Posted May 7, 2020
Business usually picks up at the Hillsdale Food Park in the Spring. Longer days and better weather attract customers, making up for the slow winter months. But it’s painfully clear that these times are not normal. With state mandates closing down schools and non-essential businesses, the carts have seen revenues plummet by up to 70%. Five carts are stationed at the Hillsdale Food Park. Taco City and Phat Cart have remained open since the stay-at-home orders took effect. Pad Kee Mao and Sushi Lover PDX have reopened and the newest cart, Desilicious, plans to re-open soon.
Jorge Cristobal outside Taco City cart; Kay Pirabun, Pad Kee Mao; Saline Ratanavetin, Phat Cart.
Juan Marquez, co-owner of Taco City with his brother, Jorge Cristobal, says,“We have to be brave. We’ve been riding it [the waves of uncertainty] like pirates. We have no choice.” The first two weeks of the pandemic response were tough, he says. Few people were leaving their homes, and Marquez and Cristobal, after 30 years in the restaurant business, found it difficult to plan how much food to prepare each day. Things got better for a week or so when the sun came out, but the food cart business is weather-dependent. When the rain came back, the customers stayed away. When Hillsdale customers do come to the carts, they are very supportive, not just with their business but with their encouragement. Karla Pirabun has owned and operated Pad Kee Mao with her husband, Kay, since they took over from the previous owners four years ago, adding some spicier menu items from Kay’s upbringing in Northern Thailand. Business was so slow for the first weeks of the pandemic, they closed up, re-opening in late April. Much to the relief of their regulars, says Karla. “One couple, Tim and Laurie, were so happy to see that we were open again, they wanted to put a sign in their window at home!” Kay now operates the cart on his own while Karla is at home with their young daughter. His brother, laid off from his job as a cook in a Thai restaurant, helps out. Kay now spends more time at the counter rather than in back preparing the food, taking on Karla's role of learning customers’ names and who orders vegetarian or gluten-free. Hillsdale resident Richard Stein founded the Food Park in 2012 as a way to build community in Hillsdale by giving people of all ages a place to hang out together and enjoy delicious food. He emphasizes that the space is first and foremost a park, with food carts around the edge. Also important to Stein and the cart owners is the population of Wilson High School students that visit the Food Park. Rika Hammond owns Phat Cart, operated most days by her mother Saline Ratanavetin. Over the years they have employed a number of Wilson students, some of them continuing as employees at her brick and mortar location near PSU. Hammond says because some of her staff have been working with her since they were teenagers, it gives a feeling of a family business. She’s had to lay off her staff, and says it’s been hard. Keeping in touch is painful when there isn’t really any good news to share. Taco City’s Marquez and Cristobal started a program to hire Wilson students to help with the lunch rush. Marquez comments that he’s seen many students blossom with the experience and responsibility, as they learn skills and gain confidence. Stein points out that almost all of the cart owner/operators are immigrants, and that most live in Hillsdale. “They care about the community,” Stein says. “I’m proud to be part of it.” Marquez describes the current challenges as a flashback to when the carts were just getting started in Hillsdale. He says that, as in those early days, day-to-day business is unpredictable. Each day he works hard and hopes they will make it. Everyone’s hopes are bolstered by how supportive the community has been, and the prospect of summer weather to bring people out. Pad Kee Mao’s Karla Pirabun says, “Our regulars have been showing up. As long as they keep coming I think we will be able to stay open.” --Valeurie Friedman Hillsdale Food Park Taco City, Mon-Sat 11-7, Sunday 12-1. Text orders or walk-up. Pad Kee Mao, Mon-Sat 11-7. Pre-order at (503) 333-9657 or order at the window. Sushi Lover PDX, Mon-Sat 11-7, (971) 985-7025 Phat Cart, Mon-Sat 11-7, Sunday 11-3. Pre-order at (503) 516 1697 or order at the window Desilicious opening soon