Food cart business grows big by staying small

food carts go big by staying small - the upside by Marc AcitoPortland, Oregon has been taken over by Pod People. But they're not snatching bodies, they're feeding them -- everything from kimchi quesadillas to chocolate caramel potato chip cupcakes. All served from pods of food carts populating empty lots all over the city.

Accounts differ, but there could be more than 500 carts operating in Multnomah County, with hundreds more awaiting permits. As a result, Budget Travel magazine recently ranked Portland at the very top of its list of the world's best street food.

Not only have the carts provided affordable eats for cash-strapped "cartivores," they've given unprecedented opportunities for start-up "cartrepreneuers."

Like Karel Vitek, who escaped communist Czechoslovakia in 1985 by swimming -- yes, swimming -- to Austria before coming to Portland through more conventional transportation. After spending 12 years earning a degree in philosophy, Vitek left academia to open Tabor in 2005, fulfilling Portland's hitherto undiscovered need for schnitzels, spaetzels, dumplings and goulash on the go.

Then there's chef Megan Walhood, a graduate of the "Dishwashing School of Hard Knocks," who last month opened Viking Soul Food, the only Norwegian food cart in Portland and, possibly, the United States. Along with her fiance, the self-described "KorChiNegroSpaniPinoKee"Jeremy Daniels, Walhood was able to start a business for less than 10% of what it would have cost to open a brick and mortar restaurant.

"Financially, I thought it was impossible," says Walhood, 35. ("A delicious 35," adds the 26-year-old Daniels.) "But I got to the place where I thought, 'I can't work for anyone else anymore. I'm done. If I can't make this work, I'm going back to school to change careers.'"

Instead, Walhood took a six week Foundations of Business class through Mercy Corps. Four months and $20,000 later, she began serving her grandmother's recipe for Nordic meatballs smothered in a creamy caramelized whey sauce, wrapped inside a potato flatbread, which is Norway's answer to the crepe.

Not that the French were asking, but it's like going to Valhalla.

Before opening, Walhood had to put the cart before the Norse. Given the huge demand for carts in Portland, she searched Craigslist in California and Washington, where she found a 1950s silver Airstream that had already been outfitted for an espresso stand. It even included a picture of Julia Child on the wall.

"We shook hands on the deal on May 17," Walhood says, "which turned out to be Norwegian Constitution Day."

They named the trailer Gudrun, after the Norse Valkyrie "who knows the secret of battle" and as a tribute to Goody Cable, a local legend for her oddball businesses, Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse and the literary-themed Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, where each room's decor is inspired by a famous author. Walhood's librarian mother designed the Dr. Seuss room.

Like Cable, who funded her businesses through personal loans and goodwill, Walhood and Daniels opened their cart for half of what most carts cost.

On the wall of the Airstream hangs a quote left by the previous owner: "Make yourself so happy that when others look at you they become happy too."

Judging from the scrumptious goodies to be had for just a few bucks, it's working.

And that, my friends, is The Upside.
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