Portland has a reputation as a street food haven. Carts dot the city’s landscape, parked alongside breweries or clustered in pods. It’s hard to nail down an exact number, but the city is home to about 500 food carts, spread across dozens of pods sporting cocktail bars, fire pits, taprooms, play structures, and more. And the carts themselves are incubators for some of the city’s finest chefs — those who become local culinary legends, like Nong Poonsukwattana of Nong’s Khao Man Gai. Netflix crews and national magazines have celebrated the city’s food cart pods and their chefs for more than a decade, bellying up to trailer windows to order Guyanese bakes, Italian panzerotti, North African tagine, or Scandinavian salmon-stuffed lefse.
But now, a change to state food cart regulations that went into effect on New Year’s Day is threatening the industry’s survival. Back in 2018, the Oregon Health Authority, with the help of food cart owners, representatives from the Department of Environmental Quality, and other organizations, updated the state’s food cart regulations. Many of the policies were woefully out of date — it had been 30 years since they were last updated — but one change in particular targeting the state’s wastewater policy for food carts was especially troubling to the industry. Historically, food carts have disposed of wastewater, also known as gray water, in three ways: emptying a small wastewater tank on the cart, hooking up to a sewer line, or, most commonly, using a large plastic cube that collects hundreds of gallons of wastewater, to be emptied a few times a month. According to the Oregon Health Authority, those cubes have never been legal, and have only been used locally over the last 10 years. The new rules explicitly state that the tanks used to store wastewater must be “integral to the unit,” i.e. a physical part of the cart, in effect banning the use of storage cubes.
In the perspective of food cart owners, complying with the new policies will dramatically raise the cost of doing business, and some have already closed because of it. Here’s a breakdown of the specifics of the regulatory change, and what that could mean for the scene at large.
Why was the law created?
According to the Oregon Health Authority, these policy changes are primarily related to two potential risk factors with these large cubes: leaks resulting from cracks in the plastic, which can contaminate the water flowing into storm drains, and thus our rivers; and rodents, which could cause a different host of food safety issues. “We were seeing lots of instances where these were now becoming a public health problem,” says Erica Van Ess, the interim manager for the OHA’s Food, Pool, and Lodging Health and Safety Program, in a video press release. “Nothing about this is specific to a pod location or an individual operator. We were seeing these same public health concerns statewide in different scenarios.” The policy technically went into effect in 2020, but a three-year grace period gave food carts additional time to become compliant.
How does it impact carts?
Over the last few years, as more people left the restaurant industry in favor of a scrappier business model, these plastic cubes have become a vital solution for many food cart owners. The onboard wastewater tanks for food carts are much, much smaller than those cubes — almost always under 100 gallons, more like a few dozen — and finding a food cart pod with a sewer hookup is incredibly difficult.
Emptying those tanks, depending on the size and company, costs about $90 to $200 per visit from a wastewater disposal service. Depending on the cart, relying on the onboard tank would mean disposing of that wastewater every day or every other day, as opposed to once a week or a few times each month — and that’s assuming food cart owners can get on the disposal company’s schedule.
According to Leah Tucker, the founder of the Oregon Mobile Food Association, there are only two companies in the greater Portland area that can pump directly from a gray water tank, both of which were heavily overbooked even before this policy went into effect. The alternative, using a sewer hookup, is also not feasible for many. The average price of building in sewer hookups for pods is between $70,000 and $100,000, according to a pod owner who spoke with the Oregonian. And while a few food cart pods do have sewer hookups, those pods have higher rents than some carts can afford, if they even have vacancies.
Carts can personally empty wastewater themselves in 20-gallon intervals at approved sites (like RV dump sites), which Van Ess says had been the low-cost, common disposal method for the decades before the cubes came on the scene. In Tucker’s perspective, carrying buckets of wastewater by hand creates the same issues with potential contamination. “There is a cost factor that we’ve now associated with the use of those cubes,” she says. “But the bigger issue that we’re running into is the availability of resources to do what we need to do safely.”
How have carts responded?
Some carts have moved into pods with sewer hookups; others have closed and transitioned to pop-ups or residencies, like Papi Sal’s and Meliora Pasta. A few have simply closed outright, like the Marble Queen. Jess Mummery, the co-owner of Papi Sal’s, has watched the cart move into three separate spots in the two years it has been open, but nothing has felt sustainable long-term, especially considering the current policy changes. “The new regulations put a lot of people into a tricky situation,” she says. “Having to empty [the tank] every day, the scheduling would be a mess.”
What do food cart owners want to do instead?
In a perfect world, Tucker would like the state to abandon this policy altogether. Her argument: These tanks are often owned by the pumping companies. So putting the responsibility on cart owners instead of the companies that manage the tanks feels unfair to her and other cart owners. And getting rid of the cubes altogether feels like throwing out the baby with the wastewater.
“There needs to be better regulations for sure. We have had environmental issues that need to be addressed,” Tucker says. In her perspective, the responsibility of making sure the cubes are compliant should fall on the pumping companies; if cart owners are somehow using them in a way that is damaging, those pumping companies can work with the carts directly.
At the very least, cart owners would like to see the state give people an extension to become compliant — between six months to a full year and a half, to be safe. In late January, Jim Millar and Breckin VanRaalte, who owned the now-closed food cart Meliora Pasta, wrote a letter to James Schroeder, the interim director of the Oregon Health Authority, asking for an extension. Despite the three-year grace period, many cart owners say they only learned about the new policy months or even weeks ago; in their letter, Millar and VanRaalte estimate that more than half of the food cart owners in Multnomah County were unaware of the new policy changes.
The Oregon Health Authority has emphasized that it’s not interested in shutting down any carts over this issue, and that health inspectors will work with cart owners to help them become compliant. County health inspectors won’t charge any fines for carts that are noncompliant, but may shut down carts that are willfully choosing not to comply. “Really, the best way for any operator to spend their energy at this point is to reach out to their local public health authority and talk to them about the ideas they have about coming into compliance,” Van Ess says. “This should be a solvable solution and your county health department is here to help you work with that.”
Whether the policy stays in effect or not, this saga has shown that the food cart industry is far more precarious than lawmakers appreciate. And this specific issue is only one of countless issues that food cart owners have been grappling with in recent years: Extreme weather forces carts to shut down over freezing temperatures or dangerous heat waves. A boom in food cart openings has oversaturated the market, making it tough to stand out. And of course there are the issues the food service industry at large has dealt with over the last few years, including rising food costs, supply chain issues, rising rents, and ongoing COVID-19 fallout.
When policymakers came together to rewrite Oregon’s food cart regulations, it was because they were out-of-date, written decades ago, when the state was only home to a few hundred carts total, if that. Thirty years ago, the landscape looked very different, and the rules were built on the premise of food carts being, more than anything, mobile. But that doesn’t reflect the nature of food carts in Portland today. Carts have spent years — decades — parked in single pods, using mobile food units as tiny restaurants, a way to start cooking without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on startup costs. Perhaps the biggest issue with this new policy is the industry and the state’s incongruent understanding of what a food cart really is. Portland carts aren’t going anywhere, and aren’t interested in leaving anytime soon. As the food service world becomes even more tumultuous, developing a set of rules that keeps diners safe and the scene afloat will not only impact the health of the industry, but the city at large.