Wood-fired foods like shio koji pork chops and Collin Mohr’s grandma rolls are the backbone of the menu at Ruthie’s Southeast Portland food cart. Built inside the 105 square foot space, the oven is the heart of the cart. It burns at 700 to 800 degrees Fahrenheit, which causes the cart to reach temperatures of 120 to 130 degrees on a normal day. When last week’s heat wave hitco-owners Mohr and Aaron Kiss closed their cart for a week, instead offering a sandwich menu for two days at nearby Cat’s Paw bar.
Ruthie’s wasn’t the only cart hiding in a cool place during the heat wave: Staff at Bing Mi, the popular jianbing cart in northwest Portland, dug into the owner’s other business Jacky Ren, a dumpling and noodle bar down the street. And those who didn’t have an air-conditioned dining space ended up trying other solutions to avoid the heat, whether modified schedules Where heatwave menus.
While the years gone by food carts closed for triple-digit temperatures, this option has become more difficult for owners of carts in the city. This year, Portland broke a record for the most consecutive days of 95-degree heatand we’re heading into another weekend with temperatures should exceed 100 degrees. With the increasing frequency and severity of heat waves in the Pacific Northwest, food carts are forced to find different ways to manage service or lose revenue.
After a brutal summer last year, Richard and Sophia Le, owners of Vietnamese food cart Matta, have put in place a plan to avoid the heat, both short and long term. Last year, the cart was mostly manned by the couple, but now that the Les are in charge of more staff, they didn’t feel comfortable seeing them working. Instead, Matta started pop up at Wayfinder Beer on Mondaysgiving his staff a break from cooking in a hot cart.
In addition to getting out of the food cart, taking over Wayfinder’s kitchen also gives staff the ability to work a line as a team, which isn’t possible in their confined space. Richard Le sees it as a test towards the ultimate goal: to open a permanent restaurant. Opening a restaurant has long been the finish line for many cart owners in the Portland area, but extreme temperatures are becoming a more common concern – both in the Winter and the summer – the stakes are much higher. Les’ original plan was to keep the cart and use it for a different concept, but now they’re skeptical of its practicality.
“The way things are going lately, it seems more responsible as a business owner to bring everyone to the restaurant and just sell the cart,” says Richard Le. “The cart has been glorious in terms of the growth we’ve gotten from this. At the end of the day, I feel like for everyone’s long-term safety, it’s the right decision.
Although Matta has the option of changing his hours – Richard Le credits the community for continuing to show up when the restaurant needs to make changes – another survival strategy is to hold more events this year, which are static commitments. They served burgers last Sunday at the block party in Chinatown, which he describes as “not the most comfortable situation, but definitely better than being in a hot box.”
Similarly, India’s ice cream parlor Kulfi is looking to manage its calendar of summer events. In 2019, Kiran Cheema and Gagan Aulakh started selling their popsicles from a cart, specializing in events like farmers markets and outdoor fairs; the two opened a boutique in Alberta in April. Last year they were completely dependent on outside events in the summer, but having their own shop has given them a financial cushion. “Before, we were so dependent on these outside events in the summer,” says Cheema. “The fact that we opened the store on time this year has really helped us.”
Climate change has given the company a punch this year: the long spring season has dampened the number of markets they usually do, and when the summer weather arrived quickly and intensely, the couple then had to worry about events being canceled due to the heat. Amid last month’s heatwave, one of their scheduled events was canceled last Thursday, but the blow to Kulfi was less severe than it could have been.
“If things got canceled a year ago when we didn’t have any space, that’s a whole week of revenue,” Cheema says. “Now that we have the shop, our income will be even lower because we have not had access to the markets and these sales. It’s not that bad, ‘Now we can’t come back after this.’ … Summer doesn’t last that long.