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One Year In: How We Survived

Portland restaurant owners share the lessons they’ve learned while fighting to stay in business over the last year

A woman in blonde braids and a black mask makes coffee drinks behind the curved bar at Sisters, which has high ceilings and globe lights.
Barista Grace Smith makes drinks behind plexiglass at Sisters Coffee in the Pearl in February 2021. Sisters has overhauled their interior setup to accommodate ordering inside, but customers must still sit outside to consume food and beverages.
Molly J. Smith Photography

A few months into the coronavirus pandemic, many restaurant owners realized they were on their own. Sure, there were the scant Paycheck Protection Program loans, the mutual aid programs, the occasional grants. But the kind of monetary aid restaurants needed, across the board, was in the tens of thousands per restaurant. Restaurant owners were making impossible choices — stay open and risk a potential outbreak, or stay closed and lose the business altogether.

In the course of a year, Portland’s dining rooms closed and opened twice by government mandate, which forced the industry to be nimble as a mode of survival. Restaurant owners constructed makeshift patios, adjusting them as state safety guidelines changed. Some businesses built walk-up windows out of their front doors to create a barrier between diners and employees. Bars figured out ways to package cocktails to go to accommodate new legislation. Chefs developed takeout concepts and pop-ups that traveled well or relied on comfort food. We spoke with a number of restaurant, cafe, and bar owners about the experience running a business right now, what they’ve learned, and how they see themselves faring in the future. Quotations have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Two people in black order from a red-and-teal window with the word “Welcome” inscribed above. A server wearing a jean jacket and a mask stands within the building.
Brooke Smith takes orders at Bar Carlo’s new walk-up set up.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX
Alongside a graffitied wall, customers sit at picnic tables chatting over cocktails. Heaters stand, unlit, against the tables.
To expand their outdoor space, Bar Carlo in SE constructed a covered patio in the alley by their neighbors at the Bobwhite Theatre.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX
A teal-and-red-painted bar displays a marquee that reads “Bar Carlo Stabs Glasshaus Gardens Manifest Mercantile.” Customers sit under the marquee at a picnic table.
Diners enjoy the sunshine on Bar Carlo’s patio in SE. The sign above the bar advertises pop-ups held at Bar Carlo, including the grilled meat pop-up Stabs.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

What has it been like in the restaurant industry this past year?

“Everything that we did felt temporary. We just had to keep pivoting over and over and just figure out what worked for us. We’ve just kind of experimented around just to see what we could do to bring in extra revenue. Our staff has been great with everything, because it’s just constant change.”
Ro Tam, owner, Either/Or

“[When Revelry closed] I felt really sad; it felt like a huge chunk of the years that really summed up my experience in Portland was going away. It’s hard because you don’t have a souvenir. I used to work at State Bird, I’m able to visit State Bird and look in and reminisce on it. I felt like it was one of those things with [Revelry] where I couldn’t return back to it if I needed to.”
Diane Lam, formerly of Revelry, now at Psychic Bar

“When we got the first round of PPP we reopened in a limited capacity: patio only, no inside access. At night we were doing bar service. And at the end of fall, beginning of winter, we installed a covered patio in the alley on the other side of the Bobwhite Theatre. That has made it a lot easier, but still definitely did not pay for itself. Luckily we got a grant for that at the end of the year. We’ve been really living off of grants, to be honest.”
Melinda Archuleta, owner, Bar Carlo

“It is a constant change; you’re basically on a swivel the whole time. I hate the word pivot at this point, but you’re basically always changing your business model.”
Eric Nelson, co-owner, Eem

A barista holds a coffee cup from within a cafe, blocked off by a wooden window
Sam Boyer packages up coffee orders inside the pick up window at Either/Or on N Williams. Cafe owner Ro Tam said they haven’t allowed customers inside the restaurant since March 2020, and have no plans do so until everyone is vaccinated.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX
A line of customers waits on the patio outside the blue walls of Either / Or.
Customers wait to pick up coffee from the window at Either/Or on N Williams. Cafe owner Ro Tam worked with Figure Plants to have the window constructed, and hopes to incorporate the setup into service once it reopens for dine-in service, at some point down the road.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX
A person with shoulder-length hair and a mask holds two coffee drinks out on a bar, blocked off by a window.
Juniper Airs places coffees on the pickup window at Either/Or on N Williams.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

What have you learned in the last year?

