Dissatisfaction at a Famed Food Cart Pod Demonstrates Why Multnomah County Wants to Regulate Them

Lunch hour at a food cart parked where the Oregon Hospital for the Insane once stood regularly draws a crowd. On a damp Sunday afternoon at Hawthorne Asylum, 40 people sat at polished but rugged pine tables, eating banh mi, Philly cheesesteaks and burritos. Two gas fire pits provided warmth. […]

Lunch hour at a food cart parked where the Oregon Hospital for the Insane once stood regularly draws a crowd.

On a damp Sunday afternoon at Hawthorne Asylum, 40 people sat at polished but rugged pine tables, eating banh mi, Philly cheesesteaks and burritos. Two gas fire pits provided warmth. String lights looped back and forth across the plaza, adding a certain romance to the rain.

Hawthorne Asylum, located at Southeast 10th Avenue and Madison Street, just blocks from Ladd’s Addition, is one of Portland’s better-known food cart pods. When it opened in 2019, the collection of 20 food carts was described by WW as “what might happen if Tim Burton were commissioned to design a Portland-themed section of Disneyland,” adding that “there may not be a more crowd-pleasing al fresco dining option this summer.”

But there have been problems at Hawthorne Asylum.

WW spoke with nine food cart owners who rented space at Hawthorne Asylum in the past three years—five of whom agreed to go on the record. Six have since left the pod and moved their carts elsewhere, were kicked out or dropped out of the business altogether. They say unsanitary conditions at Hawthorne Asylum was at least part of the reason they left.

Some described overflowing dumpsters, portable toilets that were smeared with human waste, and broken promises.

Xavier Allen moved his barbecue cart and smoker into Hawthorne Asylum in May 2020. He stayed 16 months—and left because of what he describes as poor sanitation, promised amenities that never arrived, and rising rent: $2,945 a month, including utilities.

“There were rodents, the trash bins overflowed, they wanted us to take all our recyclables home,” Allen says. “I had customers take photos of rodents and say they’re not coming back here.”

Cart operators documented their claims with photos, emails and texts.

Hawthorne Asylum is owned by the Johnson family. Longtime Gresham residents, Steve Johnson’s immediate family own commercial properties across Portland—including those housing an auto parts shop, a ZoomCare office, and the recently shuttered Rogue Brewery block in the Pearl District.

Co-owner Brock Johnson, 31, characterized the concerns of his former tenants as being blown out of proportion. Last week, he points out, he installed permanent restrooms. Johnson says the pod now has regular pest management and janitorial services, and has always had trash pickup, though the pod still struggles with overflow on the weekends.

“I think the size of this place and the nature of what it is, there’s always variables we have to deal with,” says pod manager Scott Kinard, who sat down for an interview with WW and Johnson in the pod’s warehouse. “We’ve had situations…dealing with our trash company, dealing with our porta-potty company. But as far as the bigger picture, I think we’ve done a fantastic job.”

But what’s puzzling is that Multnomah County regulators say none of this is unusual.

Food carts in Portland are required to have a county license and have strict rules relating to sanitation and food storage and handling; they’re also subject to regular county health inspections. But fewer rules apply to the pods themselves.

In effect, pod owners have gotten a pass. No one requires they provide trash and recycling pickup, pest control or electricity for the carts. They aren’t subject to routine health inspections; the Asylum has never been inspected by the county health department.

The Portland Bureau of Environmental Services conducts narrow inspections of wastewater disposal, waste storage and grease, mostly after someone complains. Last month, the bureau conducted an inspection at Hawthorne Asylum—not based on a complaint—and found it complied with existing city rules.

Jeff Martin, the environmental health inspections supervisor for Multnomah County, says that as a result, most pod owners don’t offer much to their cart owners in the way of consistency, cleanliness and basic services.

“It’s pretty universal,” Martin says.

“We have this power dynamic where we have these mobile unit operators for whom English might not be first language or they might be brand new to this area or country,” Martin adds, “and landowners charging them an arm and a leg, providing them little to no services and potentially putting them at risk for health and safety concerns.”

In 2018, then-60-year-old Steve Johnson bought the former mental hospital property on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard where the Asylum now stands. He and his son, Brock, rehabbed the property themselves—both were handy and had a woodworker’s attention to detail and quality.

Beautifully crafted blue-pine benches dot the area, and the recycling station is topped by metal Minions. (Customers dump food waste into the Minions’ mouths.)

