Food Cart Owner Pays it Forward

Jimmy Wilson

Pay it forward.  This is a well-known phrase that is easy to understand and possible to enact but rarely a lifelong philosophy that continually directs your life.  One Eliot businessman has dedicated his life to paying it forward and it has had a positive effect on his life and the life of others. You might have been to the food cart pod on Vancouver and Fremont or maybe you’re new to the Eliot neighborhood and are looking for some convenient and delicious dinner options. Jimmy Wilson owns the food carts at this location and the story about how they came to be located here is one of dedication and generosity.

Jimmy Wilson was born and raised in Portland, however his family’s roots are based in the south.  Wilson’s mother was from Louisiana and his father was from Arkansas. His mother moved to Portland in 1953 with her parents when she was about 12 years old. His grandmother always offered to take care of the grandchildren which made it possible for his parents to work. This is probably where the first seeds of “paying it forward” were sown.

A few years after finishing high school, Wilson went to work at Wacker’s Siltronics, a company that makes computer chips, located in St. Johns. Wilson recalls, “I was a young guy and was going to be there for only a couple of paychecks but I see that the paycheck is good. Next thing you know six months pass, one year pass, and I started liking it.”  20 years later Wilson decided to make a career change. Office politics made him rethink his employment with the chip company and he moved onto other adventures. Wilson worked for Primerica, an insurance company, for a few years. “I really learned about the business side of life here,” says Wilson.

His next venture was where Wilson really started to feel the need to practice what he calls his mission or business philosophy. In 2002, Wilson was and still is attending Emmanuel Church on North Sumner and Missouri. Bishop A.A. Wells gave him the opportunity to start a business offering him about 400 square feet in the Renaissance Market at Killingsworth and Michigan. He decided on a dry cleaner business.  “I was there from 2002 until maybe about the end of 2003 almost 2004. He (Wells) said ‘don’t forget now, whatever you do, I’m giving you a chance. I want you to duplicate yourself and share that with other folks, give them a chance.’ That really stuck with me. I didn’t have to pay him rent. Next thing I know…he gave the whole 28,000 square foot building to me (to manage) and they (the other tenants) had to pay rent to me.”

In 2004, through eminent domain, Portland Community College acquired the property where the Renaissance Market was located and required Wilson to relocate his business.  As was required, he received relocation assistance funds and moved to 3508 N Fremont which is where the Williams Market is today. This used to be the old Flemings auto parts store.  Flemings had left prior to this and Wilson was able to move his business here and rent out the additional space to a few other businesses in the 5000 square foot building. Unfortunately though, rents started going up.

The years from 2004-2006 were difficult times for Wilson, financially.  Thankfully, in 2006, Wilson was introduced to Stanford and Nita with Micro Enterprise Service of Oregon, MESO, which is a nonprofit that helps small businesses. Their website states that their goal is “To improve the economic opportunities of underserved individuals through empowerment, education and entrepreneurship for the benefit of the greater community.”

MESO, through Black United Funds were giving out grants for $10,000.  Wilson’s business was basically “on a financial life support machine,” Wilson explains. “Each wire signifies something – money, no help, training, support – and when MESO came along they were the financial doctors with support and training. My business got a pulse again and was taken off the financial life support machine.” Wilson got the grant but instead of using it as a financial safety net for himself alone, he shared it with all five businesses that were in that building.   He never forgot Bishop Wells’ words, “Share this opportunity and make sure what I am doing for you, you do for someone else.”

Another program also assisted Wilson’s financial life support—obtaining funding through an IDA. As their website states, “Individual Development Accounts, or IDAs, are matched savings accounts that build the financial management skills of qualifying Oregonians with lower incomes while they save towards a defined goal. IDAs build pathways of opportunity and create models of economic success in Oregon communities.” Not wanting to give up on his business but needing to bring in more capital, Wilson needed a little more help. Since IDA would match any funds he saved, with those funds he was able to buy his first food cart.  He hoped that this would provide more cash in addition to what the dry cleaners was bringing in. That worked well for a while but the rising rents were making it very difficult to stay ahead. It seemed the property owners wanted Wilson to move again so he made a deal with the Williams Market to take over the lease.

Wilson needed a new location that could house his dry cleaner business and his food cart and also have it nearby so he would not lose his clientele. He knew developer Ben Kaiser, PATH Architecture, had used the old gas station at 3441 N Vancouver for his office space.  In 2008 he talked to Kaiser who connected Wilson with the property owner, Brad Heiberg. Brad leased the building to Wilson for his dry cleaning business and he was also able to park his food cart in the parking lot. He did lose 25% of his clientele even though he moved only one block away. This new location worked out well but it took too much time to run both businesses. Again remembering what Bishop Wells had taught him, Wilson decided he needed to pay it forward. So he started to lease out his food cart. This allowed him to spend more time with the dry cleaner business. Plus, he could also help someone else out by providing them an opportunity to start a business. Win, win! This resulted in his being able to buy another food cart and lease it out.

“Thank God for Brad being an understanding guy that let me do what I do,” explains Wilson. “Now, I’m alive again and financially strong and I can do a little bit of helping someone else. (The food carts) don’t look like much (compared to) everybody else’s but they stand for something.  You can come on my lot and I can give you a chance. I’m not looking to try to take you to the history because they didn’t take me to the history. And a lot of times your history, it only follows you of what you did then. But now you can be a whole new person. I look at the heart. They looked at the heart in me and so I am going to look at the heart of other people.”

Jimmy Wilson discontinued the dry cleaner business in 2016 and now focuses on the five food carts he owns or co-owns.  There something for everyone from burgers to barbecue and Thai to Mexican. He hopes to be able to improve the location, or as he says, “put a new suit and shoes on it,” by painting the building, paving the parking lot, and adding some awnings and seating.

However, Wilson has run into some road blocks with the city and the zoning of the lot.  It is zoned residential even though there was a gas station on the site years ago. Also, he has had a hard time trying to get a loan from PDC for the improvements.

“Still,” he says, “the city knows that the money that I receive from the community is going back into the community not like some large businesses.” Wilson believes that “small businesses are the bloodline to the economy. They are the veins that carry the wealth.”

Jimmy Wilson does everything with that same “pay it forward” philosophy. The neighborhood has given him an opportunity to run his food cart business and he wants to get involved and share his skills as a businessman and as an excellent example of how to always, “find ways to give back and be a community player.” Jimmy Wilson is trying to figure out what is next for him. He joined the Eliot Neighborhood Association Board in the fall of 2017 and we feel lucky to have a person with such heart and dedication to making sure everyone has a chance to succeed.