When Ian Vidinha decided to return to the workforce, he realized he wanted to be in a place where there was a good family vibe, a place where he could dish up his culture and be his own boss.
But he didn’t want to spend his life’s savings on a brick -and -mortar building, so he bought a food cart.Aina Hawaiian Bend, and opened two weeks ago at The Patio @ Ninth Street Village. He is among the newest food carts to open in Deschutes County.
“I like the essence of the food truck,” said Vidinha, who originally is from the island of Kauai in Hawaii. “I like that I can bring my family to the cart lot and have a variety of food to choose from and my kids are not stuck to a high chair in a restaurant.
Vidinha’s new food truck is one of 230 licensed mobile food units in Deschutes County, as the Oregon Health Authority refers to them. They can be anything from a cart, a converted RV trailer, a step-side van or anything that can be pushed or pulled down a sidewalk, street, highway or waterway.
Five years ago there were just 107 food carts, said Eric Mone, Deschutes County Health Services environmental health supervisor.
Statewide there are just under 2,500 food carts and trucks, with Portland owning the largest share, according to information provided by the Oregon Mobile Food Association. Nationwide there are 6,062 food cart restaurants, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Often food trucks are the first foray to opening a restaurant. Some businesses stay as a food cart, like A Taste of Thailand, which has been in business for 19 years on Greenwood Avenue, others grow and move into brick -and -mortar locations like Bethlyn’s Global Fusion, The Brown Owl and Spork.
“The cost of entry to a restaurant is fairly high, and there’s an awful lot of people out there who want to pursue their lifelong dream of owning a restaurant,” said Roy Slicker, founder of Thrive, a food service author and restaurant mentor in Bend.
Ben Hemson, Bend city business advocate, said food carts provide easy access for entrepreneurs. The start -up costs are considerably less, which removes many barriers for business, Hemson said.
“There are less start-up costs for a food cart owner,” Hemson said. “This is not something we’ve sought to promote at the city, but I have talked to a lot of folks who want to start a food cart, and I’m excited to see the growth.”
Two more food cart pods are being developed, Hemson said. One is going up on Fourth Street in the Bend Central District, that’s in addition to The Podski on Colorado, The Lot off Galveston and several one-cart locations around town, Hemson said.
Bethlyn Rider, co-owner of Bethlyn’s Global Fusion restaurant on NW Newport Avenue, made the transition from food cart to brick -and -mortar restaurant about three years ago as a way to even out business from summer to winter and to increase the catering aspect of the business.
“We had an opportunity to get a brick -and -mortar business — and the thing was we were doing well in the summer, but we suffered in the winter,” Rider said. “That’s why we went to a restaurant. Now we have a brick and mortar, and we wish we had the food cart.
“It’s insanely expensive.”
Intense competition from other restaurants has also cut into sales, which have declined by 20%, Rider said.
“We’re suffering,” she said. “I’m passionate about cooking, but the business part is tough. We’re all going through a tough time.”
With a good menu and a small staff, it might be possible to turn a profit in the food cart business, said Slicker, but it’s tough. And even when there’s failure and the food-service business folds, the owner is on the hook for the lease. In the second quarter of 2019, 3.2% of the 594,000 food service establishments closed nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
“The turnover rate in the food -service business is one of the highest in any industry,” Slicker said.
That’s why location is critical in the cart business. A cart by itself in a parking lot often doesn’t have the same draw as a cart lot.
At On Tap, on the east side of Bend, owners Eric and Laura Kramer opened their food cart lot and taproom in April 2018 to create a community around beer. They routinely bring in entertainment, have a fire pit going in winter and have games at the lot.
“We love the beer industry, and so we were passionate about opening a tap house to showcase craft beer,” Eric Kramer said. “The food trucks were a way to hand off the cooking to an expert.”
Owning a food cart lot is a tricky business and one that is competitive in Bend. Each food cart pod works to create its own unique experience.
“We all have our own niche, and we’re all in different areas of town, “ Kramer said. “We all offer something different. Our own vibe.”
Lori Walls, owner of The Bleu Rooster, a food cart at On Tap, said the different activities help draw in people. Walls said she never wanted to take on the expense of a restaurant lease and all that it entailed, but the food cart is just enough business.
“It is a business that we could own by ourselves and not have to go through the red tape,” Walls said. “Location is everything. The tap house brings in people, and customers don’t have to search for you because you’re stationary.
Dining is not just a tasting experience, Slicker said. It’s an overall sensory experience, which is why a vibe is important to diners.
“Quite simply food carts are transient because they’re trying to find the sweet spot in a community where they can be successful,” he said. “A business owner has to be creative and producing outstanding customer experiences.”
With Aina Hawaiian Bend, Vidinha said he has been focusing on customer experience to ensure that they return.
“I knew who my customer base would be because I did my research,” Vidinha said. “There are so many people who live in Bend who came from Hawaii, have ties to Hawaii or love Hawaii. I knew once I bought the flavors of Hawaii, they’d love it. I tried to make my menu what people said they’d like, and it seems to be paying off. People are eating it up.”