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Takin' it to the streets

Jolie Josephson is easy to spot in a fur-lined hat and a plume of delicious-smelling barbecue smoke rising around Bento Central at the corner of downtown Medford'sRiverside Avenue and West Main Street.

She dishes out $6 chicken teriyaki and $6.50 steak rice bowls each day in every season and any type of weather to a lineup of customers ranging from police officers to strippers.

"Street food is the great equalizer," Josephson says as she flips chicken on a grill.

Until Josephson and her husband, R.J., opened in downtown three years ago, Medford's street-food scene was the territory of taco trailers and hot-dog stands.

Medford's newest street food vendors offer an increasing range of diversity, including Thai and Mediterranean food. More importantly, street food vendors help bring the inviting aroma of vibrancy to town, says Richard Barney, executive director of the Heart of Medford Association, which seeks to promote downtown as a regional center.

"It's really a sign of vibrancy in our shopping area," Barney says, "and it invites more people to come out."

"I can smell (the food) five blocks away," says Bento Central customer Greg Fischer, a student at Rogue Community College. "The food is very good, and it's just kind of quick and easy."

Some of the growth in street food has mushroomed out of the economic downturn. A food stand has relatively low overhead and a lot of flexibility, but the ventures sometimes don't last a year.

"The number of (vendors) really hasn't changed when you look at how many there are at the end of the year," says Chad Petersen, Jackson County's mobile food unit coordinator. "What has changed is the number of start-ups."

The county reviewed 24 new plan reviews for street food vendors in 2010, including coffee stands. That's about twice as many as the county reviewed in 2009, Petersen says.

By the end of the year, 96 vendors were dishing out food in the county, compared to 92 in 2006, before the recession, he says.

Like restaurants, street food vendors are inspected twice a year by the Jackson County Environmental Public Health Division.

"In my opinion and anecdotally, there are a few mobile food units that are very successful and very visual," Petersen says. "People see that and think they can have a piece of that pie. A lot of people doing this have lost their jobs. They're looking for something they can get started up. Instead of doing nothing, they start up a business."

Dave Reitz, owner of Great Outdoors Grill at 2646 Barnett Road, says he opened his Bento cart across from Rogue Valley Medical Center in April as a low-cost way to start his own business and use the skills he learned from years of working in the restaurant industry. He sells teriyaki chicken and Thai peanut curry with vegetables for $6 from a space in a parking lot, which he leases.

The venture costs less than opening a restaurant.

"I don't have to pay for ambience," he says.

Plus, he adds, if for some reason he has to move, he can easily roll his cart to a new spot.

R.J. and Jolie Josephson started their Bento stand after seeing the popularity of street food among night-life revelers in big cities such as Portland and San Diego. "It started out as a fun venture we could do at night," R.J. Josephson says. "It turned out to be a day business."

Street food is not an easy venture even if it may look that way, he says. He and Jolie Josephson built up their clientele by setting up their cart at special events, such as the Medford Cruise and the Pear Blossom Festival.

They lease their patch of parking-lot space at Riverside and Main from a private property owner.

Before they open at 10:30 a.m., they prepare the food at an off-site commercial kitchen and then cook the food at the cart, where everyone can watch. The cart is open every weekday at their street corner, filling the owners' lungs with barbecue smoke and exposing them to all manner of weather. On some Friday and Saturday nights, they open the cart for people who are clubbing.

"We've seen a lot of vendors come since we've started," Jolie Josephson says. "Not many vendors do it all through the year. In the winter, they usually shut down. We have a good following. My husband's cooking is amazing."

Jolie Josephson keeps her teriyaki chicken barbecue under control with a spray bottle of water at the corner of Medford's Central Avenue and Main Street. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune - Bob Pennell