PIE VENDOR 

Late Night, Southeast Portland: The Pie Vendor Whiffies, SE 12th & Hawthorne

IT'S JUST PAST 2 AM and there's an emergency situation occurring at Whiffies fried pie cart. The cart is out of coconut cream pies. I repeat: The cart is out of coconut cream pies. Still the late-night food hounds come, iPhones in hand, lured by Twittered promises of coconut creams.

The best that Gregg Abbott, the 30-year-old owner of Whiffies, can do is drop another raspberry pie into one of the cart's two deep fryers and placate the pie fans with conversation. A woman is pissed at the wait.

"Did I really tip you a dollar to make me wait after all these people?" she mutters as Abbott turns back to the fryers.

This is Abbott's second 20-hour day in a row. He has only slept five hours out of the past 48, but in that time, Abbott has mixed, fried, and served nearly 300 half-moon-shaped pies. On the side of his new cart—open only five weeks—a pudgy dancing pie king waves a golden scepter.

"I turned 30 in September and I was like, well, it's time to grow up, but I have the better part of a useless degree in art," explains Abbott, scooping a freshly fried pie into tinfoil. For 10 years, the pie king entrepreneur was a valet, parking cars at RingSide Steakhouse downtown. "I got all roiled up inside and I was thinking what am I gonna do? And it was right around then that the economy tanked."

He quit the valet gig and headed back home to Hawaii. Abbott's father runs a catering company there and his secret pie recipe was one dish people from every culture snapped up. Six months and endless experimentation later, the Whiffies pie was born: a flaky, friable, portable personal pie. The fillings, however, are still up for debate.

"So chili pie doesn't sell. Barbecue does. Raspberry has been flying. But, you know, you can't talk people into trying stuff. Which is okay, now I know," says Abbott. He gets to the cart at 10 am five days a week, he says, and spends the daylight hours in the 8-by-16-foot space making the pies he begins selling nightly starting at sunset.

The stakes are high. Abbott got a lot of support and advice from other cart owners when he started up, but he's still $32,000 in debt after buying the cart off Craigslist and outfitting it with an entirely new, cramped kitchen. With $4 for a meat pie and $3 for a fruity vegan, the profit margin is slim.

"We're so strapped for space, I have to buy supplies every day," he says. Four timers stuck to the side of the fridge go off at once and Abbott lifts two wire baskets packed with pies from the depths of the bubbling fryers, letting the hot rice bran oil drip off before dumping them onto a plate. Two beef brisket, two raspberry—special notches discreetly mark the pies.

Kanye West plays on the speakers and Abbott's sister, Summer, is grooving a few inches away from the fryers. Abbott hands her the pies, and she passes them through the window to a girl who exclaims she needs them to "counteract the Jell-O shot!"

The siblings look out over the crowd from the cart window and guess which couples are on dates. With only a few orders stuck to the shelf above the fryer, Abbott sits against the window and talks to a couple guys who come by most nights to sample the new pies. These customers are regulars—service industry people and big followers on Twitter.

"I've lived here in this neighborhood for four years and I remember when this place was just the empty lot across from Burgerville," says one man approvingly.

Another rush begins, and a few people look skeptically at the night's remaining vegan options. Pineapple pie? Really? They order barbeque tofu.

"Tami loves pie!" shouts a drunken girl. Even the woman cranky from the wait returns for more.

So is this better than parking cars? Abbott looks up and smiles. "I don't know," he sighs, with still an hour to go before quitting time. "That was such easy money."

When Gregg Abbott and pals want something that isn't dough wrapped and fried, they head down to the hot wok at their neighborhood New Seasons Market, where their creations have been known to spark impromptu photo contests. "Also," says Abbott, "it's the best deal on a meal with vegetable appeal, for real."

More of the FOOD ISSUE here!

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