Portland Tribune Nov 2009

Food carts put global trend on the menu

By Peter Korn

The Portland Tribune, Nov 19, 2009

And you thought food carts were just about cheap eats.

Northwest Portland resident Irene Tinker may just be the world’s foremost expert on food carts and street food around the world. The former University of California at Berkeley professor has written a book about the subject. Tinker says there’s a lot of politics and social justice wrapped up in that burrito you’re about to chomp.

In talking with street food vendors throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Tinker discovered that in many countries, operating a food cart was one of the few entrepreneurial avenues open to women. She also found that food carts are becoming more popular throughout the world, as more people gather in cities. In Bangkok, Thailand, she says, middle-class condos are being built without kitchens, on the assumption that women will buy a variety of street foods for their family dinners.

There are more parallels than you might expect between what Tinker found in Third World countries and what has taken place in Portland over the last year, as the food cart scene here has expanded.

Food cart vendors in Third World countries generally are not very poor, Tinker says. They are women and families looking for an economic opportunity. The abject poor, she says, don’t have the skills or startup money.

In the Philippines, Tinker says, female college graduates find they can make more money with food carts than in the few bureaucratic jobs open to them. Check out the food cart vendors in Portland and you will find a similar mix of immigrant families working together and college-educated women (and men), some from cooking schools.

Micro loans from nonprofits such as Mercy Corps often make opening a food stand possible in the Third World – and here. Kirsten Jensen, owner of the Sugar Cube cart on North Mississippi Avenue, says it took a Mercy Corps Northwest micro loan to help her get started, and she knows a number of other cart owners who took advantage of the same help.

In Singapore, Tinker says, the government wanted to rid the streets of food vendors, fearing they were unsanitary and creating a bad image for the country. The solution there was the government building food stalls over parking garages and in market malls – an evolutionary step up, not unlike what appears to be happening on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and North Mississippi Avenue, where awnings and a connected pub provide food cart customers the option of a more conventional setting.

And the complaints of Portland restaurateurs that food carts are the beneficiaries of an unfair competitive advantage are also nearly universal, Tinker says. But even with government pressure, she says, the food carts never disappear. They just evolve.

“You can’t get rid of them, so you might as well join them,” Tinker says.

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