Three food carts to change faces

The city’s bureau of Parks and Recreation has issued an intent to award a five-year contract to operate all four food concessions on the South Park Blocks to Basha’s Mediterranean Grill. The owners of the three other food carts, located between Smith Memorial Center and Millar Library, are gearing up for a battle to save their businesses.

The four businesses in the park offer an alternative to the oft-maligned, exclusive contract-holding Aramark Corp. that operates Smith Center’s cafeteria. The contracts for these spots in the park are normally awarded by the city with no input from the university or the public taken into account.

Portland State University cannot enter into contracts for food service with other businesses. This concession was given to Aramark in exchange for its remodeling work in Smith Center. Smith Center’s head of operations, Alan Brown, said the Park Block contracts are the decision of the city.

“It was the city’s decision, without discussing it with us, to limit it to four spaces,” Brown said.

The Bureau of Parks and Recreation has different rules for its food cart contracts than the Office of Transportation, which governs carts on city sidewalks. Transportation rules prohibit the award of more than one contract on a city block to one vendor in order to prevent the creation of monopolies, which are deemed to work against public interest.

On the other hand, Parks and Recreation’s process has no protection against the formation of monopolies. The bureau awards five-year contracts through a sealed bidding process. There is no notification if a long-standing tenant is about to lose their contract.

Nga Nguyen, owner and operator of Healthy Asian Grill, thinks this process is unfair. “If you do a good job, provide a good service, I think we did a wonderful job,” said Nguyen.

“We build up goodwill here, and somebody comes in and outbids us and takes it away without paying a cent for it, and I think that’s wrong.”

Nguyen has operated her concession for 14 years. “This has devastated us,” she said. “It’s not just the work and employment. The students are family to us.”

Maggie, from Basha’s Middle Eastern, said that she was happy to have won the bids, and that she just offered what the spots in the park were worth in her view. She and her husband are planning to offer the same kinds of cuisines that the other carts now offer “but according to my recipe.”

“This is a classic story of the little guy and of students getting bilked,” said Matthew Witt, assistant professor for University Studies. “What happens if they (Basha’s) goes belly up?”

Witt spoke glowingly about the carts’ operators, saying that they were model entrepreneurs. He said that the long lines there everyday, even in the rain, show the value of the carts’ service.

In a letter written to Portland City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, Shelley Sandoval, owner of the Honkin’ Huge Burritos cart, contends that, “a solitary company with exclusive privileges can be compared with a monopoly, which would not be in the public interest or the city’s interest.” City code allows commissioners to take public interest into account when granting these concession contracts.

“If the students can support us and keep us here, we’ll stay for the rest of our lives and cook for you,” said Nguyen. “We’ll stay until we are 95 years old.”