UPDATED > See what it means to these very small businesses, located in three ‘pods’, to have their businesses ripped open and ransacked …
The broken and looted food carts have hurt small business owners, like those here at Portland Mercado, but haven’t broken their spirit, they say.
Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Smash-pry-and-grab burglars have been on a thieving spree, breaking into a total of 28 food carts parked at Cartlandia, Portland Mercado and Carts on Foster.
Because food cart owners make a practice of leaving no cash in their micro-businesses overnight, the thieves got virtually money; but the damage they left behind from smashing windows, prying open doors, and ransacking kitchen equipment is costing them thousands of dollars to repair.
A burglary crew plunders food carts at Cartlandia.
Although the cart burglaries at Portland Mercado received the most media attention, the first set of break-ins took place at Cartlandia, on SE 82nd Avenue of Roses, just south of the Springwater Corridor Trail crossing.
“We had eight carts broken into, at about 4:00 a.m. on October 21,” said Cartlandia owner Roger Goldingay.
Many Cartlandia businesses were open, serving customers, the day after their businesses were burgled.
The carts are owned by the operators at Cartlandia, so when they arrived to start cooking, they were disappointed and angered to find their businesses rummaged through, and small items taken. The loss from theft was small, but the damage was great, Goldingay said.
“We do have good video of the perpetrator,” Goldingay told East Portland News. “There may have been more than one person, but one of them is clearly seen on the security video,” he said.
It’s clear that burglars broke into these carts at Portland Mercado, going down the line, one after another.
At Portland Mercado, located on SE Foster Road, just east SE 72nd Avenue, criminals broke into six of the ten food carts, and vandalized two more carts that the burglars could not enter, during the early morning hours of October 23.
These cart operators, including “Fernando’s Alegria” owner Fernando Rodriguez, who first noticed the damage when arriving to open for business on that Monday morning, were chosen from minority communities to start small businesses at this site, which is owned by the Portland Development Commission (PDC) and leased to operator Hacienda Community Development Corporation.
Although it was a struggle, most of the carts at Portland Mercado were again open soon after burglars broke into their businesses.
“When I first saw the damage, I felt really sad, because running our cart is how we decided to live our lives, and this business is all we have,” Rodriguez said, glancing at the broken door at the back of his cart.
“Our business is the way we provide for our families, through our hard work here every day.
“So, we are feeling frustration, and sadness,” Rodriguez added. “But, you can only keep feeling badly for so long; then you need to get out of it.
“Fernando’s Alegria” owner Fernando Rodriguez says criminals can’t “steal my happiness.”
But Rodriguez maintained an upbeat attitude about the situation. “While they hurt all of our families, I think the people that came and took our money or our things, and damaged our carts, actually united us, and are making us stronger.”
Fernando pointed out that his cart is called “Fernando’s Alegría”. “In Spanish, ‘alegría’ means joy. They can take my things, but they cannot steal my joy of serving my customers.”
Much of the damage, estimated at $25,000, will be made whole by a special $20,000 grant provided by PDC; and the agency’s insurance will cover the cost to repair the damaged carts.
Carts on Foster was the next target of food cart burglars; several cart owners struggled to recover being broken into.
Like Cartlandia, Carts on Foster is a privately-owned pod, and serves customers from the corner of SE Foster Road and SE 52nd Avenue.
Sometime after midnight on October 25, ten of the carts, and the main commissary building, were ransacked.
It took a small person to shimmy into the broken window of John Nashlund’s business, “Maunukea Hawai’ian”.
“They broke into my side window, and rummaged through the cart everything was on the floor in disarray, but they didn’t take anything that I could find it,” said John Nashlund who has operated “Maunukea Hawai’ian” at this location for the last five years.
After “learning the hard way”, Nashlund said he now leaves no cash, laptop computers, or other easy-to-fence items in his cart overnight.
“I’m sad to say this is not new, we been hit before, but it’s been a couple years is anything like this has happened,” Nashlund said.
Zack Booth shows the damaged door at Jurassic Cart.
Having been closed for a few days, the folks with Jurassic Cart said they were stunned to see their cart’s door bent open when they returned from taking a few vacation days.
“We found that the door had been pried open and the window busted,” said co-owner Brian Schultz.
“They got inside and knocked everything around, but all they took was about $12 in change. Now, we’re left with hundreds of dollars in damage to fix it up again,” Schultz said.
“Our profit over costs pretty much just pay the rent, so this is really going to put a damper on things, especially going into the winter months, a generally a slow time for food carts,” Schultz noted.
This door, on hair styling business Salon Bucci, was found peeled open, as if with a giant can-opener.
Carts on Foster owner Steve Woolard said that the items stolen from inside their carts didn’t amount to much. “But those who did this caused thousands of dollars for the damage to the carts. Most of these carts are custom-made, so it’s very difficult to find replacement parts.”
All of vendors there are “very, very small” business operators, Woolard noted. “Some of them are handy and can fix the damage, but this is very tough for them; it is for all of us.”
Woolard didn’t blame police for not stopping the cart pod crime wave. “The police are short-staffed, and that’s a fact. It took 3½ hours for an officer to arrive the day after the break-ins. Normally, even if we had vandalism, like electrical cords cut in, they’d be here 15 minutes.”
Managers of Portland Mercado and Woolard met later in the week. “We’re looking at different ways to address the problem; in a way, what hurts one of us harms all of us.”
Asked about break-ins, Portland Police Bureau Public Information Officer Sgt. Pete Simpson commented, “Detectives are looking at video and other evidence to see if they can make a case. Right now it remains unknown if these burglaries are connected.”
The best way to help these food cart owners is, like Fernando’s Alegria owner Fernando Rodriguez says, “Come see us, and enjoy great meals with your family and friends!”
Each of the food cart owners who spoke with East Portland News stated that they didn’t want pity or charity – but encouraged readers to come by and try the victuals they offer.
“Whether it’s here at Carts on Foster, at Portland Mercado, or Cartlandia, come by and see us,” Woolard said. “Everybody eats three times a day – enjoy the diverse food we offer our community every day!”
Police aren’t saying this is the individual responsible for southeast Portland food cart robberies, but police arrested 32-year-old Charles Lawrence Johnson on November 10 at 10:50 p.m. after finding several burgled units at Mississippi Gateway Food Carts.
Police accuse 32-year-old Charles Lawrence Johnson of burgling food carts, not necessarily those in this area.
Simpson said that a theft victim provided police with tracking tips coming from his cell phone that lead officers to catch the Johnson. He was booked into Multnomah County Detention Center on November 11 at 1:02 a.m. on charges of two counts of Burglary in the Second Degree, and remains in custody at Inverness Jail in lieu of $10,000 combined bail.
Johnson was previously arrested on October 26, after burglarizing Tina’s Corner Restaurant located at 5515 SE 122nd Avenue.
© 2016 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News