Rich Winiarski has been around pierogis all his life, but he didn’t start making them by hand until he moved to Bend in September. Winiarski, who worked for more than 20 years as a prison guard for the state of Connecticut, invited friends over to his house for Christmas Eve, an occasion that calls for pierogis in the Polish tradition, so he decided to give it a shot.
“The ones I made on Christmas Eve were the worst ones I’ve ever had in my life,” Winiarski said. “But all my friends in Bend were like ‘Rich, this is phenomenal,’ so I knew I had something.”
Five months later, he opened Big Skis Pierogis, a Polish food cart that offers a rotating selection of 30 pierogis, of which five to six are available on any given day. After beginning in a lot on SW 14th Street , Big Skis has since moved up the street to Goodlife Brewing, where it sits on the edge of the brewery’s beer garden.
“Not every day’s busy, but it’s just great,” Winiarski said. “I can’t wait to meet people from all over the place and share my pierogis and my stories with them.”
While the specifics are different, Winiarski’s story has been mirrored across the country. Food carts generated $853 million in revenue in 2014, with yearly growth of nearly 10 percent since 2010, according to an industry analysis provided by IBISworld.com.
Winiarski’s is one of 21 food carts around Bend that keeps regular hours, according to a recent article in The Bulletin. Tim Foley, who manages the Mobile Food Unit Program for Deschutes County, said that so far in 2015, the county has issued 127 annual licenses for mobile food units, a category that contains all mobile food carts that serve food or beverages that aren’t prepackaged. That’s a jump of nearly 25 percent since this time in 2014, when it had issued 102.
While the spike in food carts has recently begun in Bend, Oregon has been at the forefront of food cart growth, with Portland leading the way.
Food carts began popping up in Portland in the 1990s, according to Kelly Rodgers, co-author of “Cartopia: Portland’s Food Cart Revolution,” which chronicled the rise of mobile food in Portland. Rodgers added that the recession helped jump-start the industry in Portland, as food entrepreneurs steered away from traditional restaurants in favor of carts, which had less overhead. Customers, looking to save money, jumped on the cheaper alternative.
“While food carts have gotten more expensive recently, they’re still a cheaper option than most restaurants,” Rodgers said.
Though there were some carts in Bend at the time of the recession, they were scattered across town, often without a permanent base to build clientele.
Erica Reilly, general manager of Spork, which started in a food truck in 2009 before moving to a brick-and-mortar location in 2013, said she and her partners were drawn to the lower barriers to entry and greater flexibility that goes with operating a food truck rather than a restaurant. However, she said Spork, like many food trucks, struggled to find a location with visibility, easy access and helpful landlords.
“It’s not a city like L.A. or Portland, where you get a lot of foot traffic,” Reilly said. “It just wasn’t that sort of city.”
Since 2009 however, congregations of food trucks, with three or more options in a single location, have become more common in Bend.
Leading the charge is The Lot, at 745 NW Columbia St. Since its opening in August 2013, The Lot has paired five food carts with a central, heated seating area that contains a bar.
David Staley, owner and founder of The Lot, said while he got the idea from visiting one of the downtown food cart pods in Portland, the design came largely from his own brainstorming.
“How can we make it really fun? How can we make it a place we would want to hang out at?” Staley said.
The beer taps at the center of the food carts help on that front. Staley said that adding beer sales helps profits for the food trucks onsite, as it encourages customers to attend for dinner as well as lunch.
“Up until this, (food carts) didn’t really do much dinner business,” Staley said “Right away you double your business if you can do two meals a day rather than one.”
The diversity of offerings in one location helps as well, as it allows groups of visitors to each get different types of food.
Rodgers said cart pods can act like stores in a mall, with popular carts acting as “anchor tenants” attracting customers who might disperse to other carts once the line gets too long.
The carts benefit from The Lot’s setup more directly as well, according to Brandon Chambers, owner and chef of Fries a la Carté, which moved to The Lot three months ago. Chambers said each truck on site pays rent in exchange for a set spot and services, such as removing graywater, which is wastewater from sinks. In addition, he said, the carts benefit from The Lot’s growing reputation as a local hub.
“The Lot itself has its own clientele, so it’s kind of a symbiotic relationship,” Chambers said.
Perhaps due to The Lot’s success, food carts have begun to congregate on the west side of town. Of the 21 carts with regular hours in Bend, just one — Thai on the Fly — has a permanent location east of NE Third Street.
“I definitely think the east side is ripe for more food,” Staley said. “Bend is growing and growing, and it seems like a lot of the growth is on the east side, because that’s where land is available.”
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