Just before the pandemic brought the restaurant industry to a halt, XLB, a Chinese spot known for its eponymous soup dumplings, was on the path to the expansion that many restaurants yearn for. Owners Jasper Shen and Linh Tran had just opened their second location in Slabtown, and their original location in North Williams had been running for three years. After laying off three-quarters of their staff and reducing their business to one location, Shen and Tran decided to concentrate.
“[We] started having this discussion about what’s going on in the Portland food world,” Tran says. “What does it look like? What’s the future of it going to be? Who’s shaping it and how are these things evolving?”
Years later, Shen and Tran found a way to be part of that change. In early fall, a melting pot of cuisines represented by a handful of food carts will land in their new Southeast Portland food cart pod, Little America, focusing specifically on carts owned by BIPOC and LGBTQ Portlanders. Lil’ America, slated to open on Southeast 10th Avenue and Southeast Stark Street, will feature four to eight carts, anchored by a new dining area from Fracture Brewing and Dos Hermanos Bakery. New community catering group win win – founded by Shen, Tran and multidisciplinary artist Catie Hannigan – will help run the pod and choose its tenants, with help from an established restaurant group stablelong-time partner of XLB.
With a combined 35 years spent working in restaurants, the founders of Win Win want to use their experience to help guide new restaurateurs, whether they are in the early stages of developing a business plan, whether they are want help fine-tuning their menu, or need help with hiring and training. By providing structure and guidance, Win Win hopes to break down barriers to ownership that the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities often face.
At the same time, Win Win wants to carve out a free space of the toxicity the industry is known for. “The food industry has systemic issues and I don’t know what it will take to overcome that,” Tran says. “But I know we have to start trying and I think Portland is a perfect place to do that.”
Although Shen and Tran come from a traditional restaurant background, they are energized by the food cart scene, which has created a strong narrative in and for Portland. But Tran says that, realistically, the local food cart industry isn’t the best when it comes to access to facilities. “Some people build food cart pods for profit, and they just don’t offer enough,” Tran says. In other cases, carts are simply parked on empty land. Through their partnership with Chefstable, Lil’ America will provide a structure, with cold and dry storage, electricity, bathroom access and a support system.
Makulít, an upcoming Filipino cart from XLB sous chef Mike Bautista, is the first company to sign with Lil’ America. Ideally, the pod will incorporate a mix of other fledgling businesses and established catering carts. The restaurant group’s next step is to find sustainable funding, which they hope to secure by partnering with nonprofits and local organizations such as Prosper Portland and MESO.
“We just want to get to a place where people know there are people they can contact who want to open the door,” Tran says. “We saw the power of community. I think if we can just accept that a bit more and make an effort, we can help a lot of people be part of it.
Lil’ America is scheduled to open in September 2022 and is now accept applications interested food companies.