The Food Cart War? Not Quite... 

...But the City Is Trying to Send a Message

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IS PORTLAND DECLARING WAR on its food carts?

That question loomed large last week for Portland's hundreds of vendors—increasingly an emblem of the city's culinary innovation and DIY sensibility—after Commissioner Randy Leonard casually announced during December 1's city council meeting that he planned to pull building inspectors from other priorities to focus, instead, on wayward carts.

For Leonard, who runs the city bureau in charge of implementing building codes, too many carts (theoretically meant to be mobile) had gotten too comfortable—building elaborate rain porches and seating areas in defiance of Portland's permitting process.

"I, like most people, like food carts," Leonard said in his office, after the council meeting. "But there's just no justification for doing something outside the building and fire codes."

His (tad melodramatic) fear? If one of those scattered rain porches were to catch fire, and spread to other carts, the propane tanks many chefs use to cook with would be "sailing around like missiles." And that's why, even amid layoffs for inspectors, he's making food carts a higher priority than checking the abandoned homes that have metastasized across Portland during the foreclosure crisis.

So far, though, the crackdown appears focused on just two of the city's dozens of cart pods: One at SW 3rd and Washington (which has drawn the ire of a restaurant across the street, Huber's) and another at SW 4th and Harrison.

"Our enforcement program is complaint based," notes Ross Caron, spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Development Services.

And before inspectors start writing out citations for illegal structures—along with sidewalk-blocking chairs and tables, while they're at it—the city has first invited vendors (from anywhere in the city, if they'd like) to a big permitting powwow at the bureau of development services offices on Wednesday, December 8. So it's hardly a war.

On the Monday before, that meeting was on the minds of most vendors at the SW 3rd and Washington pod. Nok, cooking at Gin Northern Thai, said he expects he'll have to tear down his wooden seating area. To keep it, he'd need to dig a foundation in the parking lot where his cart sits. And, he rues, "My contract with the landlord says no digging."

Another vendor, Chau, was getting ready to open his cart, Pho, which has a sizeable dining porch in front plus a solid wooden shed affixed to its rear. He was hoping his porch would get to stay, because it's smaller than 200 square feet.

"We asked the landlord," he says. "But if everybody has to [tear down their porches], then I'll do it, too."

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