It’s 2:15 a.m., bars have closed, and you need a taco. Your friend wants fried rice with kimchi. Another is craving a grilled Reuben. In Eugene or Portland, the direction would be easy—head to the nearest food cart pod and satisfy everyone. In downtown Corvallis, there are no pods to be seen.
Last year, in response to public support, the city of Corvallis developed a new policy allowing for food cart pods in two downtown commercial zones. But a year has gone by and no pods are to be found. Why haven’t food carts become a force in our hungry town?
Michelle Walker and her fiancé started a crepe-themed food booth four years ago that became popular at local farmers’ markets, but they wanted something more permanent. Two years ago, they began researching what it would take to have a food cart. Walker found that Corvallis allowed food carts to operate 45 days a year on an outdoor vending permit. Both the West Coast Philly’s and Cheesy Stuffed Burgers carts operate on this timeframe.
But Walker wanted more than 45 days a year and envisioned pods that drew customers looking for a variety of food. When she approached city planning about changing the restrictions, they referred the issue to the Downtown Commission—the lengthy process involved city planning, different committees, surveys, and public meetings.
The overwhelming sentiment was in support of year-round food carts downtown. The City Council enacted a new ordinance that collected fees from vendors and set restrictions on where the carts could be located and how they could be arranged on a site. The ordinance calls for a $300 administrative fee for the first year of operation and $150 each year thereafter, on top of permits for operating a food business.
A larger fee that might make finding a site challenging is the one-time $500 per cart infrastructure fee. For a property owner who wants to host a pod with four or five carts, it might be just enough of a hurdle to stop the establishment of a downtown pod. So, is money the biggest hurdle to a Corvallis pod?
Besides these fees, there is also start-up capital required. Walker and her fiancé used savings and two credit cards and spent about $9,000.
Josh Whisenhunt, a credit analyst at OSU Federal Credit Union, notes that there are funding options for those who want to start a small business like a food cart. Instead of a business loan or credit cards, he suggests funding with a lower interest rate, like using a car for collateral. His first suggestion is to draw up a business plan to show to family and friends who may lend money. The plan also helps to avoid unexpected stress in the middle of the process by understanding the expenses early.
Like other lenders, OSU Federal has a microloan program for small amounts. LBCC’s Small Business Development Center offers free business advising and start-up assistance. Chemeketa Community College’s MERIT program guides new business owners through the entire process from plan to launch. So while financing and start-up can be tricky, there are local resources available.
So, is it bureaucracy that has stalled food carts? Walker claims that working with the city was a good experience and they always treated her with respect. She wishes, though, that some of the processes were clarified and made more efficient. Her view is that government needs to encourage small entrepreneurship and in many cases, get out of the way.
Sarah Johnson, Associate Planner for the City of Corvallis, explains that the city needs to listen to all sides and consider zoning and planning before making any decisions. She states that food carts are something that the city supports downtown.
“Everyone wants to see that culture [food carts] represented,” Johnson claims.
While Walker might argue that the fees and site restrictions discourage more food cart start-ups, Johnson has some different theories: Corvallis’ small size and seasonal population, complexities of funding and lack of planning. Johnson hears from people on a semi-weekly basis who want to start a food cart. But many don’t have a plan or know where to start.
This is where Walker hopes to help. She herself went through the process without much mentoring or support. She started Corvallis Food Cart Alliance to provide this support to other food cart owners. She hears from potential business owners and offers advice based on her Creperie du Lys’ two-year journey.
“It really should be team work. You really should be able to work with your city government. As long as you’re following the rules, you shouldn’t see a problem with that,” Walker says.
Perhaps a factor stopping more carts from setting up that might seem too obvious to mention is Corvallis’ weather. Corvallis’ best season—summer—is when a big chunk of the population leaves. It might be that food cart pods seem daunting not just because of capital, infrastructure, and city ordinances, but also because of rain and a fluctuating population.
Still, stand outside the Peacock after closing any weekend night and you’ll find all the evidence you need to start planning your food cart.
by Bridget Egan