For four years, Bill Jensen owned a food cart in Portland, Ore., where he was one of 600 or so such operators. The Rose City is known in part for the varied lunchtime fare those carts deliver to workers and tourists alike.
“Being a food person and being trained in the culinary arts, I am confident in that part of the business,” he said. “But when it comes to city hall, property lines, access and retaining walls, all that stuff scares me to death. … It is all about taking on city hall.”
So far, city hall is winning, but Jensen, 54, gets to make his case before the Billings City Council on June 9. He has asked for a variance and a temporary permit to operate the business where customers were used to eating over the last two years — parked near the alley behind Grand Avenue between North Sixth Street West and North Seventh Street West.
Together with his fiancée, Cathy Pike, Jensen, who until recently was the chef and instructor at the Billings Food Bank, purchased the food cart — actually, it’s more of a food trailer — from Tatiana Heckles. Heckles operated the business in the alley behind Grand Avenue, with customer access provided off the alley only.
That’s the rub, according to Candi Millar, the city’s Planning and Community Development director. Jensen was denied a city business license to operate on the location because he doesn’t have street access at the previous location, behind 628 Grand Ave. Access is impossible at that location because of a retaining wall constructed along that portion of Grand Avenue.
During the two years that Heckles operated her business known as Smör, which means butter in Norwegian, she believed she was in compliance with city ordinances, Millar said, but she wasn’t. During that time, Millar said, the city had no commercial code enforcement officer.
“I had no impression it was illegal,” Heckles said. “People really liked (the business). It’s kind of underground, and we advertised by word of mouth. It was a few hipster high school kids, but mostly young families. One day we had almost all grandmas.”
Heckles featured pizza and other fare, topping the pizzas with fresh produce from her garden. She said Jensen’s “buoyant personality” will help his business, which features wood-fired pizza, to succeed.
But first Jensen must take care of business by acquiring the variance and the temporary permit. He said his food cart and others “are just the tip of the iceberg” for what’s to come in Billings.
“Mobile food vending is kind of a new thing for Billings,” Millar said. “I was just in Kauai (a Hawaiian Island), and there’s quite a culture of food carts there. What a wonderful way to experience the local cuisine.”
“We don’t want to inhibit his ability to operate,” she added, “just not at that location.”
Jensen said in the meantime he’s been operating his food cart, which he calls La Carrello — Italian for “The Cart” — at various community events, including a horse show last weekend. He plans to have the cart out at the Renaissance Festival at ZooMontana June 7-8 and at Strawberry Festival downtown on June 14, he said.
“It took Tatiana two years to build a fan base. She had a solid product, and she has a wall full of awards for her food,” he said. “When she went to sell her business, I jumped on it, because I wanted to operate it just like she did. We shook hands on it, and her fan base was instantly excited about the new guy. She told people I packed a woodburning oven on wheels, and a lot of excitement began to build.”
Jensen said he’s been “kind of unnerved” during the struggle to operate his business at Heckles’ former spot. “I’ve dumped a bunch of money into the cart, and I’m sitting here with the city making my future decisions for me,” he said. “We are kind of frustrated, but we’ve done all the right things. I do know about cart culture and having a mobile trailer, and using Facebook to operate and be part of walk-up food.”
Jensen acknowledged that “carts don’t have the overhead that restaurants do.” In Portland and other places, he said, “in places where carts are operating, (restaurant owners) don’t want them to drop anchor, sell food and take customers from them. That’s understandable.”
He said he doesn’t blame city officials for wanting to enforce city code and to make sure rules are being met.
“I hope eventually we can show this is a very unique site, not one that’s next to a bunch of restaurants,” Jensen said.