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Ricky Gomez sits on the stairs of Palomar, the bar and its barstools just out of frame. He’s holding his hands in front of him.
Ricky Gomez, the owner of Palomar
Dina Avila / EPDX

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Portland Chefs and Restaurant Owners Share What They’ve Learned in the Last Two Months

The changes they’ll make to their businesses, the money they’ll need to scrounge to make it work, and what they’re taking into the next phase of life in the restaurant industry

Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

The food industry is not a monolith. Its figureheads — chefs, restaurant owners, farmers — do not always agree on what is safe, what is smart, or what is prudent. However, in this era, common threads seem to appear in the words of various chefs, line cooks, and food service workers: Existence, right now, is exhausting and scary. Uncertainty is everywhere, whether it’s in terms of if people have enough money to reopen, when they’ll reopen, or how they’re going to pay rent. Laid off workers struggle to figure out unemployment benefits, restaurant workers struggle to apply for loans and grants, and farmers struggle to find buyers for a season’s worth of produce. And many, many chefs have started to acknowledge that life — in the industry and out of it — is going to change, permanently and fundamentally.

Eater Portland spoke to 18 chefs and business owners about what they’ve learned in the last two months: What they’re considering in terms of permanent pivots to their businesses, how much money they’ll need to gather to reopen, and how they’ve changed, as leaders and as people. These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Have you considered making any structural changes to your business — as in, changing the format of ordering, changing the concept, or changing the menu permanently?

“We are rethinking everything about our business and will not know exactly what things will look like until we get clarity on the exact rules that will be enforced by the county.” -Kurt Huffman, Chefstable

“Changing the format of ordering to online is key to pivoting under these circumstances, trying to switch completely to a no contact environment with customers. We just streamlined to our basic, classic dishes for the time being and created a provisions menu for the DIY meals, having our salsas, dips, sauces, prepped stewed meats, that we make in-house for you to make Mexican food at home.” -Jaime Soltero Jr., Tamale Boy

“Absolutely. We’re going to continue to shift with the changing tides, whether that means staying open as a to-go restaurant, offering a more limited menu in the future, whatever we have to do. We’re here for our guests and our employees and we’ll do our best to stay here. This has given us a bit of time to examine what we want our jobs to look like — to think about the fact that maybe this industry shouldn’t run on twelve hour days without breaks. We’re thinking a lot about changes we want to make to promote healthier lives for ourselves and our employees.” -Maya Lovelace, Yonder & Mae

“No. Before coronavirus people loved us for our vegetable focused menu and fantastic service. We will do our best to return to what made G-Love so popular before the shut down. I think that everyone is really looking forward to a return to some sort of ‘normal.’ If we changed our model, say pivoted to a fast casual concept with counter service, we would lose so much of what everyone loves us for. We will do our absolute best to offer the best possible service we can, and hopefully make peoples’ lives a little brighter.” -Garrett Benedict, G-Love

“We’re definitely going to make changes. Flexibility will be key. Everything from water service to wine service to menu size. Everything will have to be looked at. I’m picturing a slow roll out with smaller menus and a smaller staff in the beginning and growing as needed. I’d rather start with the focus on creating the best experience given the limitations we’ll be faced with. Takeout will also, likely, go on for some period of time to allow for another revenue stream and to be able to bring back another cook.” -Aaron Barnett, St. Jack

“Absolutely. We are continually looking at different revenue streams available to help with our bottom line when we reopen. Our food menu will be smaller and more streamlined for faster fire times, less labor, and items that travel well for takeout and delivery.” -Ricky Gomez, Palomar

Yes, I have considered being solely online, but that’s just because of the issue at hand right now. I have considered changing to menu to very simple and easy meals, but we are talking about African food, nothing is easy with our culture, lol.” -Fatou Ouattara, Akadi

“Since day one of this situation, we were already trying to move forward to assess the damage and how we can recalibrate to adapt to the changing environment. So far we are seeing some success in the current model — prix fixe menu — and might adapt that once we are able to open dine-In again. But who knows? This could all make another shift at some point.” -Carlo Lamagna, Magna

“I don’t think we have to. We’re sort of built for this situation, honestly.” -Deepak Kaul, Bhuna

“You know, the truth is, we’ve done all the different models in the four years we’ve been open. It’s hard to say we’ll stick with anything. I feel fortunate we can try things out and see what works, but I think everyone should be doing that. We should be thinking about working smarter, and not harder.” -Peter Cho, Han Oak

