Sufferable Portland

Food Carts in Portland

A story from San Francisco:

The Ice Cream Bar opened Jan. 21 in the Cole Valley neighborhood — an homage to the classic parlors of the 1930s, complete with vintage soda fountain and lunch counter seating. It has become an immediate sensation, packed with both families and the foodie crowd, savoring upscale house-made ice creams and exotic sodas (flavorings include pink peppercorn and tobacco). The shop also employs 14 full- and part-time workers.

But getting it opened wasn’t easy.

“Many times it almost didn’t happen,” said Juliet Pries, the owner, with a cheerful laugh.

Ms. Pries said it took two years to open the restaurant, due largely to the city’s morass of permits, procedures and approvals required to start a small business. While waiting for permission to operate, she still had to pay rent and other costs, going deeper into debt each passing month without knowing for sure if she would ever be allowed to open. [...]

Ms. Pries said she had to endure months of runaround and pay a lawyer to determine whether her location (a former grocery, vacant for years) was eligible to become a restaurant. There were permit fees of $20,000; a demand that she create a detailed map of all existing area businesses (the city didn’t have one); and an $11,000 charge just to turn on the water.

A story from Portland:

At the end of 2011, confectioner Amani Greer started spinning sugar into cotton candy at schools across the city, as well as on the streets of Alberta during Last Thursdays. Then, in February, she opened the doors to Candy Babel, a candy store dedicated to sweets from around the globe. Her goal, she says, is to provide those obscure treats that so many travelers have enjoyed on their sojourns abroad but couldn’t, until now, find stateside. Specializing in artisanal sweets (think chipotle-candied bacon strips or a Moroccan mint tea lollipop) and European confections, Greer plans to expand her candy scope and bring the city’s Vietnamese and Somali communities the candies they once enjoyed as children before resettling here. Greer also says she still plans on spinning clouds of Candy Babel’s more than 135 flavors of organic, kosher cotton candy. Current hours are 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily, except on Tuesday when the store is dark.

Last week The Weekly Standard ran a story by former Oregonian Mark Hemingway titled “Insufferable Portland,” a lengthy screed against the new “capital of cool.” Though sneering at times, it’s worth reading. The city’s much-lauded public transit, for example, deserves a much more critical look than it often receives locally. And he’s right that this is a tough place to move to if you’re young, educated, and looking for a traditional professional career; I’ve watched many friends become justifiably frustrated by the lack of job prospects. However Hemingway fails to appreciate some of the virtues of the artisanal economy that flourishes here:

While it’s hard not to root for entrepreneurial initiative wherever you find it, in Portland it carries a whiff of desperation. I submit that the real reason Portland has a thriving artisanal economy is that the regular economy is in the dumps. Portland’s hipsters are starting craft businesses in their garages and opening restaurants not merely because they “reject passive consumption” but because they can’t find jobs, the kind that offer upward mobility. If there’s a more rational reason why a small city like Portland has 671 food trucks, I’d love to hear it.

And:

Given the lack of critical attention to the city, I guess it falls to me to state the obvious: Portland is quietly closing in on San Francisco as the American city that has most conspicuously taken leave of its senses.

And yet smart, creative people keep voting with their feet in favor of Portland. Why? It can’t be just about the beer.

Hemingway quotes from “Portlandia” that Portland is “where young people go to retire.” It’s one of the most incisive lines from the show, but they don’t necessarily mean the kind of retirement where you sit on the porch all day and do nothing. It’s the kind where, after decades of working an unsatisfying job, you finally have time to pursue your passions. Or at least it can be. Again from the show:

“I gave up clowning years ago.”

“Well in Portland you don’t have to.”

I recently read Tim Harford’s new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, and was struck by how well the ideas he lays out apply to Portland. Harford lists three Palchinsky Principles named after Peter Palchinsky, an engineer executed by the Soviet government for questioning their top-down methods of planning:

1. Seek out new ideas and try new things.

2. When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable.

3. Seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.

One of the best things Portland has going for it is its embrace of the first and second principles. “Keep Portland Weird” say the bumper stickers. “Buy local.” This isn’t always insufferable hipness. The virtue of these attitudes is that if you’re an entrepreneur or an artist, you can try something different and people will at least give you a hearing.

Granted, many of these ideas will suck. That’s where principle two comes in. Whatever its flaws, Portland’s love of small, boutique start-ups makes failure survivable. A failed food cart is a smaller loss than a failed brick-and-mortar restaurant. This lowers the barriers to entry for people without access to a lot of capital. It’s a great way to test ideas and identify talent. The successes can expand into more traditional businesses.

A great example of this is Pok Pok, a Thai restaurant that began as a take-out shack in front of chef Andy Ricker’s house in southeast Portland in 2005. Today Ricker is a James Beard Award-winning chef with multiple restaurants in Portland and New York. Other entrepreneurs echo this success on a smaller scale, moving to brick-and-mortars, expanding their cart empire, or signing book deals.

This low-risk aspect of Portland is what attracted me to it when I moved here from the East Coast a few years ago. The food and drink scenes in San Francisco and Seattle were equally attractive, but the costs of moving to either of them without a job or a specific plan for finding one were daunting. In Portland, failure was survivable: It took me six months to become employed full-time, but the dynamic culture has allowed me to do creative work and almost (though not quite yet) turn it into a profitable career while living pretty comfortably. This required some degree of luck, but it’s hard to imagine things working out quite so well in San Francisco.

This is the upside of Portland’s unique culture and what other cities could do well to emulate (as opposed to, say, our streetcar projects, which are glamorous wastes of money). I may or may not stay here much longer, pursuing larger paychecks and sunnier winters in a bigger city. But as a place to spend a few years of my twenties developing talent and drinking fantastic beer, I’ve found Portland eminently sufferable.

[Photo of Nong's Khao Man Gai, one of my favorite Portland food carts, which has now expanded to three locations. Courtesy of Flickr user camknows.]

Comments

  1. Mike Robertson says:

    One of your best articles. Thanks.

  2. Renee says:

    I thought of you when I read that Weekly Standard article. Interesting rebuttal.

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