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The rise of the food cart in Nelson

Bite food truck owner Joscelyn Harris has offered a dining staple for locals for many years, but is no longer the only one. - Megan Cole photo
Bite food truck owner Joscelyn Harris has offered a dining staple for locals for many years, but is no longer the only one.
— image credit: Megan Cole photo

Few people go into the food industry with the idea of making millions.

For Joscelyn Harris, the seed for what would become the Bite food truck came from a family tradition.

Harris and her sister — who started the truck in 2004 – grew up visiting the French fry truck parked under Sarnia, Ontario’s Blue Water Bridge.

The two girls would sit with their fries and watch the freights go by.

The Bite truck became Nelson’s first recognizable food truck, starting a growing trend.

While Nelson may only have a handful of food trucks — including the arrival of Manamana and the Whitewater truck — it’s clear the trend that has swept through Los Angeles, Portland and Vancouver has reached Nelson.

THE PORTLAND EXPERIENCE

Food cart watchers in Portland have a hard time documenting their emergence. Some can trace their existence back to the 1970s, but former City of Portland bureau of planning employee — and unofficial food cart spokeswoman  Alma Flores — said they really exploded following the 2008 recession.

“I think the current evolution of it, where you see them everywhere, mostly in private lots, would have begun about five years ago at the climax of the recession when it was rearing its ugly head,” she said. “That’s where we really saw the growth of it peak.”

Even though Flores now works for the City of Beaverton — seven miles from Portland — as their economic development manager, she has become something of an expert on the movement, the economics and the social impacts of the trend.

It is estimated there are somewhere between 400 and 600 food carts in the City of Portland.

Unlike the roving taco trucks in Los Angeles — which gained a lot of attention after the city created enforcement, effectively threatening jail time — Portland food carts set up on private property, creating pods as infill on vacant lots.

Flores said it wasn’t the city’s lack of policy around food carts that led to their explosion, it was instead loopholes around private property that led to their evolution.

“Unlike San Francisco, which wanted to regulate the existence of food carts on private property, Portland had really loose regulations for private property and didn’t know the outcome would be what we find now in Portland,” she said.

In 2008, Flores was part of a document spearheaded by former Portland State University students to research the social and economic impacts of food carts.

What they created — with several other consultants — was known as Food Cartology.

Research at the time showed food carts created more vibrant neighbourhoods, represented beneficial employment opportunities because they provide an improved quality of life, and promoted social interactions between owners and customers.

Those who venture into the world of food carts see them as a financially viable option to start a small business.

Seven years ago, Nong Poonsukwattana moved to Portland from Bangkok with $70 in her pocket.

Even though she had a bachelors degree, her options for employment were limited as an immigrant with English as a second language.

“When I first moved here I was a server and I was happy for a couple years,” said Poonsukwattana. “I started seeing older people who still worked at the same restaurant and were immigrants like me. I was thinking maybe I don’t want to be here when I am 40 working as a server.”

She dreamt of attending university in the US, but the prospect of racking up massive student loan debt wasn’t something she wanted.

With limited options, she turned to something that was essentially in her blood.

The idea of cooking for a living never seemed like a career for Poonsukwattana.

Her mother worked long hours on her feet as a cook and it was something she didn’t want for herself.

“I always cooked, but never thought I would own a restaurant because my mom is a cook at a restaurant and that’s why she sent me to university,” she said.

With the food cart movement emerging in Portland, Poonsukwattana decided to give cooking a try and applied for a job at Portland’s famous Pok Pok restaurant.

She started with the intention of staying three months and learning everything she could. A year later she quit and began Nong’s Khao Man Gai.

The menu includes one item: a traditional Thai rice and chicken dish known as Khao Man Gai.

While she has appeared in the pages of Saveur and Gourmet magazines, Poonsukwattana said owning a food cart isn’t easy.

“I like it because it is freestyle and it suits my personality,” she said. “I see my customers every day. You get to interact with your customers and you become friends with them. But with the good comes the bad. It’s challenging every day. You learn. You’re fighting every day. You’re in the cold and the rain and there are homeless people. Some people poo in front of my cart. There are a lot of things, but it’s made me stronger.”

Poonsukwattana now has three locations in Portland and is hoping to bottle and distribute her sauce.

FIGURING OUT POLICY

Every city that has attempted to adopt the food cart culture has faced its own problems.

In 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported proposed restrictions from the city that would mean any truck owner who outstayed a one hour per location deadline faced a $1,000 fine or six-month jail sentence.

Recently in Vancouver a dozen brick and mortar restaurant owners came before city council to share their concerns around the growing number of food trucks.

But in Portland, Flores said rumblings around the carts’ presence were mild.

Instead of conflict, she saw synergies developing where businesses were teaming up with the carts to help each other.

“There are many bricks and mortar restaurants at our Mississippi Marketplace,” said Flores. “There was one bar owner, who essentially by choice, had the food carts locate right next door.”

The bar didn’t have many food options, and those visiting food carts couldn’t order a beer with their food.

“It was an example of unlikely bedfellows, but they played that role very well,” she said.

Flores said food carts have also helped business for brick and mortar restaurants in neighbourhoods like Portland’s Greeley Avenue.

A pod of food carts set up right next to the businesses, offering an option to employees at the nearby Adidas offices.

“The businesses loved them because they brought extra foot traffic from the Adidas employees,” said Flores. “Before, they would get in their cars and go elsewhere because there weren’t options for them.”

Now they have access to a pod of 10 food carts and the nearby businesses get recognized for evening dining and coffee options.

Like the food carts in Portland, Nelson’s Bite food truck makes its home most of the year in the 700 block of Baker Street, offering options to a part of the downtown with fewer restaurant options.

While Harris said the response from customers in the last eight years to Bite has been positive, questions are mounting around how many food trucks a community like Nelson can handle.

In the second half of this look at food carts, Megan Cole will examine their impact on brick and mortar restaurants and how food carts are taking root in Nelson

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