|2/15/2011 3:48:00 PM|
Small business carts with it opportunity for family
While the fast-growing food cart craze has put Portland on the national radar, these types of establishments have also made it possible for entrepreneurs to start a business with low overheard and less risk than traditional restaurateurs.
For one family, what started as a small cart in an up-and-coming area has led to opportunities that were previously out of reach.
“We always wanted to have our own business,” said Alicia Cruz. “But we worked hard and never got anywhere.”
When the Cruz family moved to Portland from northern Mexico more than a decade ago, parents Sara and Javier hoped to build a life in which they could afford to send their children, Alicia and Javier, to college. But over the years, members of the family found themselves working harder and harder, without increasing income or opportunity.
When the kids were in high school, parents Sara and Javier delivered newspapers for income. Day-to-day living expenses were a struggle – forget about saving for college funds.
Then, one day, they got a lead on an inexpensive food cart for sale.
“My mom has always been a good cook,” Alicia said.
The family effort became Alicia’s senior project for high school, and Taqueria Los Gorditos opened at the corner of 50th and Division in 2006, leading the pack of mobile restaurateurs. Mom was up and out of the house by 5:30 a.m., preparing the fresh beans and rice that are paired with enchiladas and gorditas. They added vegan fare when Alicia changed her diet, giving the city’s vegetarians a new dining option in that part of town.
All of the recipes are Sara’s, dishes she’s cooked for years at home for the kids.
When Mike McKinnon was opening his Potato Champion cart in 2008 (purveyors of poutine - a Canadian dish of fries topped with cheese curd and gravy), he consulted with the Cruz family. More followed.
Since its opening, Los Gorditos has developed a cult following. Fans set up a Facebook page, now with 1,292 “likes.” The Cruz family has no idea who started the page.
Meanwhile the cart industry in Multnomah County has boomed. According to foodcartsportland.com, there are more than 600 licensed carts, 30 percent growth over the previous year. For a long time food cart vendors had been selling to hungry eaters downtown, but the businesses started popping up increasingly in North, Northeast and Southeast Portland. The introduction of more “pods,” parking lots with collections of carts. There are now 25 pods in Portland, foodcartsportland.com reports.
Lately, some of the carts have been catching flak for building structures without obtaining permits from the city. City Commissioner Randy Leonard met with cart owners in December giving them the message: tear down the illegal decks and structures or get a permit.
The Cruz family isn’t worried about the hubbub – they built their deck and seating area legitimately as they went and have the paperwork to prove it, Alicia said.
Los Gorditos, named after the dish that is a staple in northern Mexico, the stand generated so much business that the family branched out last year, opening a restaurant on Southeast 12th and Division streets. Mom and daughter run the restaurant, while father and son manage the cart, most days. They also often are hired to cater events.
And working with family has its ups and downs, said Alicia, although they’re mostly good times.
“We love food and we love people, and we get to do something that involves both,” she said. “We’re blessed.”
Meanwhile, the cart’s income (and the invaluable experience of running a business) was the ticket to get Alicia through a bachelor’s program at Warner Pacific College, where she will graduate at the end of the current term. She’s studying communications and business, and envisions a career in the non-profit world. She volunteers through Catholic Charities, providing homework help to Somali refugee children at Kateri Park. She hopes to pair her business training with her desire to make a difference.
But, for now, Alicia will finish school and work at the restaurant with her mom.
“It was hard work,” the 22-year-old said, reflecting on managing her time with school and the business. A lot of that drive came from watching her mother.
“She wakes up before the sun comes up and goes until 10 or 11 at night,” she said. “It drives my brother and I because we see how hard our parents work.”