“Because of the inability to have a lot of people in the same space, we’ll need to definitely downsize the menus substantially. I think that the menu, the wine menu, the delivery of food to the table, the clearing of food from the table, what the menu looks like — All of these things are being considered as we speak.” -Vitaly Paley, Paley Hospitality

Yes, every restaurant and most businesses will have to make critical adjustments to survive. We have entered into a relationship with this virus unwittingly and only through compromise, patience, diligence do we have a fighting chance. Many models simply won’t be able to restructure, many will. We are a resilient stock, only time will tell.” -Kristen D. Murray, Maurice

What are your anticipated reopening costs? Do you think you’ll need additional capital?

“We’ll need a week of payroll and enough to pay inventory. So that could be anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000.” -Kurt Huffman, Chefstable

“It’s costing me investing in a better POS system to accommodate an efficient online ordering platform, which has been our biggest expense so far at $5,000. Purchasing masks, different marketing materials, as well as updating web pages and such are also items that we have spent money on. So far I have spent over 8K pivoting to a no-contact system.” -Jaime Soltero Jr., Tamale Boy

“We are looking at a cost of between $15,000 to $20,000 to reopen fully. We need all the help we can get to stay in business.” -Garrett Benedict, G-Love

“To hire back all the employees and stock up on supplies, we’ll need between $5,000 and $7,000.” -Fatou Ouattara, Akadi

“Our main two costs will be labor and food perishables to restock for food and drink items. Yes, we would need additional capital.” -Ricky Gomez, Palomar

“The money has been seeping out steadily since the moment we closed. It took not tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands of dollars just to close. It knocked the wind out of us. It’s slowed down since then, but it’s still seeping out. The bills are still coming in, the electricity is still there. Those payments may have been deferred, but they will still be there. I don’t know what the cost of reopening will be. We’d have to start over and buy an inventory, food, the training and retraining, the gloves, the enhanced sanitation, separate people standing at the door directing traffic or taking temperature. I have no idea, this is brand new to all of us.” -Vitaly Paley, Paley’s Place

“Covering payroll, re-opening food cost, beverage cost, I would say around $30,000 to reopen.” -Carlo Lamagna, Magna

How has this experience changed you as a restaurant owner or chef?

“Only a robot or a sociopath would remain unchanged after this.” -Kurt Huffman, Chefstable

“I don’t think this has necessarily changed me, aside from thinking of how to operate under these circumstances, and we’ll slightly changing our model for future expansions. We are already considered Mexican comfort food, which is very diverse as it is. It’s just now forcefully using tech more than ever to get people safely our food with minimal contact.” -Jaime Soltero, Jr., Tamale Boy

“This experience has really shaken me. I think it is clear that it has had a profound impact on our entire industry. I have spent my entire life cooking and working in restaurants, I will never stop. But the way that this pandemic has so swiftly and completely gutted our entire industry really makes you spend a lot of time thinking about the mission of restaurants in general. Now, more than ever, I think that people need the atmosphere and community that restaurants provide back in their lives. I for one cannot wait to welcome people back to G-Love.” -Garrett Benedict, G-Love

It really made me realize we are dependent on people walking in for their dining experiences. It made me realize that another source of income is necessary.” -Fatou Ouattara, Akadi

“Shit... that’s a big one. It made me more grateful for our community, guests, and staff. The support has been pretty incredible. It reminds me how powerful stress can be in both a negative and positive way and that sometimes you just have to roll with it. It also reminds you how fragile this industry is and to be thankful for what we’ve got” -Aaron Barnett, St. Jack

“This has definitely been harder that anything I have experienced in my professional career. It really makes you take a step back and reassess everything. I believe that if we come out of this, we will be pushing even harder to become better as a team and as a restaurant.” -Carlo Lamagna, Magna

I know more about loans than I’ve ever wanted. I’m especially thankful for the patience of the people of Portland. We’ve all needed to adapt, and we’ve asked our diners to adapt as well. We wouldn’t be able to stay alive if it weren’t for that, and we are forever grateful.” -Eric Nelson, Eem

“It has immensely, but we won’t really know how much until we reopen our businesses and hope they remain profitable.” -Ricky Gomez, Palomar

