, supplying electricity and developing a long-term plan for the carts. On Monday, he created a GoFundMe to raise that money.
“This is a great example of private-public partnership,” Jones said. “People came together around this in both the private sector and the public and said we don’t want to lose this. It’s important to us, and how can we help?”
They’re trying to get the carts to the North Park Blocks by July 1.