“Work-life balance. The pandemic forced us to stop. We were open morning to night [for eight years], and it was just constantly working and feeling burnt out and exhausted. But when everything pivoted, it was just my partner and I. She did all the cooking and I did all the front of house and it was like, wow, we have the evening off together. It was such a change; it was a great time to work on our house, our mental health — it is everything.”
Ro Tam, owner, Either/Or

“I think that I’ve proved to myself that I am resilient. I’ve always known that I was strong, but I just think that the things that I was doing before, like making sure I was ready for service or making sure that catering event was done right, it pales in comparison to the amount of meaningful work that I’m doing right now.”
Diane Lam, chef, Psychic Bar

“It’s become more obvious that the midsize, family-owned restaurants are going to be the ones that can’t survive. The pandemic is making that more acute, it’s accelerating that. That’s in addition to just being flexible and being comfortable with collaboration. Maybe you’re sharing your space in ways you didn’t expect to before. And just safety in general, it really shines the spotlight on all these things that we took for granted before.”
—Melinda Archuleta, owner, Bar Carlo

“We’ve been really good about switching things up as fast as possible and rolling with the punches. Like with hand sanitizer [production], we switched in a matter of days from getting all of the bottles and the ethanol and glycerin that we needed to make it and getting all of the paperwork done, which was quite a process. We’ve been able to put ourselves in a position where the unknown is more of the reality now.”
Brooke McKinnon, hospitality manager, Freeland Spirits

A woman with a ponytail and a mask plates buckets of fried chicken and cauliflower on a pink plastic tray outside Psychic Bar.
Almost nine months after cocktail bar Revelry closed, chef de cuisine Diane Lam has landed in a new space at Psychic Bar on Mississippi. Her Cambodian fried chicken brand, Prey and Tell, now has a permanent home with the restaurant’s bar program, and she will run her pop-up Sunshine Noodles upstairs.
Molly J. Smith / Eater Portland
A woman in an apron, ponytail, and mask stands on the patio of Psychic Bar under an awning.
Lam greets customers on the patio of Psychic Bar. Lam operated her pop-up, Sunshine Noodles, out of the outdoor bar for half of 2020; when the bar reopened, the ownership team decided to hire Lam to take over the bar’s food program.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

What has surprised you?

“I’ve always felt the support from our staff and customers, but for the year before this happened I hadn’t been working as many front-of-house shifts. When I started doing that again, it gave me an opportunity to connect with people more one-on-one. … It reminded me why I wanted to do this and how important it was, especially in the beginning, just having those daily connections with people.”
Ro Tam, owner, Either/Or

“I feel constantly lucky to be considered something that people want to invest in. … I just didn’t realize that people wanted to eat my food as much as they do. There’s groups of people that want to work for me. I’ve been hiring people, and people go out of their way to email me and write meaningful cover letters. It’s one of those things where I see other chefs getting to do that. I’m sure Earl Ninsom or Peter Cho have that, but I just never thought people would do that for me.”
Diane Lam, Psychic Bar

“What surprised me about the staff was how supportive and willing to volunteer their time and effort they were, just to keep us alive and to continue to be a part of something that’s important to the neighborhood. And also the customers in the same way. … As far as the food scene goes, the fact that the push for ‘to-go’ alcohol was rallied basically by one business owner who was fed up. We never thought we’d have the power to enact that kind of change. I think it has created some solidarity in areas that maybe we didn’t know it was possible.”
Melinda Archuleta, owner, Bar Carlo

That people are willing to eat outside. When we talked about putting up these cabanas, I was like, ‘Fuck, it’s just going to be to-go food.’ But we have one-and-a-half, two-hour waits for tables. That’s not just Eem; that’s everywhere. People are really supporting restaurants in this town, and it shows you what the backbone of this city really is.”
Eric Nelson, co-owner, Eem

“We knew we would have the community support, but the reaction we’ve had from our community here in Portland has been overwhelming. Even the day when everything shut down they were showing up and buying cases and cases — they really didn’t want to see their local favorite spots closing down. I knew people would be supportive, but I had no idea people were going to put all their money locally.”
Brooke McKinnon, hospitality manager, at Freeland Spirits

A woman with short red hair, wearing a mask, slips a paper into a black bag. A teardrop-shaped bottle of bourbon sits on the table next to the bag.
Project coordinator Abby Cartier packages a cocktail kit for curbside pickup at Northwest Portland distillery Freeland Spirits
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

What do you wish diners knew about the challenges their favorite places are still facing?

