Josh Henderson owns Skillet Street Food in Seattle. Photo by Deena Prichep
SEATTLE & PORTLAND - This week, we've been looking at food carts in the Northwest. These mobile restaurants are popping up all over the region, but regulations vary — some cities make it easier than others. Monday , the Seattle City Council voted to relax its food cart rules. In the final installment of our series, food journalist Deena Prichep looks at how cities are adapting to increasing demand for street food.
When Joshua Henderson opened his cart, Skillet Street Food, four years ago in Seattle, he and his crew had a code word - "purple monkey." That's what they said whenever they spotted the health inspector.
Josh Henderson: "So if we heard "purple monkey," we knew to kind of start stashing stuff. And he's a great guy now, and an incredible advocate for street food. But at the time, someone like him would have to say you can't be here, where's your permit. Well there is no permit because it's not allowed. And he said I'll have to call the police and have you arrested. And I thought my wife would be fairly pissed if I called her from King County jail, so we packed it up for the day".
That was Seattle. Now listen to Addy Bittner. She set up a sandwich cart two years ago, but hers was in Portland.
Addy Bittner: "From the beginning, it was actually not that ridiculous.They have a set structure where you go and you fill out this form, and then you get inspected. So yeah, I was happy with the whole process."
These two carts really aren't all that different — they're just in different cities. Portland's approach to food carts is much less restrictive than Seattle's. And it shows — Portland has more than 650 licensed food carts, while the bigger city of Seattle has less than half that. Gary Johnson, with Seattle's Department of Planning and Development, explains the history behind the disparity.
Gary Johnson: "In the early 80's, the city imposed new regulations to really crack down on vending in general, out of a perception that it was out of control and associated with blight, and street food vending got caught up in this crackdown. So currently, from a sidewalk cart, the only thing that can legally be vended in the city of Seattle is hot dogs, popcorn and coffee."
Now, to clarify, Seattle has classified sidewalk carts and trucks separately. Trucks, parked on private property, can have a more varied menu. But with downtown real estate at a premium, finding a reasonably-priced private lot can be nearly impossible. Now, with street food exploding in the rest of the Northwest, the Seattle City Council has approved big changes. The new rules loosen restrictions and expand what can be served at carts. Vendor Josh Henderson thinks it's about time.
Josh Henderson: "I mean we're not talking about rocket science—we're talking about freaking food."
Cart legislation is on the table in other Northwest cities. Olympia recently softened regulations to help grow its cart scene, giving vendors cheaper and longer-lasting permits. Last year, Tacoma made several city code changes aimed at encouraging street vendors. But Portland, with its hundreds of carts, is actually stepping up enforcement. The city is making vendors take down illegal structures, like patios and tables that block the sidewalks. But Ross Caron, at Portland's Bureau of Planning and Development, wants to make it clear that the city is not turning anti-cart, or issuing new regulations--it's just making sure carts conform to existing building codes.
Ross Caron: "We want to foster any business, equally as much as we want to foster economic vitality, neighborhood livability, all of those good things."
In Seattle, planner Gary Johnson hopes that the LOOSER food cart restrictions will affect the city's business climate as a whole.
Gary Johnson: "I love a William Whyte quote--"
That's the urban studies writer--
Gary Johnson: "--there's nothing that draws people like food. And nothing that draws people like other people. And so street food can be an important element in creating the kind of exciting urban neighborhoods where bright young people want to live and work."
Pesto Chicken Salad
Addy Bittner, Addy's Sandwich Bar
2 lbs chicken leg and thigh pieces
2 heads garlic, separated into cloves and peeled
olive oil (2 Tbsp for pesto, plus additional for garlic)
1 bunch washed and dried spinach leaves (~1/2 lb)
1 bunch washed and dried pesto leaves
1 Tbsp champagne vinegar
sea salt to taste
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Add the chicken pieces, reduce until it's just barely a simmer, cover, and poach until the chicken is just cooked through (~10-15 minutes).
Remove from water, allow to cool, and remove the meat from the bone and coarsely chop. Set aside.
Put cooked garlic, spinach and basil in a food processor along with the 2 Tbsp olive oil and the vinegar. Puree until it comes together in a well-mixed pesto.
Add enough of the pesto in with the chicken to create a mixture that's to your liking texture-wise, reserving the remainder for another use. Add salt to taste.