Between the Pandemic and the Air Quality, Portland Restaurant Owners Are Trying to Hold On

On Friday, September 11, Eem co-owner Eric Nelson found himself standing outside his North Williams Thai barbecue restaurant, surrounded by contaminated air, waiting to take people’s orders.

The longtime bartender had talked with employees, and they had come up with a plan: He would stand outside the restaurant to take people’s names and orders, and then he would quickly slip through the door, grab packages of curries filled with smoked meats, and then zip back out, limiting the amount of air that entered the building.

By Saturday night, he was hitting his limit. His throat burned so bad he couldn’t sleep. “No mask was going to handle what I was breathing in,” he says. The restaurant closed temporarily Sunday night.

As smoke from the state’s several wildfires rolled into Portland, the air began to reach hazardous levels, making it dangerous to spend too much time outside. That was yet another blow to the restaurant industry after a brutal year: Many restaurant owners had just figured out a form of outdoor or patio service, which seemed like a naturally ventilated, socially distanced option that felt safe and comfortable for both employees and diners. When the smoke rolled in, many restaurants had to fall back onto takeout and delivery alone, but even that wasn’t enough for some.

Mariah Pisha-Duffly, the co-owner of Indonesian restaurant Gado Gado and its sibling Oma’s Takeaway, originally closed both restaurants for patio service on Friday. “Everyone was indoors, we have good ventilation, and we checked in with all our staff and felt comfortable with the decision to do takeout,” she says. “We wanted so badly to be open for a million reasons — everyone wants what little scraps of regular business we can get right now. But the air quality got so bad, it no longer felt like a good idea to ask people to come in.” By Sunday, she and her husband, Thomas Pisha-Duffly, decided to close the restaurant and stay home with their infant, Loretta. “My thoughts are with my baby right now,” she says. “She’s already growing up in such a weird time.”

For some entrepreneurs, takeout is already a given: Because of the nature of their business models, food carts generally have been able the handle the curveballs this year has slammed into them. But the nature of a food cart — basically a tin can on wheels — made food cart owners and workers particularly vulnerable to the worsening air quality. Several carts, like Matta and Jojo, closed completely all weekend, but not every cart made that choice: Jeff Larson, the co-owner of Farmer and the Beast, felt like they couldn’t miss the opportunity. “We had a bunch of new customers because Michael Russell wrote that story on us. That article was a huge part of the reason we opened at all,” he says. “It’s all new to us, all first time to us. Like anything else, it’s just another challenge to push through.”

Several new carts were in a similar position, learning on the fly. Anna Petrosyan opened her Armenian shish kabob cart, Mr. BBQ, with husband John Manukyan in March. Her father-in-law and brother-in-law were working in the cart on Saturday, grilling rib-tips and pork shoulder over open charcoal. Her father-in-law started telling them that he was feeling congested, with a splitting headache. “We weren’t quite familiar with the air quality index. When we looked into it, and researched it, we learned how hazardous it is,” she says. The couple decided to close the cart on Sunday, not only for health reasons but basic practicality. “It’s for their safety, for our safety. They were out there all day, and there were barely any sales, 50 percent less than normal.”

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Some of the restaurants and cafes that did remain open reported significantly lower sales this weekend. Jaime Soltero Jr., the owner of Mexican restaurant Tamale Boy, decided to close both shops all weekend, starting on Friday. Generally, Tamale Boys’ two locations stay breezy, opening all the windows to help curb the potential spread of COVID-19. But on Thursday, the contaminated air was starting to get to employees, and Soltero decided the potential profit bump just wasn’t worth it. “On Dekum, the patio was open, but nobody was showing up anyways… It was slower than usual,” he says. “The timing is killing us; we always have to close when we make the most (money).”

Not every restaurant slowed to a crawl, however; for Slide Inn owner Eugene Bingham, it was his best weekend since the pandemic started. When he looks around his neighborhood, only two or three other businesses are open in any capacity, and he’s seen the consequences of that reflect in his takeout and delivery numbers. “It’s funny, this was one of the busiest weekends I’ve ever had,” he says. As the restaurant’s only employee, he spent the weekend running around the kitchen, preparing everything from the morning’s salmon hash to the evening’s wiener schnitzel. Luckily, he only lives a few blocks away, so he can run to the restaurant when the first breakfast order comes in. He shrugged off any questions about his personal health, or potential exhaustion. “I’m a hard worker,” he says. “I’ve been a one-man show for a long time.”

Busy or slow, restaurants across the city used the weekend to focus on aid projects, donating extra product to nonprofits and mutual aid efforts. Portland restaurants and cafes like Tiny Moreso and Gracie’s Apizza auctioned off food in a massive fundraiser for Don’t Shoot PDX, which has been providing emergency aid to indigenous communities affected by the fires. Bernstein’s Bagels, which auctioned off bagels and lox as a part of the fundraiser, only opened for an hour on both Saturday and Sunday; the bagel shop mainly donated hundreds of bagels to groups like Rose City Justice and Portland Homeless Family Solutions.

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Carlo Lamagna, the owner of the SE Clinton Filipino restaurant Magna, had planned to fully reopen last week for lunch and dinner, but the wildfires quickly hindered that plan. Instead, he decided to close the restaurant Friday, fulfill the weekend takeout pre-orders of his kamayan special, and focus on what the restaurant could do to help — he donated the cash to publicist and Instagram personality Kari Young, who was raising money for families displaced by the wildfires. “Oh my god. It’s been really rough,” he says. “Can’t literally or figuratively catch a breath.”

Restaurants, Kitchens, and Mutual Aid Groups Helping With Wildfire Relief [EPDX]• The Scrappiness of Portland’s Food Carts Made Them Leaders During the Pandemic [EPDX]• Is It Safe to Eat at Restaurants Yet? [E]



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