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A Korean-American woman wearing a blue chef’s jacket, her hair in a ponytail, scoops rice at the counter of Zilla Sake
Kate Koo, the chef and owner of Zilla Sake on Alberta, working at the sushi counter of the restaurant. Koo describes the state’s constantly shifting safety guidelines as “devastating” for restaurant owners and workers.
Zilla Sake / Official

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Portland’s Food Service Community Reacts to a Year of Whiplash

“The flip-flopping is just devastating,” says chef Kate Koo, after Gov. Kate Brown announced yesterday that Portland restaurants can reopen for indoor dining Friday, one week after shutting down

Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

At the end of March, Bar West owner Summer Triato reopened her Northwest Portland restaurant for indoor and outdoor dining. She moved some spaced seating into an adjoining room — usually set aside for events — and expanded the outdoor patio. The first weekend was so busy, Triato felt compelled to start hiring more servers and kitchen staff. Within a month, Gov. Kate Brown announced that restaurants would have to shut down indoor seating for the third time since March 2020. “We have 16 people on staff right now, but we’re fully staffed for indoor and outdoor and an extra day a week,” Triato told Eater on May 4. “We’ll see how long this lasts ... We got lucky, we hired a really great crew, but I’m afraid to lose them, because they’re losing hours.”

By the end of that day, Brown reversed course, announcing that this week’s extreme-risk counties could start serving customers indoors once again by Friday, May 7 — just a week after announcing the indoor dining shutdown. The decision to reopen has to do with a razor-thin margin of hospital bed occupancy: Because Oregon’s hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients only rose 14.9 percent instead of 15, the state’s benchmark for extreme risk wasn’t met, and restaurants could reopen.

In a statement, Brown said that as Oregonians continue to get vaccinated, she expects counties shouldn’t have to re-enter that extreme risk category again. However, many restaurant owners and workers in Portland aren’t necessarily convinced, and the weight of constant layoffs, re-hirings, and changes in service is taking a serious financial and emotional toll on the industry. For some, it’s enough to consider leaving the restaurant world altogether.

Following the May 4 announcement of restaurants reopening for indoor dining, industry members’ response online was not necessarily celebratory; in fact, many felt frustrated with the quick change. “There were probably hundreds of people laid off, and dozens of restaurants kicked in the teeth by this one week shut down,” Bullard chef de cuisine Ricky Bella wrote in a tweet. “I want everyone to be healthy and for this to be over, but this has been handled like absolute dog shit.”

Thomas Pisha-Duffly, the owner of Indonesian restaurant Gado Gado, expressed a similar exasperation, specifically addressing Gov. Kate Brown. “At a time when every decision you make is sure to make someone upset, or endanger someone’s life ... indecision would seem like the most cowardly thing. This is false,” he wrote in an Instagram story caption. “I would rather you make a choice guided by thoughtful, painstaking evaluation of the crisis our community is facing and stick by it, even if I don’t agree with you, than this bullshit.”

The state’s COVID-19 safety framework breaks down restrictions into four main risk levels, which dictate what certain businesses and residents can do in an attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those risk levels are based on a few metrics: the rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000, the number of COVID-19 cases, the percentage of COVID-19 tests that are positive, and how many hospital beds are occupied statewide. In the perspective of Yonder employee Kevin Jones, that data-based framework should give people enough notice to know when a big shutdown is coming. “This is in-line with the plan with the plan our government put together a year ago, in terms of the cases and the deaths,” Jones says. “We’ve had a year now of looking at the cases, looking at the deaths, and knowing this is how it’s going to happen.”

A takeout container of mac and cheese, yams, and turkey legs arrives with a sprinkle of parsley at Everybody Eats
A takeout container of food from Everybody Eats in the Pearl District. Everybody Eats primarily serves diners inside, with a small outdoor dining area. However, the restaurant has started relying more on takeout, coming up with new, alternative revenue options.
Brooke Jackson-Glidden / EPDX

However, some restaurant owners still feel frustrated with the way the framework is built: Instead of just keeping restaurants shut down, the week-to-week changes cause more problems to manage. “I’m a business owner, not a health care expert, but the flip-flopping is just devastating for us,” says Zilla Sake owner and chef Kate Koo. “It doesn’t just affect me as the owner, it affects the employees who have to re-file (for unemployment) with the state ... The effect is more far-reaching than what we feel as owners.”

The constant need to adjust has become the norm for a number of restaurant owners around the city: Restaurant workers have started pop-ups, restaurants have begun hosting pop-ups, and both began hawking food, groceries, and merch online or via social media. Johnny Huff Jr. moved his restaurant, Everybody Eats, into a larger Pearl District space specifically to open for indoor dining: He could fit more people into the dining room while still accommodating the state’s capacity limits. When the state shut down indoor dining again, however, he wasn’t exactly surprised — just frustrated. He started brainstorming more takeout options, merchandise, and forms of revenue: virtual cooking classes, consultations, spice mixes and seasoning blends. “As a Black male, that’s something I’ve adapted to: You constantly have to reinvent yourself,” he says. “You have to prepare yourself for the worst, but hope for the best outcomes.”

But even the restaurants simply opening and closing dining rooms have felt exhausted by the constant switching, as well as the impact of wasting food inventory and laying off employees. The solution for some has been to avoid the pivot game altogether: Many restaurants in Portland have not opened for indoor dining at all yet. “Our policy has been no indoor dining until our staff is comfortable with indoor dining,” says Philip Stanton, the owner of Mississippi Pizza Pub. “So when the indoor dining ban went into effect, it didn’t really affect us.”

Stanton is in the process of waiting for his entire staff to be fully vaccinated; if the government allows for indoor dining, he hopes to reopen for indoor dining. For him, as more people get vaccinated, he hopes the state returns to a certain modicum of normalcy, and that the constant changes in policy will start to decline. “I think if you look back to the beginning of the pandemic, herd immunity was not the goal. The goal was to not overwhelm hospitals, and not cause more people to die than we can possibly prevent,” Stanton says. “As a vaccinated person, I’m going to live a normal life, and I think people who are vaccinated are going to live their normal lives.”

Eli Johnson, an owner of Dots Cafe, Atlas Pizza, and 5 & Dime, says he’s waiting until his staff is vaccinated to reopen for any sort of indoor dining. “I don’t fault the governor for the shutdown. It’s a pandemic, and I’m just glad I’m not in charge,” he says. “Figuring out the right thing to do seems incredibly complicated.”

In Koo’s eyes, the allure of a potential boost in income after a grueling period of low revenue puts serious pressure on the businesses trying to avoid that risk. “We feel the pressure to open when the state opens up,” Koo says. “[I worried] customers would go to the restaurants where they can sit inside instead of ordering takeout from me. You want to do as much as you can, and there are other restaurants that are doing as much as they can ... We want to feel like we’re on a level playing field, but there’s also that fear of the risk.”

The constant shifting and emotional strain of working in the industry right now has been enough for people to consider changing careers. For them, it’s a compounding of the ongoing issues with the restaurant industry — more competition, slim margins, and miserable working conditions — with the challenges and safety risks of working during the pandemic. Ned Ludd owner Jason French, a Portland restaurant industry vet, has been eyeing the back door for a few years, launching a coaching business. His restaurant has been on hiatus for months, after a stint offering takeout in 2020. French watched some of his longtime employees leave the industry altogether, and has relied on catering gigs. “The pandemic is indicative of America’s ability to come together ... of our resiliency and the lack thereof. In the restaurant industry, it has revealed how fragile [we were] for years,” French says. “It’s a terrible way to make money. It can be a wonderful life, but it can be a wonderful life only under the perfect economic realities.”