When Xavier Allen moved Mack Daddy’s BBQ to the pod, he had big expectations.

“They said they were building a bar with indoor bathrooms and a stage with a covered seating area, and it would be open on Fridays and Saturdays till 1:30 in the morning,” Allen says. These and other promises weren’t written in the leases, but five former cart owners say it was a primary reason they came to the Asylum.

For Allen, that justified the initial base $2,000 rent. Monthly rent for carts at pods across the city ranges from $800 to $2,500. His first lease was for one year.

Allen says he found Steve Johnson a difficult landlord. After a dispute over whether a rent check was late, Johnson sent Allen letters and a text message (reviewed by WW) that threatened to chain up his barbecue smoker and hold his cart as collateral. Johnson did, in fact, loop a chain around it, according to a text from Steve to Allen and a picture of the chained barbecue, shared with WW by Allen.

In summer 2021, Johnson told Allen rent was being raised to $2,945 including utilities, a 40% increase. Allen negotiated to stay at his remaining rent until Johnson found a new tenant. Allen moved out in October 2021.

By that time, Steve Johnson had died in August 2021 at age 63. Brock took over.

Michael Keskin, who owns the Bark City BBQ cart, was at the pod for a year. He left, he says, because “we were constantly being lied to. If you’re paying that kind of rent, you should be getting services.”

Six cart owners say the Johnsons told them in early 2019 that a 40-tap beer bar would be up and running within six months. It’s still under construction, and Kinard now says they’ve stopped putting a timeline on it. (Kinard says he isn’t paid by the Johnsons to be pod manager, but he’s the owner of the planned bar at the Asylum and currently owns a beer and wine cart at the pod.)

Kinard and Brock Johnson add that cart owners could leave at any time if they felt promises were broken. “Everyone had an opportunity to leave if they didn’t feel good about a scenario,” Kinard says. “But after you sign a lease for the third time, I mean, whose fault is that at this point?”

Aside from what cart owners describe as broken promises, a number of them point to the lack of sanitation as a particular concern.

Jeremy Lucas, who co-owned a cart called South with his wife, Siobhan Passmore, until they moved out of the pod in late 2020, says that portable toilets were always “fetid.” Former cart owners shared over a dozen pictures with WW of human feces smeared on the floor and seats of the toilets.

Given that the portable restrooms weren’t illuminated, says Dax McMillan— whose food cart, Daily Fuel, operated at the pod until it was kicked out this spring—customers didn’t know what they were getting into when they entered a toilet.

And social media has examples of customers complaining about the Asylum, including one who wrote to a cart owner via direct message on Twitter: “Last night my wife went into the disgusting porta-potties and without ANY lights she was unable to see the human shit on the toilet seat and wiped her hand all in it as she was trying to wipe off the seat in complete darkness.” (Five similar customer messages were shared with WW.)

Pat Singh, whose family owned Taj Mahal at the pod, says of the restrooms: “They were disgusting. I never used them. I would go to the gas station nearby.” The Johnsons kicked out the cart in August 2020.

All nine cart owners who spoke with WW said trash had been an ongoing issue: It was often overflowing and it smelled particularly bad on warm days.

Emails from summer of 2020 show the Johnsons told cart owners to help out with emptying trash cans and picking up litter.

In June 2021, the Johnsons told cart owners they would no longer handle recycling at the pod—it would be up to individual cart owners. (The Johnsons threatened cart owners with fines if they didn’t flatten boxes before putting them in the receptacle; once the change took effect, a flyer warned carts they’d be kicked out of the pod if they put recycling in a Minion’s mouth two times.)

Brock Johnson says the change was partly inspired after the recycling receptacle caught fire in August 2020, as did a shipping container and five portable toilets at the pod. He blames political vandalism: “That was during the riots.”

For a time, as five cart owners recounted to WW and Brock Johnson acknowledged, janitorial service was provided by an unhoused man who lived in a shipping container at the pod and was paid a small sum for his work.

“It felt like exploitation of a guy who was desperate for the opportunity,” Passmore says.

Brock Johnson says he was trying to help the man turn his life around. “We caught him rustling around looking for cans, and we started talking to him, and we were trying to help him,” Johnson says. (He couldn’t recall how much the man was paid—he guesses between $200 and $500 a week.)

And the Minions at the recycling center? Everything thrown in them except aluminum cans goes to a landfill, Brock Johnson says. When asked if he thought that was misleading, Johnson said, “That’s not the intention.”

