Michele Walker and Francois Colomb have a dream: They want to open a restaurant.
With little money of their own and bank loans hard to come by, the Corvallis couple decided to start small. In 2009, they began working area farmers markets, steadily building a loyal following for their Mediterranean-style crepes.
Now they want to grow their business, Creperie du Lys, graduating from a wooden booth at the Saturday and Wednesday open-air markets to a food cart they could run year-round, like the ones that have created such a huge culinary buzz up the road in Portland.
But they ran into a hitch. In Corvallis, food carts fall under the same land-use category as farmers markets, craft fairs and outdoor art sales, and all such operations are limited to 45 days per year in a given location.
That’s no way to make a living as a food cart operator, Walker argues, especially after she and Colomb invested nearly $10,000 to convert a 16-foot travel trailer into a rolling crepe kitchen.
“If you could only be open 45 days a year, who would do that?” she asked.
Walker’s vision is for Corvallis to follow the example of Portland, where clusters of food carts, known as pods, offer a variety of cuisines for every taste. Cart operators typically rent space on private property where they can get access to electricity and running water, often providing a shared seating area and restroom facilities for their customers.
“I don’t want to say I want Corvallis to look like Portland because I really don’t,” Walker said. “I don’t think anyone wants to see cart sprawl.”
Within limits, however, she thinks food cart pods would enhance the city’s street life, creating a new kind of dining experience, providing a boost to the local economy and generating a spillover effect for neighboring brick-and-mortar businesses.
“I think the perception of food carts has changed,” she said. “It’s not just the corn dog you got at the fair when you were a kid.”
She’s already found a willing potential partner in Bob Burton, the former downtown restaurant operator who still owns the parking lot at Southwest Third Street and Monroe Avenue.
Burton has already rented spots to a couple of food carts on a short-term basis. If several operators wanted to join forces, he said, he’d be willing to turn the lot into a pod — at least until somebody makes him an attractive offer on the property, which is for sale.
“I personally think it’s a good idea,” Burton said.
“If you had four or five choices and you knew the food quality would be good and the sanitation would be good, the way it should be, it would work.”
Breaking the code
Before a pod can become practical, however, the 45-day limit would have to be lifted.
In a letter dated July 29, Walker raised that possibility with Corvallis planning officials, who took steps to consider changing the code. But it’s a lengthy process.
First, the matter was referred to the Downtown Commission, which formed a committee. The committee is currently conducting an online survey to gauge public opinion on food carts and has scheduled a community forum for Feb. 15.
The committee will report back to the Downtown Commission, which will make a recommendation to the City Council. If the council decides a code change is in order, it will direct staff to draw up new language.
That language would then need to be reviewed by the Planning Commission, which makes its own recommendation to the City Council. Both bodies would hold public hearings, and the council would ultimately vote on the matter.
“It’s a fairly involved process to do this the formal, legal way,” acknowledged Sarah Johnson, an associate planner with the city and the staff liaison to the Downtown Commission.
But she said the old code definition of food carts in Corvallis worked well until recently.
“It fits into that classification rather nicely — until you start looking at some of the other things in that classification,” Johnson said.
“This is a fairly new phenomenon. We haven’t really come up against this question until the last few years.”
Exceptions to the rule
In fact, there are already a surprising number of food carts operating in the area.
At present there are 16 such businesses registered in Benton County. They range from snow cone wagons and coffee trolleys to full-fledged rolling restaurants, but they all meet the state definition of mobile food units.
As such, they must meet all the same health and safety standards as brick-and-mortar restaurants. The cart itself must pass a building plan review, the operation must pass twice-yearly health inspections, and employees must have current food-handler’s cards.
After that, it gets a little more complicated.
“Our interpretation is you can operate your mobile unit anywhere in Benton County that the law allows you to operate,” said Scott Kruger of the Environmental Health Division, which licenses and inspects all food service operations in the county.
“If you’re coming into city limits and they have different rules, well, there’s nothing I can do about that.”
And that’s where it gets tricky. For instance, while a coffee kiosk with wheels clearly meets the state’s definition of a mobile food unit (even if it hasn’t moved in years), if it’s less than 120 square feet it might be considered a parking lot kiosk under the Corvallis land development code.
Willie McKnight found out how complicated these matters can be last March, when someone complained about his hot dog cart outside the Madison Plaza building downtown.
“It wasn’t until I was three months into it, almost four months, that I was hit with a cease operations letter based on this 45-day limit,” McKnight said.
“It was a surprise to me. No one even knew about this ordinance. It’s not common knowledge.”
McKnight points out that there was another hot dog cart in the same location for years before he started his business — in fact, he bought his cart from the previous operator.
So when he got the violation notice, he contested it — and won.
After consulting the regulations, Corvallis code enforcement supervisor Chris Westfall determined that Willie’s Hot Dog Cart did not, in fact, meet the definition of a temporary outdoor market.
McKnight, it turns out, leases a small space in the basement of the Madison Plaza, where he has food storage and dishwashing facilities to support his wiener wagon. That’s defined as a commissary under state health regulations, and McKnight pays a separate licensing fee for the privilege of having it.
In Westfall’s view, that makes his business something other than temporary, outdoor or a market, and therefore not a food cart — which isn’t really covered in the code anyway.
“Closer in alignment would be eating and drinking establishment, fast order food,” Westfall said. “Currently we don’t have a term, of definition or of use, that would include food cart.”
Food fight ahead?
Walker wants to avoid that kind of confusion — and the possibility of being shut down for land-use violations.
So even though she’s already paid $252 to license her Creperie du Lys mobile food unit for the year, she’s keeping it in her driveway until she finds a place to operate without running afoul of city code.
“We’re just going to go ahead and move forward,” Walker said. “I’m definitely going to work with the city. It’s just time-consuming, and you have to be patient.”
She may need more than patience. Not everyone likes the notion of food carts sprouting up around town, and it appears Walker may face some active opposition to her plan.
Brandon Dale, who owns the Broken Yolk Cafe — two doors down from Burton’s parking lot — has already gone on record to express his opposition.
In November, when two mobile food units were operating in the lot, Dale urged the city to resist any attempt to relax the 45-day restriction on food carts, which he derisively referred to as taco trucks.
“I, among many others, have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in improving our downtown locations. To see a taco truck roll up out of nowhere and plant itself next to my business or anyone else’s for that matter is disgraceful to all our efforts,” he wrote in an e-mail to the city.
“Not only do I oppose this proposal but I will propose that we reduce the amount of days that these mobile units are allowed to operate in our downtown location.”