I feel beaten up mentally by the stress of this forced closure, fear of getting sick, spreading the virus, the hoop jumping to apply for any and every loan or grant to try to save my restaurant, to have such little support or empathy from the government is beyond maddening. Frankly, I think I will feel the ripple effect of deep emotion from this period for a very long time. It has also given me time to remind myself that my past life working seven days a week, abandoning self care, postponed travel, cancelled social dates, etc... all for the love of my business vs. for the love of me. This reality is not sustainable or of interest moving forward. That is a gift this horrid virus has given me. And I am immensely grateful.” -Kristen D. Murray, Maurice

“I became a chef in ‘08, so I’ve come up in a culture of working lean. You have to be able to run lean. Things are always cyclical, things always tanking, there’s nothing new. But, this is my first time being a restaurant owner, so it’s been a trial by fire every way possible.” -Deepak Kaul, Bhuna

“We’re evolving as we speak. It’s making us rethink every aspect of what we do.” -Vitaly Paley, Paley Hospitality

“Where to begin? As a chef, this experience has really changed my perspective on the industry. Really the nature of how fragile it is. Literally overnight, we experienced a thriving restaurant scene in Portland shut down with very little options to operate. If I will take away one thing from this, it is to definitely plan for more extreme contingencies like a pandemic to better protect my employees and company.” -Kyo Koo, Danwei Canting

“There are 10,000 answers to this question. It has been heart-wrenching, exhausting, terrifying and a million other descriptions given our industry as a whole has been completely decimated. It is something we are still trying to wrap our heads around. We do what we do becauase we love creating and taking care of people - and that includes our staff more than anyone else. Having all of this ripped away in a moment’s notice is something we will never forget. And so the choices we are making now and for the future are all because we will do everything within our control to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” -Jen Quist and Doug Adams, Holler Hospitality

“In some ways yes, in some ways no. It has allowed me to contemplate what Pok Pok was conceived as, what it has become, and where it might be going. It has also brought into sharp focus some changes that we have known needed to happen on an industry and societal level, such as paying for what food is really worth, the broken wage structure around tipping and front-of-house and back-of-house disparity, the delicate and flawed system of the food supply chain, the charade of food delivery apps as a positive force in the restaurant ecosystem, how much money is spent on things like insurance that don’t help when they are supposed to, the absolute greed of financial institutions that give lip service to supporting small businesses while favoring high asset clients, etc etc. Perhaps there is an opportunity to come out of this whole thing with a new paradigm, but that’s not up to me; it’s up to society to decide whether it values restaurants enough to change with us, the government and financial institutions to actually make changes to our business model that lead to our demise if others do not play along.” -Andy Ricker, Pok Pok

“I came up in a restaurant culture that demanded and rewarded back-breaking work, long hours, physical injury and high stress. I always assumed that was just the way things had to be. That’s what restaurants were to me. This past year, to be frank, has been incredibly difficult. Opening a restaurant is sort of a miserable process. There are bits of beauty, of course, and tons of excitement and joy. But there is a ton of ugliness, too — public pressure, media strategies, long hours, loneliness, lack of sleep, being completely overwhelmed 100 percent of the time, plus the work dreams you can’t escape. All of a sudden, I found myself pulled out of that world and plopped back into my house — my home. I watered my plants. I sat and stared at the walls a lot. I struggled to get out of bed sometimes. I laid on the lawn in my backyard. I started cooking meals for myself and my partner. I realized I hadn’t been breathing deeply for a whole year, and I realized I didn’t want to go back to the way things were. I panicked, wondering if this was the end of my career — but then I realized that we can change things, now. The issues in our industry have been exposed over the last few years, bit by bit — we’re finally talking about the rampant substance abuse, the abject misery and damaged mental health, the fact that chefs and owners eat taco bell alone after they get off of a twelve hour shift crafting a beautiful, wholesome dining experience for the public. It’s time for this to all stop. I feel rejuvenated, now, and focused on the idea of creating a better world than the one we were handed by our seniors in the industry. 90 hour work weeks are inhumane. Hell, so are 50 hour work weeks when they’re considered normal and expected from the young people coming through our kitchens. People need to breathe, sit, take breaks, have mornings, cook themselves dinner, drink water, and have healthcare. Now, we get to figure out how to make it happen. I’m grateful to have found a new path and I desperately hope that I can work with other people in the industry to make a healthy work environment feasible.” -Maya Lovelace, Yonder & Mae

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