Today, some carts have installed their own makeshift cans to deal with the overflow of garbage: One cart uses a Home Depot bucket, another an empty produce box.

On a recent visit, soggy piles of cardboard boxes lay behind nearly every cart. Customers hopped or lunged over several inch-deep puddles of water at the pod to reach certain carts. The portable toilets didn’t smell great, but no waste was visible. A cleaning log on one toilet’s blue plastic wall showed inconsistent cleanings. (Johnson and Kinard joke that they now have the portable toilet company “on speed dial.”)

Kinard says the pod deals with sanitary issues as they come up.

“I think some folks maybe don’t understand that because they haven’t had to manage such a large, organic thing. It’s like a carnival out here,” Kinard says. “We’ve always had open dialogue with all of our cart owners as much as we can. Some of them are happy, some of them are not. Some of them will never be happy.”

One cart owner texted a statement to WW and asked to remain anonymous. That owner also went to bat for Johnson. The owner said, in part: “While struggling to stay afloat throughout the pandemic, a report boasting about issues within the pod that are all exaggerated by an upset cart owner will only make things worse.”

If the corrals that hold food carts remain the Wild West, that’s because it’s taken Multnomah County and Portland City Hall a long time to implement and enforce adequate rules.

In 2005, Multnomah County had 314 food carts. By 2022, there were 1,039.

Jeff Martin, the health inspector with the county, estimates there are about 70 to 90 food cart pods across the county, but no database to track those pods.

While the city does have some rules for pods, most of which went into effect in 2020, enforcement is based primarily on a complaint-driven process. That means enforcement can be spotty when there’s no comprehensive database of pods. And the city rules are limited mostly to waste storage, grease and pollution control. The city estimates it has conducted inspections of 12 pods in the past year and taken a total of four enforcement actions.

But the lack of rules regarding sanitation and services that pods must provide to cart owners means that pod owners have gotten away with not providing services that any other landlord would be expected to provide, like trash service.

“They have a loophole, and we’re trying to close it [for] these new cart owners who may not have been in the restaurant business before, who don’t speak English, who are getting charged $2,000 a month for a parking spot and getting no services,” Martin says. “We’ve heard many stories about that.”

Local officials have been well aware of these issues at pods for a decade. But it wasn’t until 2017 that the county began to explore how to tackle them.

Martin says county inspectors conducting routine inspections of carts were seeing alarming things at pods: overflowing trash cans, pooling water, carts clustered too close together, fire-gutted carts and graywater spills.

In late 2019, Multnomah County commissioners unanimously approved a new licensing program for pods. It required pod owners to take on responsibilities like pest management, trash and recycling pickup, providing electricity and ensuring that carts use potable water. It also regulated the type of restrooms a pod must provide, and required 5-foot setbacks between carts and rights of way. And it allowed the county to enforce the new mandates with random, twice-yearly inspections.

“People are really interested in making sure these regulations work, because they kind of should’ve been done already, as we’ve heard,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said at the time.

The new rules were supposed to take effect in 2020. Then the pandemic hit.

The county finally launched its licensing program in January. The county rules took effect Jan. 1. But enforcement hasn’t happened yet—the inspections hinge on pod owners applying for a license, and only 10 of them have done so.

“Launching a program that involves permitting—especially when those rules are new—is a slow process,” says Kate Yeiser, a spokeswoman for Multnomah County.

The county’s new licensing program will help the city enforce its own rules by creating a database of pods and reporting issues found during regular county inspections to the city.

Matt Criblez, the city’s environmental compliance division manager, says the city and county “rely on each other’s regulations…the county license closes loopholes that allowed pods to be largely unregulated up until this year.”

Kafoury tells WW she’s “proud of the way [we have] responded to the needs and recommendations of food cart and pod owners and operations, public concerns, and the recommendations of health inspectors and advisory committees.”

Cart owners worry that the cost of the added services will only be transferred to the carts through increased rent; the county put no stipulations on who must bear the cost burden. “I suspect that some landlords are just going to pass it on to the cart owners,” Passmore says. “It’s hard to police.”

Passmore and Lucas were lucky—they both had outside jobs, and their food cart was more of a passion project. The couple worries about the other cart owners they know.

“If they lose their income, even for a few weeks, with any kind of dispute with their landlords, they don’t pay their bills,” says Lucas. “It wasn’t something they just did when they wanted. They were dependent on it.”

