The Mitate vegan sushi cart had only been open for two weeks when Portland’s record-breaking heat wave hit. Owners Summer and Nino Ortiz, who had worked in restaurants before opening their cart, wondered if they should stay open — it’s just the weather, right? “We were like, ‘Well, if you close for this one, do you close whenever it’s hot? “, recalls Nino Ortiz. But before the heat even reached its peak, the Ortizes decided to close. “After 95 degrees, I can’t even concentrate,” he says. “I manage my tickets and I don’t think fast enough.”
These internal debates have become more frequent within the Portland food cart community. Portland is known for its food cart culture, with many pods scattered across the city. For years chefs have turned to food carts for their low overhead and flexibility, but as the hurdles begin to pile on top of each other – labor and supply shortages , COVID-19 flare-ups, debilitating heat — one of Portland’s most distinctive food scenes is fighting for its future.
Anyone who’s tried cooking in the summer without air conditioning knows how hot a kitchen can get: heat from a burner or oven will raise the temperature, even with ventilation. Now imagine that the kitchen is uninsulated and made of metal. It’s like working in a food cart in the summer, even in double-digit temperatures. “It’s basically a convection oven we’re in,” says Leah Tucker, founder of the Oregon Mobile Food Vendor Association. “When the temperatures hit 95 degrees, and then you add a cooktop or a deep fryer, and run that (heat) with a fan, you’re 125 to 145 degrees in a cart.”
Working in food carts during the summer, heat exhaustion has become increasingly common among food cart workers. When a human’s body temperature rises above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, heatstroke sets in, which can be fatal. MidCity Smashburger owner Mike Aldridge originally planned to stay open during the June heatwave. But before the temperatures hit 100 degrees, he shut it down. “We were exhausted, hit by the heat,” he says. “It’s for the safety of staff and myself, but I also don’t want people standing at 108 degrees waiting for a cheeseburger. This is not conducive to long-term business.
Even by closing early, Aldridge suffered financial losses beyond days of lost revenue: his cooler broke down, wasting $1,000 worth of produce; the whole ordeal cost him between $3,000 and $4,000. By the time news of the predicted August heat wave broke, Aldridge decided to close early, to avoid wasting ingredients and let its employees make plans for the break; Aldridge headed to Bend before the heat started to build. “I didn’t want to risk the product and I didn’t want to risk anyone’s health,” he says. “We’ve been busting our butts since January, we’ve been really busy, so we were like, ‘Okay, let’s call him in advance, not the day before. My team can make plans, maybe even enjoy the weather like I did.
Jacky Ren, the owner of the jianbing Bing Mi cart, has spent above 95 days in a food cart enough for the team to have a permanent heatwave plan: Ren moves all the produce to the cart’s sturdier refrigerator, fill that fridge with extra ice, and douse the cart with cold water. The cart then opens for breakfast and lunch, closing before it gets too hot. This heat wave, however, Ren decided to completely shut down the cart and head to Seattle for a pop-up. “We used to only have to close on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and snow days when we couldn’t get running water…I don’t think I ever had to close for the heat, on a maximum day, but this year, we’ve had to do it so many times already,” Ren says. “Now we were ready… But other carts in the pod, they saw their refrigerators break down. When it’s 110 outside, it’s like 140 in the cart. It’s just a tin box.
While temporarily closing the cart is a potential solution, not all food cart owners can. After dealing with a tumultuous winter, a pandemic, and the financial challenges of product and labor shortages, many truck owners are preparing for the months ahead. “We try to make all our money for the year during the summer so we can get through the winter. I don’t think it’s that way anymore,” says Kyle Rensmeyer, owner of the Holy Trinity BBQ Cart. “The crew relies on us opening to make money, to get a paycheck. If we have to close, they don’t get paid, and it’s really hard as an employer. Instead of closing, Holy Trinity stayed open for lunch, with a truncated menu that doesn’t require 4 p.m. in front of a smoker.
The heat wasn’t the only factor causing conflict for food cart workers, they say; these are the complex challenges of running a food business right now. Distributors face labor shortages and COVID-19 outbreakswhich leaves the empty shelves in restaurant supply stores. heat waves and smoke from forest fires made outdoor work physically hazardous. The stress of working during the pandemic caused some food cart owners to leave the business. “I think the biggest problem this year and last year, we have hot days where we have to close on top of an already crazy restaurant environment,” Tucker says. “When you have a hot day and you have to close, it’s just another nail in a coffin.”
As the delta variant fuels a new wave of COVID-19, and environmental scientists project more warm days in our future, food carts remain in an increasingly precarious situation. The good news, in the words of these food cart owners, is that Portland diners return in droves when the temperature drops. “We have a great fan base,” says Aldridge. “As soon as we’re open again, people line up around the block.”