In Portland, “brewery food” is not limited to fried snacks and burgers. At the Baerlic taproom on Northeast Halsey, a meal may involve tonkotsu ramen, arepas stuffed with shredded beef, and pineapple fried rice. A visit to Level Beer could include oysters on the half-shell, tlayudas, or pitas stuffed with grilled meat. Not that any of those dishes are actually coming out of the building’s kitchen. In fact, some of these spots don’t have a kitchen whatsoever. Instead, breweries around the city share their real estate with a handful of food carts that provide sustenance to complement the taproom’s pints.
The brewery beer garden accompanied by a small fleet of food carts is nothing new in Portland, but with COVID continuing to lurk in our daily lives, a casual, outdoor dining option with beer has become popular with residents as well as breweries. Logsdon Farmhouse Ales off Division will soon share a seating area with the incoming food cart pod next door. Fracture Brewing’s soon-to-open taproom will also house Lil’ America, a food cart pod exclusively highlighting BIPOC- and queer-owned businesses. And the long-anticipated Breakside location in Beaverton teased the inclusion of high-profile carts like Matt’s BBQ and Farmer and the Beast last year.
In many cases, the relationships between breweries and food cart pods are on somewhat equal footing: Fellow tenants or neighbors collaborating, as opposed to one brewery serving as a landlord to a handful of carts. Take, for example, Baerlic Brewing’s Barley Pod: In 2018, Baerlic opened a small taproom in Rose City Park, surrounded by a ring of food carts. While Baerlic was just another tenant at the core of the space, the location within a hub of carts ended up being particularly beneficial for Baerlic as a company: For co-owner Ben Parsons, the food cart pod was a way for his brewery to keep its focus on the beer. “When we first opened, we didn’t want to risk going into the beer business and the restaurant business,” Parsons says. “People like to come to a brewery, try a lot of different types of beer; the same makes sense from a food perspective. If you have a broad spectrum of food and drink, it will work for a wider swath of people.”
The Barley Pod became a hit within Rose City Park — even through the pandemic, when the Baerlic team turned their small taproom into something like a bottle shop and marketplace. When the time came to expand, the brewery team decided on a spot on Northeast Alberta adjacent to a food cart pod, which opened in 2021; visitors now flock to the food cart pod, order, and then camp out in Baerlic’s spacious beer garden just a few steps away. Each of the beer garden’s tables is also plastered with QR codes to the menus of the carts next door, to encourage Baerlic customers to support the pod. While the properties are independently run and operated, they choose to work with each other for the shared benefit — a food offering for the brewery taproom and expanded seating for the pod. “It’s been a great partnership,” Parsons says. “[Food cart] Paladin Pie has been really great, really proactive; they want to really make something out of that corner.”
Paladin owner Leo Brill specifically landed on the 23rd and Alberta pod because of its location next to Baerlic. As a restaurant vet, he compares the relationship between Baerlic and the food cart pods to that of a restaurant’s front and back of house: The brewery offers the cart’s employees shift drinks, and their team gets discounts at the cart. “I immediately saw the benefit of having a brewpub without its own kitchen,” Brill says. “Even before we opened, I was in contact with the [general manager at Baerlic], figuring out ways we could team up or boost business on either end.”
Before Baerlic, the beer garden pods were mainly operated by the city’s various bottle shops or beer bar pods — places like John’s Marketplace pod on Powell or Prost Marketplace next to the beer bar of the same name. Owner Dan Hart’s business model at Prost was a big inspiration for Kurt Huffman, the man behind the expansive Portland-based restaurant group Chefstable.
“By opening the food cart pod next door, he could have more options,” Huffman says. “It’s a smart option for a young dining public.”
Huffman has been helping find a shared space on Southeast Stark for the team behind Fracture and Lil’ America, and the new location for the longstanding bakery Dos Hermanos. He is developing the space so it can work for all three: Fracture’s taproom will have a door directly into the food cart pod area so that visitors can walk between the pod and the brewery seamlessly. The building will offer the comforts of a brick-and-mortar — comfortable seating, shelter from the elements — while the pod will provide an eclectic and exciting range of dining options for those visiting the brewery, including new carts and celebrated spots like Hainanese chicken cart Hawker Station and Guyanese cart Bake on the Run.
The entirety of the properties will be overseen by Chefstable and restaurant group Win Win, which operates Lil’ America. While Chefstable doesn’t own the property outright, they sublease it to the other tenants within the space (namely, Dos Hermanos and Fracture); the rent from the indoor tenants covers the rent for the property, and the food cart tenants’ rent covers the cost of developing the pod, the community manager, and upkeep of the space. “It sustains itself,” Huffman says. “If you’re doing this as a real estate play, jeez, you have to charge a lot and you’re not supporting the tenants.”
Kamyar Abtin, the space’s community manager, helps cart owners feel supported and organizes events with the entire property. He’s already thinking about various markets, live music events, and DJ sets to keep the space busy during the day and later into the evening. “With a lot of cart pods, you sit down, you eat, and you leave,” he says. “We want to entice people to stay.”
Combination food cart pod-breweries also suit the amorphous state of dining amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While COVID-19 safety regulations have all but completely faded away, people are still getting sick, even if less frequently. And while a significant number of people have been returning to indoor dining without pause, some immunocompromised individuals still feel hesitant about dining indoors. These food cart pod breweries can accommodate a wide range of diners’ tastes as well as comfort levels, with indoor seating for those who want it and outdoor seating for those who need it.
“What I like personally about the projects is that we can make a big impact in a neighborhood, [and] create something dynamic in a neighborhood, much faster than us doing another restaurant,” Huffman says. “You go to a restaurant, you sit down. You’re not pushed to engage with people. At a food cart pod, you stand up, you go sit with people you don’t know … And even if you are still anxious, guess what? It’s outside.”
Of course, food cart pods are not without their issues. A May Willamette Week story depicted egregious conditions at pods around town, including unsanitary bathrooms and overflowing dumpsters. Other food cart owners have publicly shared stories of break-ins, burglaries, and robberies at pods, including a sexual assault of a food cart worker earlier this year. The citywide concerns about health and safety at food cart pods are front-of-mind for many of these developers, who have emphasized the security measures intended for these pods — security cameras, fencing, and actual bathrooms inside the adjacent breweries and taprooms. For some food cart owners, these issues are just a part of their decision to avoid the pod model altogether or transition into pop-ups.
For many food cart pod developers, part of the benefit of having a full-scale, on-site brick-and-mortar is that it can provide the infrastructure (think: real bathrooms, and dry and cold storage) to support carts. In addition, people like Huffman, as well as Reed Dow of Farmhouse Carts, have invested in more serious security infrastructure for these pods, like heavier-duty fencing and security cameras, as well as dedicated sanitation, management, and upkeep. “The pod will be completely fenced, and there will be cameras throughout the area to make sure we keep a clean and nice environment,” Dow told Eater in September. “There are some cart pods, I won’t mention which ones, where the maintenance is not adequate. People want clean bathrooms, a clean place to eat, and that’s what we’re going to provide.”
Portland is a city with around 500 food carts and roughly 70 breweries. Some of the city’s most celebrated restaurants were born out of carts, from sandwich standbys Lardo and Jojo to Thai standby Nong’s Khao Man Gai. The hope is that, by collaborating, these businesses can help support each other to stay afloat.
“When they closed the food cart pod where Nong’s [Khao Man Gai] got her start, people were saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to see a disappearance of food cart pods,’” Huffman says. “I really don’t think that’s true. We want them to have hours. We want them to be safe. We want them to operate late-night, to be 21-and-over at certain times. We want a cool outdoor hangout.”