In early February, Masia, a Spanish restaurant from the team behind the lauded Portland standby Ataula, opened in downtown’s new Hyatt Centric hotel. Chef and co-owner Jose Chesa was especially excited to slice and serve jamon iberico for the hotel’s many banquet and private dining rooms, some of which seat more than 100 hundred people. Days later, the novel coronavirus hit Oregon.
“Last week, it kind of started — We had four to five events for catering cancel. This week, it kind of blew up. We’re at eight (additional) cancelations, possibly more,” says Cristina Baez, Chesa’s business partner and wife. “All the emails and the calls are the same: ‘Due to coronavirus, we’ve canceled our trip;’ ‘Due to coronavirus, we’ve canceled our employee meeting.’”
Masia isn’t alone. As COVID-19 escalated and places like Austin and Washington ban events above a certain size, Portlanders began to worry about planning or attending a large-scale event — to the point where caterers and restaurants were seeing serious cancelations. Now that Gov. Kate Brown has banned events over 250 people for the next four weeks, those numbers will likely grow exponentially.
The Oregon Health Authority announced the state’s first case in Washington County right before the start of Portland Dining Month. Some restaurant owners have reported low attendance so far, and many Asian-American-owned businesses have noticed a distinct slump as the outbreak continues. (Over the last few weeks, Multnomah County has released multiple statements about the ways immigrant groups and organizations have felt the impact of coronavirus-related racial discrimination.)
For Chinese restaurant Happy Dragon, the combo of racial discrimination and fears of large gatherings have been double whammy, according to Emily Feng. The restaurant’s round, banquet-style tables normally make it a favorite for big groups, but Feng says dine-in numbers have dwindled to almost nothing. “The business drops a lot when the coronavirus is reported on the news,” she says. “It’s going to be a hard time for both my business and employees.”
For businesses mostly reliant on catering and events, the effect ripples into the months ahead. Stephanie Brindley, the event coordinator at Ned Ludd’s event space Elder Hall, usually starts filling up the spring and summer calendar in March as people reserve the space for events like rehearsal dinners and banquets. But so far this year, the requests have only trickled in. “So far, I’ve had three corporate event cancellations (this month),” she says. “People will still get married and fortunately, we have many weddings already scheduled for 2020; however, I expect a decline in rehearsal dinners since it’s a non-essential wedding event.”
Cheyenne Terbrueggen, the marketing communications manager at Elephants Delicatessen, says the company has experienced losses on the catering and events side of the business. “Where we are losing business is with full-service events, especially large corporate events with global attendees,” she says. “Luckily most of these events are being rescheduled to a later date. We’re being as flexible as we can with our customers when it comes to rescheduling their events.” Terbrueggen says the company has re-assigned much of the catering staff to new duties within the company, and many employees are taking extra hours to up sanitation procedures at retail locations.
“I’m not going to lie to you: Business is down. Business is down significantly,” says Vitaly Paley, the owner of several restaurants downtown, including Imperial and Headwaters. For him, the lack of travel in Portland has dramatically impacted banquet and private event business, as well as tourist walk-ins — when people aren’t downtown, they’re not walking into Headwaters for a random afternoon oyster, or splurging on Russian tea service. Many hotel restaurants also rely on those corporate banquet-style events from business travelers, and when travel diminishes, so do those bookings; many customers have canceled private events at all five of his restaurants.
Still, Paley is moving full-steam-ahead planning his sustainable seafood festival for later this year, crossing his fingers that things settle down. “We’re all looking to put all of this past us at some point, hopefully soon,” he says.
Maya Lovelace, the owner of Southern restaurant Yonder and its supper club counterpart Mae, thinks the worst is yet to come. She’s definitely seeing numbers dip in her restaurant, but she just received an email from the restaurant reservation app Resy saying businesses should brace for a massive dip in business revenue.
“Livelihoods rely on the restaurant business to function. Yeah we’re down, but we are staying close in contact with every single employee. We’re enforcing all the rules that are basically all in place already: staying home when they’re sick, making sure people are washing hands,” Paley says. “So as long as we practice good hygiene, people can feel safe. We’re challenged by everything else in life, we don’t want to feel challenged by our food. A large concert gathering is one thing, but an intimate dinner with friends? People should feel comfortable doing that.”
Are you a restaurant owner, diner, or food industry member experiencing a lull of business due to coronavirus? Please reach out via the tipline.
Updated March 12, 2020, 9:06 a.m.
This story has been updated to include the latest comments from Gov. Kate Brown regarding restrictions on groups above 250 people.
• COVID-19 updates [OHA]
• Discrimination, stigma and COVID-19 [Multnomah County]
• Coronavirus in Oregon adds to restaurant owners’ worries [O]
• Racist Fears Are Driving Down Business at Portland’s Asian Restaurants, Multnomah County Says [WWeek]
• Q&A: In age of coronavirus, is it safe to eat out in Portland? Expert says yes [O]
Disclosure: Resy’s Ben Leventhal was one of the co-founders of Eater, but is no longer involved in its operations. Cristina Baez has written for Eater Portland in the past.