THE PORTLAND FOOD CART BOOM continues, feeding a seemingly insatiable citizenry. With a cart total of over 500, Portland has begun to see an increase in food marketplaces called "pods" (or sometimes "hubs") that offer space for carts, shared amenities, and camaraderie.
Cart conglomerations aren't new. All around the world mobile food hawkers gather in groups. In Portland, they've lined the edges of downtown parking lots—crammed side by side with little space for eaters—catering to lunchtime business types and featuring a startling array of traditional cuisines.
But as carts venture outside downtown and away from the ready-made lunch crowd, they've continued to cluster. The first of these, now dubbed Cartopia, popped up at SE 12th and Hawthorne around late-night poutine purveyors Potato Champion.
Although Cartopia has grown organically over the last year, the success of the pod has birthed copycats, intentionally planned and slightly more sophisticated.
These pods are new beasts—laid out, prepared, and developed before the first cart arrives. The blueprint for this new kind of pod is the Mississippi Marketplace (4233 N Mississippi), its 10 carts clustered around a shared, covered dining area, less parking lot than permanent food fest.
But if it weren't for parking lots, pods wouldn't exist. One of the newest pods in development—with basic amenities, space for up to 23 carts, a central covered eating area, and edible landscaping—is Real Good Food, located in an old parking lot at SE Belmont and 43rd.
Urban Development Partners NW acquired the property in April but weren't ready to develop the lot into the planned mixed-use building. Consultant and hub development team member Neeley Wells calls Real Good Food a "place-maker."
"Part of our development idea for the hub is that it really is a place for the neighbors and the neighborhood," Wells explains.
An admitted food lover herself, Wells is particularly excited about the variety that will be present on site, supported by a non-compete clause which ensures no two carts are serving the same fare.
"As a part of a family, I like carts because then we don't all have to agree," says Wells.
Borrowing from professional sports, her team has been actively recruiting favorite carts to come join the pod, taking a curatorial approach to applicants.
One such cart recruit is Namu, the brainchild of Clint Colbert and Gary Evans who serve a Korean-style Hawaiian plate lunch, built from Evans' family's 80-year-old recipes.
"They came to us and said, 'We love your cart. We love your food. We want you to come here," Evans explains. The partners decided to move from a small group of carts in front of the House of Vintage on SE Hawthorne and take a chance in the pod.
"We believe one cart benefits another," says Colbert.
"I feel it's going to be a family," Evans agrees, both excited to find out what will happen.
Across town, at the just-opened North Station pod at 2730 N Killingsworth, business partners Kevin Lockrow and Heather Gregory of Brown Chicken Brown Cow PDX are three months into their pod experience. From their perspective it does feel like a family.
"We do family dinner here," Gregory explains. "All the cart owners try to get together every other week."
She says members of the pod have been known to share veggies and tips about meat suppliers. "We're all new business owners," she says. "We're not trying to undercut each other."
The support even goes as far as recommending dishes from other carts to accompany their wonderful East Coast-style steamed hamburgers.
Despite the growth in pods, some cart owners prefer to stay on their own. At Wolf and Bear's on SE 20th and Morrison, owners Jeremy Garlo and Tanna TenHoopen Dolinsky decided to avoid pod life.
"The thing about moving into an existing pod didn't appeal to us," Garlo says. "We wanted to create our own space and not be squeezed." In fact, they recently turned down an offer of space in the Real Good Food pod.
"We definitely like the quieter scene," agrees Dolinsky. "It's more our style."
Their style seems to appeal. In the mid-afternoon heat a steady stream of people step up to order from a menu of very tasty Israeli vegan and vegetarian fare.
"The level of intimacy involved in this business is awesome," says Dolinsky. "That's something we wouldn't be able to do in a busier spot."
But Dolinsky and Garlo seem to be in the quiet minority. With more pods on the horizon, including a large development at SE 50th and Division, the Portland pod invasion shows no signs of stopping.