Food Carts: Wave of the Future?

Jon Lewis was at the forefront of coffee retailing by truck two years ago before moving on to the CoE.

Jon Lewis was at the forefront of coffee retailing by truck two years ago, before moving on to the CoE.

Way back in 1989, Lloyd Dobler claimed that kickboxing was the sport of the future. Twenty years later, eh… not so much. (But I suppose he might have been onto something foreshadowing the rise of MMA.)

Now for the last couple of years here is Portland, we’ve seen a huge boom in food carts, and these are not your average hot dog stands (this one just sells fries for example). Many of these carts are serving top-notch fare at very affordable prices, and they are owned and operated by the same sort of folks we see in the coffee industry – people who care deeply about quality, sourcing and interacting with their customers. Oh, and typically they also have that entrepreneurial spirit and want to be their own bosses and run their own businesses.

While it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to find the space, equipment, licenses, permits, and staff to open a restaurant or café, carts can be opened for a fraction of that. And here in Portland it is vastly easier to find space and licensing for a food cart than for a restaurant/retail space. You can watch a video about the Portland cart scene prepared by the New York Times here.

So I was pretty interested when I saw this story out of the Philadelphia Inquirer about a coffee truck just off the Penn campus and the note in the article that the truck takes its place in a newly formed food court of carts and trucks, which the author says, “provide an antidote to – no, make that a repudiation of – the sad-sack food-court fare that lurks in greasy shame just blocks to the east.”

It seems many of the market factors at work here in Portland (particularly the cost and availability of licensing) has sparked the growth in food carts in Philly too. I’m wondering if you have noticed this where you live? Does your municipality make it much easier to set up a cart for retailing than a store (for permits, licensing, etc.?) and have you noticed a pushback from stores against carts (as is now underway in Portland) to make it more expensive/stringent to set up carts? Are food carts and coffee trucks the wave of the future or are they kickboxing – a flash in the pan?

About the Author

Ken

Kenneth R. Olson is co-founder and publisher of Barista Magazine the worldwide trade magazine for the professional coffee community. He has written extensively about specialty coffee, traveled near and far for stories, activities, and fun, and been invited to present on topics important to coffee culture. He is also an avid fan of the Portland Trail Blazers and the Washington Huskies. Go Blazers! Go Dawgs!