When the economy started to tank and the restaurants where Bryan Illingworth worked laid him off, he decided to see where his culinary skills could take him by starting a catering business with his wife, Jennifer.
About a year and a half ago, the couple went mobile, starting Curb B Q. They purchased a 30-foot food truck and equipped it with a commercial kitchen so they could sell their barbecue on the road.
The Illingworths were not alone.
Over the last three years, the number of mobile food unit licenses has increased 5-7 percent per year in Deschutes County, said Eric Mone, environmental health supervisor for Deschutes County Environmental Health. The Illingworths' truck is one of about 109 mobile food units in Deschutes County.
“There has been a real nationwide increase in the number of (mobile food units),” Mone said. “We have seen the increase in Deschutes County, too.”
While the Illingworths and others may have moved into the mobile food business as a less-expensive way to stay in the industry, they found the road more difficult to navigate than they expected.
Overhead costs can be relatively high; finding a location can be difficult, and operators must learn health codes and land-use laws — even if the business is on wheels.
Any mobile food unit — defined by state and county health regulations as a vehicle that is “self-propelled, or can be pulled or pushed down a sidewalk, street, highway or waterway” — must complete an initial plan review, pass a pre-opening inspection and obtain a food-service license before it can operate, Mone said.
If its menu includes dishes prepared in the unit from raw meat or other animal products, he said, it also must have a commissary license.
The department groups mobile food units into four categories, or classes, depending on the food to be served.
The more food preparation taking place inside the cart or truck, the greater the requirements get for access to water, the amount of water that must be available and the availability of a sink to wash dishes.
Class I, those serving only prepackaged food and drinks, are not required to have a water supply. Class IV, however, those that can prepare and cook any food inside, must have a 30-gallon dish-washing sink minimum and a hand-washing system with plumbing for hot and cold running water.
The fees also vary depending on the amount of food preparation, with total costs running between $430 and $995, Mone said.
Beyond the heath codes, food carts have to meet city regulations.
Aaron Henson, senior planner for the city of Bend, said food carts located on commercial sitesmust meet eight minimum standards within the Bend Development Code involving regulations for vehicle and bike parking, vehicle circulation, the landscape and sidewalk construction.
“For your typical food-cart owner, (the city talks) to them over the counter, looks at an aerial photograph of the site and makes sure the location that they pick is going to work ... We check the site for compliance with the minimum development standards. If it meets those, there are no fees,” he said. “If there's a problem with the site, we encourage food carts to move to another site that meets those standards.”
Henson said property owners have the option to improve their sites to get them up to code, and noted sometimes changes are as small as the addition of a bike rack.
If the food cart site is completely undeveloped, he said an application fee and a more thorough review process are required.
Small carts located downtown, Henson said, fall under the rules of the street vendor program. According to the city's website, 10 locations are available. The cost to apply is $388, and the city assigns the spots every February through a lottery, said Terri Shepherd, administrative specialist for the city of Bend.
“With the economy the way it is, people are looking for different ways to create income,” Shepherd said. “So, there's been a lot more street vendor interest.”
Andre Antoniou, owner of the Greek Chariot, had one of those spots on Riverfront Plaza.He served fresh Mediterranean cuisine.
But after three years in the food-cart business, Antoniou said he's decided to sell the chariot — a two-wheeled, open-air cart.
“Having a really good location and being open on a regular basis can be difficult,” Antoniou said, “(and) finding a spot where the landlord will let you set up and do your thing so you can serve the public can be trying.”
Even with the food cart, he said, he and his wife, Sarah, both had to have second jobs.
Antoniou said he paid the city and county about $1,100 to have his cart in operation for about six months out of the year.
When serving food at farmers markets or similar events, he said organizers charged anywhere from $25-$50 for the day, up to $400 for the weekend, or 10-30 percent of the gross sales earned.
He also had to pay for fresh water, wastewater disposal, a commissary where he could prepare the food, gas to operate the cart and storage.
On the east side of town, Illingworth and his wife are just getting started with their food-truckbusiness. They hope to make it their sole source of income.
Currently, he serves up barbecue on most Fridays fromthe lot at Smolich Hyundai of Bend on Northeast U.S. Highway 20. But he wants to solidify a weekly route where he would be at different places on different days.
“We're trying to find a place that has good foot and car traffic,” he said, noting he's attempting to get companies to let him park his truck on their lots.
Portland and other cities have food-cart pods, locations where multiple mobile food vendors gather regularly. David Staley has proposed creating a pod in Bend on his lot at Northwest Columbia Street and Northwest Hartford Avenue, about a block north of Galveston Avenue.
“The impression I've got is (food-cart operators) are always up in the air about where they are going to be next, for how long their going to be there and how long they are going to be open for the season,” he said.
For Staley,the city's process will be more complicated and costly than for a single food-cart operator, said Henson, the senior planner.
To develop the vacant lot with the proposed 1,200 square-foot building and a 500 square-foot outdoor seating area, Henson said the application will cost just over $6,000.
Staley said he just submitted a water-sewer analysis for the property. As soon he gets that back, he said he will turn in the site plan, which normally goes through a three-month review process by the city.
He hopes the pod will be operating on the lot by spring of next year.
“Ultimately, it depends on what the city is going to allow,” he said. “I want it to happen, but it's so out of my control. I can't really do anything without the city's approval.”