Mi Mero Mole, a staple in Old Town for its tacos de guisados (meat braises or stews), is under fire after comparing the experience of being a small business owner in Portland to that of George Floyd, the Black man whose killing by police has sparked ongoing national protests and a widespread racial reckoning in America, in an announcement about its permanent closure.
The restaurant’s account posted a lengthy closing announcement on Twitter and Facebook Monday evening, saying the restaurant could not survive the economic impact of COVID-19. However, the series of posts on the official Twitter account of Mi Mero Mole that explained the closure devolved into a rant about the challenges facing small business owners — such as, presumably, Zukin — at one point stating, “All too often this city puts a knee to the back of its businesses’ necks while smiling and telling them to relax and that they’re fine.” This line, a reference to the way that former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed Minnesota resident Floyd, draws on the harrowing imagery of Floyd’s killing to equate state violence enacted by police to the obstacles that the government puts in front of business owners.
That specific line inspired a wave of outrage among Portlanders, who saw the use of that imagery as both diminishing the impact of Floyd’s death and an appropriation of racist violence. Gregory Gourdet, the Top Chef alum and Departure culinary director, quoted the tweet with the caption, “Closing a business is awful, especially one that employed so many POC. Sorry about that Nick. But don’t fucking compare what you are going through with what George Floyd did.” Oregonian reporter Eder Campuzano quote-tweeted the same sentence, with the caption, “This is a white restaurant owner using language evocative of the horrific death of a Black man to fuel his own ego. I hope Portland restaurant-goers see it for what it is and do their best to support Black, Native and other PoC-owned businesses instead of trash like this.”
Mi Mero Mole’s Twitter account is now private, but the restaurant’s Facebook post, with the same line, is still public. In the replies to the tweet, Zukin stands by the metaphor. “The use inherently acknowledges the awful, callous nature of what happened to Floyd and the comparison points to the callousness of those in power who ignore those who are suffering. The metaphor is clearly sympathetic to Floyd and hostile to his killer,” he wrote.
Nick Zukin, who owns Mi Mero Mole and the now-closed Zapapizza, has been a controversial figure in the local restaurant industry, known for his food writing and his discussions of city politics and economics on social media. Zukin has been open about his disdain for certain forms of activism, from the destruction of statues during the protests against police brutality to critiques of appropriation in Portland restaurants. During the Kooks Burritos controversy of 2017, Zukin told Vice, “I don’t think the majority of social-justice warriors are truly concerned with justice. I think they enjoy causing people pain and ‘social justice’ gives them an excuse.”
Mi Mero Mole originally opened on SE Division in late 2011, after owner Zukin co-founded the Jewish deli Kenny & Zuke’s downtown. He opened the second location in Chinatown in 2014, serving the restaurant’s tacos as well as its variety of fruit-infused margarita pitchers. The original Division spot closed in 2017, which he blamed on the narrowing of the street and his unwillingness to make dishes he thought were more commonplace: “We get a lot of customers who come in and ask for carnitas or carne asada and when they find out we don’t have it, they walk out,” he told Willamette Week in 2017. “I’m not going to half-ass some grey beef trimmings from a bag just because a bro can’t be bothered to try something new.”
The restaurant will close its doors on Friday, July 3, Willamette Week first reported. Zukin has set up a GoFundMe account for his employees who are ineligible for unemployment. Zukin has not responded to multiple requests for comment.