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Putting the Squeeze On

Portland Freaks out as OLCC Readies Its First Food Cart Liquor License

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OF ALL THE DOCUMENTS Roger Goldingay keeps tucked inside his liquor license application file, one is particularly interesting.

Dated July 21, 2011, and signed by the Portland Police Bureau, it's a no-nonsense endorsement of Goldingay's first-in-Oregon plan to sell beer and wine at his Cartlandia food cart pod along the Springwater Corridor trail—an oasis of sanity on a notoriously rough stretch of SE 82nd.

So imagine Goldingay's reaction when he found himself in front of Portland City Council last Wednesday, February 8, defending himself against adversarial city commissioners who'd decided—rather histrionically—that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) ought to put the brakes on any plans to let food carts start slinging booze.

"We like to play by the rules," Goldingay said at his pod a few days later, just before a trip outside its fence to pick up trash. "It was a bit of surprise to have the city get involved in such a dramatic fashion."

The city, officials suddenly argued, was afraid its strapped police force would be overwhelmed, and painted a dire picture of drunks loading up at many of the nearly 700 food carts all over town and then staggering and bellowing past the homes of decent, law-abiding Portlanders.

And, thus, months after the city first signed off on Goldingay's plan, the council voted 4-1 on a resolution asking the OLCC to rethink its guidelines for giving carts annual liquor licenses and the chance for Portland to help craft them. Right now, the OLCC's guidelines don't give cities any power to enforce them.

"I have grave concerns about this proposal. We are spread thin as it is," Mayor Sam Adams said at the council meeting, taking pains to declare his love of food carts but later referencing the city's struggle to shut down problem establishments like Club 915 even with tougher "rules" in place. "Even if a fraction of the 696 apply it's a real problem for us. We're looking at budget cuts. We're also looking at gang violence. If this moves forward, it will inherently make our job harder."

Whether the OLCC takes up Portland's request remains to be seen. In any case, it may not be in time to slow down Goldingay's license, which could be approved by the OLCC board as soon as March, says spokeswoman Christie Scott.

"We have a lot of laws in place already that may address the concerns the city has," says Scott, adding that every license is approved based on its own peculiar conditions.

The OLCC has long granted carts temporary licenses. That shifted last year after the Oregon Department of Justice told the OLCC it had to treat carts like restaurants and bestow annual licenses. Scott, citing attorney-client privilege, wouldn't say precisely when that decision came.

Goldingay says he's already following the OLCC's restrictions. He's placed a fence around the entire cart pod (which he owns), he's hired extra staff to monitor drinkers, drinking would happen only in a "beer garden" within the pod, and he'll only sell hooch from noon to 10 pm.

"There's a reason Cartlandia is the first one the OLCC has brought to the table," he said. "I'm the only one."

Instead, the city seems to be dancing across some familiar fault lines: food carts' struggle against the lobbying might of brick-and-mortar restaurants, and an ongoing city crusade to have the under-funded OLCC do more to crack down on rowdy bars and nightclubs.

During the council hearing, for instance, Commissioner Randy Leonard threatened the city could always make life more difficult for cart operators.

Gregg Abbott, owner of Whiffies food cart and a spokesman for the Oregon Street Food Association, supports tighter rules for carts and agrees that operators are making a big leap. Liquor sales was something they could point to when restaurant owners groused about things like having to pay for bathrooms.

"But what I don't understand is specifically what they're proposing," Abbott says. "We'd like to see a speedy process in the adoption of any rules. Let's not just stall for the purpose of stalling."

But why did the city wait so long to sound the alarm? A message to Theresa Marchetti, who presides over the Office of Neighborhood Involvement's liquor license program, wasn't returned.

"The city seems to have other issues with the OLCC," Goldingay says. "I think we just got caught up in them."

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