GoBox or Go Home!

Portland has food carts.  Portland has a lot of food carts.  Most of them give you your food in a plas­tic con­tainer.  Sometimes the con­tainer is biodegrad­able, which is good.  Sometimes it also comes in a plas­tic bag with a plas­tic fork, which is bad.  On rare occa­sions it is just wrapped in butcher paper (as in Nong’s Khao Man Gai), which is amaz­ingly great.

Portland has some lax rules that allow all these won­der­ful food carts.  It also has some strict rules about food han­dling.  Legally, you can­not bring your own con­tainer.  If your con­tainer has cooties and the serv­ing spoon touches your con­tainer, then goes back into the vat, poten­tially the whole batch could get cooties.  And ask any 8-year-old: cooties can be deadly.  Now, I know a few peo­ple who bring their own con­tain­ers any­way and the food carts usu­ally oblige but, much like rip­ping off the mat­tress tag, that’s tech­ni­cally ille­gal.  Enter GoBox.

GoBox is a ser­vice that pro­vides reusable con­tain­ers to food carts.  If you are a GoBox mem­ber, you can get your food in one of these con­tain­ers.  When you’re done, you bring it to a drop-off point.  It gets whisked away where it is prop­erly ster­il­ized for reuse.  After drop­ping off a con­tainer, you receive a token that you present at a par­tic­i­pat­ing cart to get food in a new con­tainer.  The con­tain­ers that that food gets served into are never touched by cus­tomer hands until handed to the cus­tomer.  They come come from a source that can legally guar­an­tee that they are prop­erly clean.

I recently signed up for GoBox and thought I’d share a few impres­sions.  First off, the boxes are great.  They are clamshell and made of thick plas­tic, so are strong.  They are high qual­ity and have a good latch with a solid click so you know the thing is shut.  Every one that I have seen has been the same basic style — com­part­men­tal­ized, one large, two small — with a few minor vari­a­tions in design (prob­a­bly bought in dif­fer­ent batches from dif­fer­ent sup­pli­ers).  One par­tic­u­lar vari­a­tion is just a touch more “sharp” on the three edges where the top and bot­tom clamshell come together.  I’m not say­ing it’s accidentally-cut-yourself sharp, it just bites into the hand a bit more than some of the other vari­ants they offer.  It’s a minor annoy­ance, but ampli­fied slightly if you have a few blocks to walk and a few flights of stairs to climb.

When you are done, you give it a quick scrub.  They will do the offi­cial clean­ing later, but you at least want to get any obvi­ous left­over crumbs or sauces out.  You then take it down to a drop-off loca­tion and receive a token to trade for a new box next time you’re at the food carts.  The token itself is plas­tic, about the same thick­ness and about ⅔ the size of a credit card, so eas­ily fits in a wal­let.

There are two main drop-off loca­tions.  One is near the food carts on 10th, at a fur­ni­ture and art store called Woonwinkel.  The other is just past the carts on 5th, the West Side Athletic Club in the base of big pink.  There have been times when I have dropped off the box and imme­di­ately used the token and other times when I hang on to the token for later.  Woonwinkel is closed on Mondays.  The Athletic Club is open until 7:30, and is just a block beyond my reg­u­lar bus stop so it’s easy for me to drop off after work.

Signing up for GoBox is a one-time fee of $8.50.  Well, it’s one-time until you lose the box or token, at which point you have to sign up again.  From a consumer’s point of view, this seems rea­son­able.  I imag­ine I’d pay about the same for a reusable Tupperware-like box.  The signup process was a lit­tle awk­ward.  I had to fill out a card, pay for just my meal, then pay for the box sep­a­rately.  This also caused the lunch-rush line to back up.  I under­stand that you can cap­ture impulse buy­ers directly at the cart, but it almost makes more orga­ni­za­tion sense to sign peo­ple up at the drop-off loca­tions or some­how work it so you can order online and pick up the box or token in per­son.  The drop-off points are con­ve­nient.  The num­ber of par­tic­i­pat­ing carts was tiny when I first learned of GoBox, but has grown over the months.

I do not know their busi­ness model, but it seems like if they want it to be sus­tain­able, the money for clean­ing has to come from some­where.  My one-time pay­ment can poten­tially spawn a count­less num­ber of re-uses and re-cleanings, and that doesn’t scale.  At one point I did look into what it takes to be a drop-off point.  Although ini­tially free, they did plan on even­tu­ally charg­ing busi­nesses for the priv­i­lege of being a drop-off point.  This prob­a­bly pays for clean­ing and trans­port.  I’m sure it makes sense for some busi­nesses. A retail busi­ness as a drop-off point might get some extra foot traf­fic it oth­er­wise would not have had.  For a hardware/software com­pany on the 4th floor of an office build­ing this makes a lit­tle less sense.  I have to imag­ine they also charge the carts them­selves.  If the cart does not use GoBox, it has to buy con­tain­ers.  If it got GoBox con­tain­ers for free, I would expect all carts to start using them as a cost-savings mea­sure.

In sum­mary, the ser­vice (like a few of the food con­tain­ers) still feels a lit­tle rough around the edges, but is still per­fectly usable.  As a con­sumer, I feel the $8.50 is worth it and that drop­ping off the con­tainer, while not as con­ve­nient as throw­ing away a dis­pos­able object, is not incon­ve­nient, espe­cially for the envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fit.  My only com­plaint is that I can­not use them as much as I like.  The over­lap between food carts I like going to and those par­tic­i­pat­ing in GoBox means I can only use it once or twice a week.  I hope GoBox does well and that they can enlist more food carts.

Posted in: Dear Diary Food Portland

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Brian Enigma

Brian Enigma is a Portlander, manipulator of atoms & bits, minor-league blogger, and all-around great guy. He typically writes about the interesting “maker” projects he's working on, but sometimes veers off into puzzles, software, games, local news, and current events.

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