From satisfying late-night cravings for greasy food after hitting the bars on a Saturday night, to serving quick meals between classes, food carts have become beloved fixtures of University of Oregon life.
Yet they weren’t always as ubiquitous — or as prosperous — as they are now. In the last few years, many previously informal campus-only carts have opened up full-fledged storefronts around the city, and it seems like a new cart opens up once every six months. Mark Stern, owner of the Soup Nation food cart and more recently the storefront of the same name, thinks he knows why.
“It’s economics,” Stern said. “People want to get into restaurant business, and few people have the money to do so.” He explained food carts are considerably cheaper and less risky to start up than a restaurant. He also thinks many of the people starting up food carts are doing so because they’ve lost employment.
“There are people out there who have an interest or have worked for a restaurant and had to put that aside for their careers,” he said. “(Then,) they found themselves out of a job and figured, ‘You know, I have this much money, and at least I could fulfill a passion for feeding people.’”
That passion is shared by Shari Chrissis, the most recent owner of the nearly 30-year-old hotdog stand on East 13th Avenue and Kincaid Street.
“I want to make good food at a reasonable price,” Chrissis said. “I agonize constantly over how to keep the costs down.”
She said her dedication to her customers pays off, once netting over 250 hotdog sales in one day, explaining that it was an unusually high number. Judging by the flourishing number of carts, she said, it was clearly far from an unheard of level of profit.
“Look at the cart phenomenon. It’s all over the place,” she said.@@uh oh…too many carts…@@
Not everyone is quite as enthusiastic as Chrissis, however. Omer Orian, co-founder of Off the Waffle, said operating a food cart wasn’t as easy as one might think. In fact, the difficulties behind it resulted in the Off the Waffle cart permanently closing down in favor of their restaurant.
“You don’t have solid stability, you don’t have room – it’s like camping,” Orian said. Still, he doesn’t think that food carts will go away, even if the economy recovers.
“The people of this country aren’t really a people of the street,” he said, comparing America’s relatively late adaptation of food carts to those of other nations around the world where food carts have a very long history. But the recent economic issues are causing a more lasting effect, he thinks.
“I think the culture itself is changing.”