• Johanna Dooley and Tripper Dungan
The small fries are getting organized: About two dozen Portland food cart owners have formed a new advocacy group, the Oregon Street Food Association. The fledgling food group had its third official meeting this week, but was a long time coming, say cart owners.

The group is came out of a regular dinner-and-gripe-session with the owners of the Grilled Cheese Grill, Flavour Spot, Koi Fusion, Potato Champion, Big Ass Sandwiches, and Garden State, says Abbot. "We would just get together and just have a support group for cart owners, talking about things that cart owners talk about." Last year, the friends were approached by Addy Bittner of Addy’s Sandwiches and Ali Akseki of Ali Baba’s about forming an official nonprofit to educate the public about food carts and weigh in on government policy.

"Working cooperatively gives us an advantage. There's real power in numbers," says Whiffies Fried Pie cart owner Gregg Abbot. "We're talking about things like how can we get health care? Can we negotiate deals with farms and dry good suppliers? How do we leverage the fact that there are 700 food carts in Portland to make sure we're represented at the state, city, and county level? How can we make sure that we know what the issues are and don't get blindsided by regulations that might not be necessary? How can we work with agencies to get good rules written?"

During the fall, members sat in on the state health regulation working groups, learning about what new laws and regulations may wind up affecting food carts down the line.

Oregon already has a powerful food service interest group: the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association (ORLA). But ORLA does not have any food cart members and cart owners tend to see their membership dues as too steep (admission starts at $250 a year) and their bricks and mortar constituents as sometimes at odds with the goals of carts. "Inherently, restaurants do see us as competition," says Food Carts Portland co-owner Brett Burmeister. "Through my conversations with food cart owners, I do feel like the ORLA is taking an adversarial role."

ORLA vice president of marketing John Hamilton says his group advocates for the entire food service industry. "Right now the association stance is we are in support of any mobile food cart," says Hamilton. That's a controversial assertion for cart owners, many of whom stay in the same spot for years. "Our feeling is if you're stationary, you should be held to the same standards as brick and mortar restaurants," says Hamilton.

"Restaurants are always complaining about we have such an advantage. But there are advantages and disadvantages to being a food cart," says Abbot. "The difference between 200 square feet and 2000 is a huge difference. There are aspects of what we have to do that the restaurant association doesn't really understand, which is why I think it's hard for them to represent us."