Brock Johnson, who received the county’s license paperwork last week, tells WW he hopes the county will make an exception so the pod doesn’t have to abide by the new 5-foot setback requirement between carts. (The county says it might make exceptions depending on pre-license inspections at pods.)

Johnson has yet to turn in his license application for Hawthorne Asylum.

They Paved Paradise

In 2008, Roger Goldingay bought three lots of land along North Mississippi Avenue. Two were tear-down buildings; a third was a vacant lot filled with dilapidated toilets and other junk. His plan was to develop a four-story residential and commercial building.

The recession hit. He had to find a way to pay his mortgages on the land. Meanwhile, a food cart owner asked to park on his property and sell lunch to construction workers laboring across the street.

That sparked an idea: What if he found 10 other carts to park on his land? So Goldingay approached the city with his plans and got sewage and electrical permits, among others.

He spent days driving around quadrants of the city handing out handmade flyers on printer paper to every cart he could find.

“The carts were all over, in people’s driveways, gas stations. I probably left a flyer with 50 to 100 carts,” Goldingay recalls. “That saved my property. It saved my ass.”

For the next couple of years, Goldingay says, landowners sought his counsel on how to open a pod.

“I saw most of them as being opportunistic. They thought it was easy and cheap, and all they had to do was charge carts monthly rent and everything was fine,” Goldingay says. “That wasn’t the case behind any of it. I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on infrastructure for the carts.”

He went on to open Cartlandia, one of the most famed pods in the city, along the Springwater Corridor on Southeast 82nd Avenue.

Goldingay wasn’t the only landowner who was desperate; there was a boom of pods in the years following the recession, many of them landowners turning their vacant lots into outdoor food courts.

Carts were licensed and regulated by Multnomah County and underwent regular inspections, just like brick-and-mortar restaurants, since they first emerged. But pods never were and had no obligation to provide sanitation services.

Few pod owners provide everything cart owners want. Richard Stein operates one of those unicorns. He established the Hillsdale Food Cart Park in 2012. He provides cart owners, all of whom are immigrants, with trash, utilities, pest management and janitorial services. He employs a pod manager who cleans it four times a day. He says he doesn’t turn a profit.

“I don’t have a profit margin, the expenses and the profits are the same. We keep it clean, that all takes money. Everything’s really primo,” Stein says. “If I wanted to make money, I’d have to raise everybody’s rent. It offers immigrant families the chance to make it in the new country.”

Other pods are dumps.

“I didn’t like to see people doing it in a substandard way,” Goldingay says. “They’d just dump their gray water into their street, no trash pickup—there was a lot of what I would consider unsanitary practices, I didn’t think it was good for the industry. But my way is also expensive.”

Keeping Up With the Johnsons

The walls of Hawthorne Asylum are painted with the faces of Steve Johnson’s children: his son, Brock, and his daughter, Ariel. Brock wears a construction hardhat printed with the American flag.

Steve Johnson was born and raised in Portland. He met his wife, Paula, at a church dance. They moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a real estate broker and later moved back to Gresham to start a family and had two kids, who are now grown.

He and his siblings owned a scattering of commercial properties around the Portland area. The family owns a 150-acre ranch in Joseph, Ore., along with Steve’s siblings.

Brock Johnson and his sister both list themselves on social media as representatives for Young Living Essential Oils—a multilevel marketing company founded in 1993 that touts the ability of essential oils to enhance wellness, including claims they can spur weight loss. (In 2014, the company got in trouble with the feds for allowing distributors to market its oils as a possible cure for Ebola.)

Steve Johnson’s obituary described him as a larger-than-life handyman who fiercely loved his family: “Some favorite hobbies included his salt water aquariums, remote control cars, boats and planes.” The obituary described Hawthorne Asylum as Steve’s last project, and his first undertaken with Brock.

“Their vision together continues on with Brock at the helm. Steve has left an incredible legacy that will live on throughout generations to come,” it reads. “No doubt a ‘YEAH BABY’ was echoing through the concourses of angels—Steve’s signature expression.”

Brock Johnson says his intention at Hawthorne Asylum was always to make something unique alongside his dad.

Johnson lit up when talking about the next project after the bar at Hawthorne Asylum is completed: an area that somehow benefits those with mental health issues, an issue that was meaningful to Steve because much of his family suffered from mental illness.

“I want to build some type of tower in the back area that acts as an elevated seating area as well as a live stage and concert area. And somehow, via this tower, I want to create a way for people to donate to mental health in some way, shape or form,” Johnson says. “Those gears are just starting to turn.”

Kristian Gul

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