WINTER IS TOUGH on the little guys—especially Portland's 671 food carts. But about two-dozen local carts have joined forces to form a new advocacy group, the Oregon Street Food Association.

The fledgling food group had its third official meeting last Monday, January 9, but cart owners say the group was a long time coming. It aims to get food cart owners to weigh in on laws and regulations that could affect them, and also potentially link up carts to buy goods or services in bulk.

Oregon already has a powerful food service interest group, the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association (ORLA), but it does not have any food cart members. Cart owners tend to see the membership dues as too steep (admission starts at $250 a year) and ORLA's brick-and-mortar constituents as sometimes at odds with the cart crowd.

The Oregon Street Food Association came out of a regular dinner-and-gripe session among the owners of carts like Whiffies, the Grilled Cheese Grill, FlavourSpot, Koi Fusion, Potato Champion, and Big-Ass Sandwiches.

"We would get together and have a support group for cart owners—talking about things that cart owners talk about," says Whiffies owner Gregg Abbott. Last year, Addy Bittner of Addy's Sandwiches and Ali Akseki of Ali Baba's approached the friends 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 Abbott. "We're talking about things like, 'How can we get health care? How do we leverage the fact that there are almost 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?'"

During the fall, members sat in on state health regulation working groups. No new state laws that may affect carts are currently proposed, but cart owners think they will need to be their own advocates—rather than leaving the policy work to the big dogs at ORLA.

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. "Our feeling is if you're stationary, you should be held to the same standards as brick-and-mortar restaurants."

"Inherently, restaurants do see us as competition," says Brett Burmeister, co-owner of the Food Carts Portland blog. "Through my conversations with food cart owners, I do feel like ORLA is taking an adversarial role."

"Restaurants are always complaining that we have such an advantage. But there are advantages and disadvantages to being a food cart," says Abbott. "The difference between 200 square feet and 2,000 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."