When Food For Thought, a worker-owned vegetarian café at Portland State University, shuttered last spring, a handful of student-employees didn’t wallow in the loss—they banded together to build something bigger and better. Together, the all-female, all-queer quintet launched Juniper, a worker-owned cart serving wholesome comfort food to the downtown lunch crowd. Behold—five reasons check out our latest food cart crush:
1. It’s delicious AND healthful.
Parked on Southwest 3rd and Washington, the massive 16-foot cart spotlights a seasonal menu of rich comfort food—think samosa bowls and deluxe grilled cheese—made from nourishing, whole-food ingredients. Complex flavors and textures intermingle in a five-spice noodle bowl that leads eaters on a whirlwind East Asian tour by way of meaty bulgogi soy curls, savory, sake-marinated mushroom “scallops,” two types of noodles (zucchini and vermicelli), and a sumptuous cart-made lemongrass broth. Sides of seasonal veggies, daily greens, and mashed root vegetables add a nutritious boost to any meal. And thick, creamy smoothies taste like dessert but satisfy like a full meal (and nourish like a multivitamin)—all for only $5.
2. It’s made hyper-locally, yet globally inspired.
Everything is prepared from scratch inside the double-axle cart, including the smoky cashew provolone and fresh-baked rice-millet bread that sandwich a decadent Portobello melt. They make the sweet brazil nut milk in the cart’s malted chocolate, which blends exotic superfoods like mesquite pods, maca root, and Peruvian lucuma fruit for a healthy and heavenly milkshake. And they infuse their signature Juniper tonic with a botanical bouquet of rosemary, sage, and citrus to create a bubbly, gin-like beverage.
“We don’t have to open a single can,” one of the cart’s chefs observes.
3. It’s cooperatively owned by five inspiring women.
Francesa Gangi, who also goes by Prana, spent a decade in Philadelphia teaching bodywork, managing a yoga studio, and running a vegan fudge company (among other endeavors) before moving to Portland and enrolling at PSU. There, she met Lizz Bommarito, a certified herbalist and raw foods chef who trained in prestigious New York kitchens run by Jean-Georges and Dirt Candy’s Amanda Cohen.
From there, Gangi and Bommarito recruited Kashi Tamang, who grew up working in her father’s Nepali food cart, Summer Rice, a licensed massage therapist (and Lizz’s sister-in-law), and Elena Hess, a plant-based chef who’s worked at Blossoming Lotus, Prasad, Pixie Raw, A.N.D. Café, and virtually every other vegan hotspot in town.
“We all have really similar ideas on why we choose to eat the way we do, and why food is a social justice issue, and why working as a collective is important, and why a living wage is necessary,” Gangi says. “Plus, we all like each other a lot. There’s a lot of deep love.”
4. It’s inclusive in all sorts of ways.
Oh yeah, did we mention that everything is 100% gluten-free and vegan? But don’t worry, omnivores—the soy curls aren’t served with a side of shame.
“I don’t have any personal mission to convince people that they should be vegan because I don’t want to judge people for their food choices any more than I want them to judge mine,” says Gangi who—like Hess and Bommarito—has eschewed animal products for the last decade. “But I do want to show people that there are other options. People who eat cheese and meat still think our cashew cheese and soy curls are amazing.”
Diet aside, Juniper has radical goals for inclusivity and intersectional equality.
“I think we’re all concerned about creating a safe space for anyone who comes to us for food, but it’s awesome to be able to create a safe space for each other, too,” says Hess. “Being a professional woman in the culinary industry, it’s hard to be taken seriously. Working with other women, we all understand each other as whole beings.”
Other social and cultural factors are also at play—all five cart-owners identify as queer, three are only 22-years-old, and two are women of color.
“I don’t think about my identity being in the cart with these wonderful women,” Tamang says. “I feel so safe.”
5. It has big plans for the future—and not just food plans, either.
“Lizz and I separately had dreams of a café space with yoga and massage and a complex of body awesomeness,” explains Gangi. “The [wellness center] has the same goals as the food: inclusivity; exposing audiences that aren’t typically exposed; body positivity; health positivity; all of those things are inseparable.”
Juniper also plans to add “super accessible” options as soon as possible, from pay-it-forward meals and donation bowls at the cart to sliding scale yoga and pay-what-you-can bodywork at the brick-and-mortar café envisioned by the collective. And throughout it all, the radical women seek to spread their simple message: love your food.
“This is a really powerful thing we’re doing, and I don’t want to hide behind a timid exterior,” Gangi says. “The idea of eating food and enjoying it without any baggage attached to it is an act of revolution.”
Don't forget to click through our slide show at the top of this article to feast your eyes on Juniper's smoothies, sandwiches, bowls, tonics, and more! Yum!