“Customer service is really hard in normal times, and especially so during the pandemic. It just adds a whole extra layer. Employees are constantly worried about getting sick, and still providing good service. It’s exhausting having to remind people to wear a mask still, and unfortunately, one year in, that’s still a common thing.”
Ro Tam, owner, Either/Or

“Restaurants are going out of their way to change who they are so that they can accommodate the changing of the times. It takes two to tango. Customers need to adjust their expectations when they go out, knowing that it’s not going to be the same. Everyone needs to evaluate what they can do in order to progress this so that we’re not put in a situation where we have to say no, or we have to tell people the rules.”
Diane Lam, chef, Psychic Bar

Our biggest challenge are the people who don’t understand why we’re not doing indoor dining. We keep getting that one argument like, ‘COVID is only dangerous for 1 percent of the population; we want to eat inside.’ I wish people would respect each and every restaurant’s personal choice when it comes to dining indoors. If one person dies that I know from COVID because I let people eat in the restaurant, then that’s on me, and that’s on us as a business.”
Eric Nelson, co-owner, Eem

“I wish they knew that we hate this just as much as you do. We don’t like serving our food in subpar manners, like to go. We don’t like that drivers are probably swamped and maybe your food doesn’t get picked up on time or gets too cold or now it got jostled and now it’s a mess. We have no way of knowing what the customer is actually receiving and whether it’s delicious by the time it gets there.”
Melinda Archuleta, owner, Bar Carlo

A man looks from a lit window at Eem in the evening. A customer waits in the dark. Molly J. Smith / EPDX
Along the sidewalk outside Eem, little greenhouse-style pods lined with plastic house single tables for customers to use. Molly J. Smith / Eater Portland
A couple sits on either side of a small outdoor table within one of Eem’s greenhouse-style, single-party dining cabanas. Molly J. Smith / EPDX

Lauren Maurer and Caley Berney at Eem

Where do you see the rest of 2021 going for your business?

“We’re going to plan on making more cocktails to go. Maybe a week before the pandemic hit, we hired our new bar manager, and it wasn’t until the cocktails to go passed that we were able to finally collaborate. They have a lot of really great ideas and I’m really excited to do more with them on that end.”
Ro Tam, owner, Either/Or

“When we were thinking about [fried chicken virtual restaurant] Pray and Tell and Psychic Bar and the reopening, we made a list of all these things — what has affected us in the past in terms of COVID, what areas were out of our control — and then we eliminated that in our operating strategy. I see that in a lot of businesses, too, when they have their own ways of doing it — based on what represents their food and their style. What works for OK Omens isn’t going to work for us.”
Diane Lam, chef, Psychic Bar

“I’m hoping to have as much fun as possible over the busy season. I just want March through September/October, the warm months, I want it to be as much fun as possible.”
Melinda Archuleta, owner, Bar Carlo

I think it’s going to wind up staying like this; we have no plans to open up for indoor dining. I don’t want to open up as a shell of what we were. We put so much time and care into this safe business model; I’m not ready to trash everything we’ve done if we can’t get everyone inside the restaurant, and we won’t do that until everyone is vaccinated.”
Eric Nelson, co-owner, Eem

“Our goal as things progress and people get vaccinated is to get an outdoor patio built; we’re working on that. We’re looking forward to a space where people can sit and enjoy and taste again, as well as some walk-up shopping — not quite in store yet. We’re keeping things pretty tight as far as opening up again goes.”
—Brooke McKinnon, hospitality manager, Freeland Spirits

The restaurant XLB has a window with an illustrated menu next to the entrance.
N Williams soup dumpling spot XLB has constructed a walk-up window in its front door.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX
The outdoor patio outside the brewery Away Days is covered with a wooden awning.
Customers enjoy coffee and beer on the patio of SE tap house Away Days during their event with downtown coffee spot Deadstock Coffee. The two recently collaborated to create a coffee-infused brown ale called Dope Days.
Molly J. Smith / Eater Portland
A man wearing a sweatshirt that says “Ball was life” sprinkles cinnamon on a latte.
Deadstock Coffee owner Ian Williams creates lattes at a pop-up event with SE taproom Away Days. The downtown coffee shop recently collaborated with the English brewery to create a coffee-infused brown ale called Dope Days.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX
The outdoor patio space at Southpark, lit by heaters and lights.
Southpark Seafood reopened for limited seating dine-in for the second time in mid-February after a year of closures, takeout only, and patio dining.
Molly J. Smith / Eater Portland
A white tent lit with string lights takes up a dark street in Northwest Portland
Several streets in the Pearl District and other corners around town have closed to vehicle traffic entirely as restaurants expand their outdoor dining spaces during the pandemic. Pictured here is Mediterranean Exploration Company’s large tent on 13th Avenue.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX