Why Is Portland’s Oldest Food Cart Pod Taking Cash from a Tech Company?
Downtown Portland food cart pods lack the "destination" status of other beloved city pods, for good reason: most don't have basic amenities like seating and bathrooms. But starting today, the food cart pod at SW 5th and Harvey Milk will empty out for a revamp by local restaurant group ChefStable and Expensify, the tech company whose headquarters are adjacent to the pod. Prepare yourself for the flashy name: Midtown Beer Garden.
The new pod will house 30 carts and will be equipped with seating for over 300 people, heaters and tents, real (!) bathrooms, a stage for events, and a bar trailer from Fracture Brewing serving beer and hard alcohol. Each cart will be directly connected to natural gas, electricity, water, and sewage, and it's all set to open in July 2023. Unlike many of the upscale pods we’ve seen on the east side, this pod will also be fenced in, complete with security at each entry point. It’s the city’s oldest—and, according to the owners, soon to be largest—food cart pod. Expensify is fronting the money for the pod renovations, and ChefStable is handling the project and launch logistics.
Why is this all happening? Returning to the office is certainly a factor. "We want our employees to want to come downtown," says Matt Allen, marketing manager at Expensify. Expensify will walk away with two valuable assets: on-demand food and relaxation for its employees, not to mention Portland street cred for neighborhood improvement. The latter is a risky gamble. Expensify's press release touts "a safe and fun outdoor dining experience as a step towards revitalizing the midtown Portland community." But food carts are often bastions of counterculture and low-budget scrappiness that spring up in vacant parking lots, crammed edge to edge by external propane tanks that fuel Norwegian lefse wraps and Korean-inspired hot dogs. A publicly traded tech company investing in this one scrambles that DNA.
Allen emphasizes that the cashflow outlook is unimpressive. "This is a horrible for-profit business model if you’re trying to make any money. Our hope is we can maybe break even in seven years." Yes, turning a profit in the food industry, where profit margins are often under 10 percent, is a much steeper slope than in tech. Rent at the pod will start at $2,000 per month including utilities. "We're charging market rents, but we're providing better infrastructure,” says Kurt Huffman, CEO of ChefStable. Though our eye is also on the carts that have to cope with the loss of two months of income during construction—and during summer, which is peak food cart season. Allen says that Expensify is covering the cost of transporting and storing the carts while the pod is closed, and offering a free first month of rent to carts who sign on before the pod’s opening. All 10 carts from the old pod were invited to return to the renovated pod, and all are doing so, according to Allen.
The pod's competition downtown will be scarce, at least for now. The most famous food cart pod at SW 10th and Alder, where iconic spots like Nong’s Khao Man Gai got their start, closed in June 2019 to make way for the Ritz Carlton. Most of the remaining pods downtown don’t offer seating, and post-pandemic business has been slow. The dining dynamic downtown should shift dramatically when Flock, the food hall within the Ritz Carlton, opens in November 2023 with vendors including Kim Jong Grillin', Sunrice, and Birrieria La Plaza. Meanwhile, on the east side, luxe pods, like Hinterland Bar & Carts, have been popping up over the past couple years with real bathrooms, beer and cocktails, and plenty of seating.
The lot that Midtown Beer Garden sits on is owned by Downtown Development Group LLC, which belongs to the Goodman family that began amassing parking lot properties downtown in 1955. This will be ChefStable's second food cart pod; its first was the Lil' America pod at SE 11th and SE Stark St, which features all LGBTQ and BIPOC-owned carts, and opened in April.