Valentine’s Day weekend is usually massive in terms of restaurant business: Diners shell out piles of cash for luxurious prix fixe menus, while others gather in dive bars with friends. This year’s version of the holiday, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, was always going to be slower, but some restaurant owners were hopeful. Reservations were flying, and Portland restaurants could reopen for service indoors for the first time since November.
However, the arrival of snow and sleet thwarted many restaurant owners’ plans for the weekend. Around the city, upwards of 10 inches of snow and a full inch of ice led to days-long power outages, fallen trees, stalled cars, and school closures. Portland’s lack of regular annual snow often leaves the city unprepared for major snow events, which means roads can be icy, sidewalks unshoveled, and cars stranded on streets.
That made Valentine’s Day and President’s Day weekend plans tough for restaurant and bar owners, who were counting on a light reprieve from the exhausting realities of running a restaurant during the winter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even those who attempted to open encountered frozen pipes, crumpled outdoor dining spaces smashed with snow, and power outages that shut them down for days at a time.
Late last week, as snow started to accumulate across the city, some business owners expected the usual light sprinkle of snow Portland often gets each year. “It’s ‘technically’ snowing in Portland but we aren’t afraid of a light dusting,” reads a post on Cooperativa’s Instagram page. “Did you all know that chef @thomaspishaduffly lived in Maine, Boston and Vermont before heading out west to Oregon?” reads the caption on a Thursday post from Hollywood spot Gado Gado. “He’s got a lot of practice cooking for cold and snowy weather.”
While Gado Gado owners Thomas and Mariah Pisha-Duffly are familiar with snow, the couple encountered a number of roadblocks as they tried to open throughout the weekend, ranging from the slick roads to fallen trees. When they came to shovel out the walk on Monday to reopen, the power went out. Two-dozen Maine lobsters, shipped here for Gado Gado’s Valentine’s Day menu, arrived Tuesday, dead; Thomas Pisha-Duffly expects the restaurant lost $10,000 this weekend alone. “We’ll see what’s next. The big one? The big earthquake? We’re running out of natural disasters,” Thomas Pisha-Duffly says. “We’re almost laughing about it. What else can we do?”
Those forced to close not only lost a crucial boost in revenue Valentine’s Day often provides; they lost tons of really expensive ingredients. Smokin Fire Fish, the Hawaiian restaurant housed in the North Russell Tamale Boy, had to throw out much of its product from the week before, and had to spend Tuesday closed to re-prep for the week ahead. Others tried to make up some of the lost profits by selling fresh food set aside for Valentine’s Day menus. Quaintrelle hawked some of its Dungeness on Instagram for people to walk in and buy, while Flying Fish lowered the price on some of its Valentine’s Day seafood.
Even those who had food to serve didn’t have a place to serve it: Outdoor dining spaces, not only iced over and covered in snow, simply collapsed. Nightingale owner Luna Contreras was approaching her first Valentine’s Day at her new restaurant when the snow started to fall; the restaurant opted to remain closed on Valentine’s Day. But on Monday, Contreras got an Instagram message from Maurice owner Kristen D. Murray, saying that the newly constructed outdoor dining area at Nightingale had collapsed — her employees had witnessed and photographed the structure as it fell. Contreras and co-owner Chris Mateja had spent $1,500 on building it. “We are sitting on some product, I’m going to try to stick to takeout and delivery this week, see if that helps us recoup. I want to try to get the structure back up and running,” she says. “Yeah, it cost money but, luckily we’re still safe, I guess.”
Those businesses that were able to open reported high numbers, with people still seeking out dinner options as groceries closed. Brian Carrick, the owner of Italian restaurant and pizzeria Please Louise in Northwest Portland, opened every day this weekend, only closing on Monday. They were rewarded with a huge uptick in business. “We had higher numbers than usual, probably the highest level of business we’ve seen since October,” he says. “I had people coming in to buy wine and beer to-go, saying we were the only place they could buy beer that was open ... No one cooks at home anymore, certainly not in that part of town, so it seems like people were really excited to have an option.”
Carrick says that opening was fairly easy with his small staff: he says many employees live walking distance from the restaurant, and those with driveable cars picked up some employees for shifts. Employees wanted to work the weekend, he says, or rather, they wanted the stability working provided. “They didn’t exactly want to lose two-thirds of their wages. Plus ... people like to get out, even if it’s just for work,” he says. “We got into the restaurant business to serve customers, part of serving customers is being open whenever you can.”