Lisa Nguyen, the owner of mochi doughnut pop-up Heyday, thought she’d beat the heat on Saturday, June 26, by prepping the day’s worth of doughnuts at 3 a.m. When she arrived at the kitchen at North Mississippi’s Psychic Bar, however, it was already 85 degrees inside the kitchen — hotter than the still-dark night outside. She had to keep the dough in the fridge, to keep it from over-proofing. “Our decorating station was easily 10 degrees hotter,” she says. “We were dying, and it was only 4 a.m. by that point.”
Nguyen, like many other business owners in Portland this weekend, spent the last few days in constant battle with the heat. With temperatures breaking all-time records in Portland, the city’s restaurants and bars were putting out figurative fires throughout the weekend: An outage left more than 6,000 Portland-area Portland General Electric customers — including some businesses, like Bunk Sandwiches — without power. Refrigerators and freezers shut down mid-service, doughs over-proofed, and air conditioning units succumbed to the scorching heat. Worst of all, some food service workers developed heat exhaustion, leaving kitchens understaffed and employees ill.
Last week, meteorologists warned that an atmospheric blocking pattern, combined with a warming planet, may result in triple-digit temperatures in the Pacific Northwest throughout the weekend. Some restaurants, food carts, and bars announced closures ahead of the heat wave, while others planned to truncate service or adjust menus to accommodate the rising temperatures.
Working in a restaurant during a heat wave can be dangerous: Most kitchens rely on ovens or gas stoves, so heat rises even higher in restaurant spaces, making it difficult to regulate temperature even with air conditioning. Food carts are even more dangerous, considering the kitchen is small and made of metal; it takes far less heat to warm up a food cart, and with the added pressure of a super-hot sun, it can be extremely difficult to cool down. Jason Killalee, the owner of Batterfish in Happy Valley, is familiar with how hot a food cart can get in temperatures above 100; working in Los Angeles before moving to Portland, he would see temperatures jump exponentially inside his food truck. It’s a part of the reason he decided to close his fish and chips cart for the weekend. “Inside a truck near the fryer or grill it will hit 140 (degrees),” he says. “In LA, I have known tons of people (who) get heat exhaustion, and heatstroke kills people every year ... Better to lose a weekend than a life.”
However, some food service workers didn’t feel that closing was an option. Rebecca Powazek, the baker behind Bee’s Cakes, has yet to open her cafe to the public, reliant on wholesale accounts and cake orders. However, the heat was already causing problems before the weekend even started: The freezer and fridge broke, and as temperatures climbed, doughs would overproof. Concerned about the risk to employees, Powazek sent her employees home before the kitchen got too hot, but then spent the afternoons making up for the lost work, keeping her near the bakery’s hot ovens into the day’s hottest hours. “I do wholesale (orders) seven days a week, and all those people rely on me. I’m not in a financial position to not do anything,” she says. “I’ve been coming in at 4 a.m. to beat the heat, but people are still getting their orders in later in the day ... by the time I got my orders in [Sunday], it was 109 degrees.”
Tryzen Patricio, the owner of Hawaiian restaurant GrindWitTryz, expected business to slow down this weekend. While the restaurant often accrues long lines for poke and ono chicken, he thought the rising temperatures would keep crowds at bay. But the hoards came anyway, waiting in line before the restaurant even opened on Saturday. The restaurant’s air conditioning couldn’t keep the temperature down, and Patricio sent home multiple employees who were showing signs of heat exhaustion. Those who stayed traded off standing in the walk-in to cool off. Two rice pots overheated mid-service, and a storage room freezer broke down. Staff would bring cups of cold water to the Portlanders waiting in more than 100-degree heat to order. By 5:30 p.m., Patricio decided to throw in the towel. “We closed early once it reached peak hours because we wanted to make sure our employees were safe working in this condition and our customers were safe as well,” Patricio says. “Everyone was drinking water constantly, but it was too much.”
Natalee, an employee of a Portland Little Big Burger location who asked to go by their first name only, says that the heat was a constant issue for the restaurant before the team decided to shut down on Saturday. At one point, one walk-in’s temperature dropped and the team had to keep some products in a cooler until it was fixed. “We’ve been keeping an extra tray of ice under the meat in the cold table, because we’ve been dealing with issues with keeping food cool,” they say. “It was 85 degrees in the restaurant, not even in the kitchen ... We had the AC on as high as it would go, but it was still very hot.”
While many restaurant and food cart owners chose to close down or send workers home early, not every business has done so. Voodoo Doughnut employees went on strike Sunday and Monday, June 27 and 28, to protest the working conditions at the Southwest Portland cafe, after dealing with the excessive heat throughout the weekend. “Other establishments have taken the reasonable step of closing during this time while Voodoo Doughnuts (sic), with its large SW facing windows and deep fryers, has not,” a statement from the doughnut shop’s union reads. “The attempts made to provide relief, such as Gatorade and wet towels, are insufficient and the current air conditioning system is not up to the task of dealing with this heat wave.” The union says corporate has not responded to the employees’ heat concerns or the announcement of their strike.
Voodoo Doughnut’s corporate office does not recognize the worker’s union after it lost a National Labor Relations Board election and feels its response to the heat wave has been sufficient. “Specific to Old Town, we installed a new air conditioning system in 2019. Because of the current heat, we provided employees unlimited Gatorade and cold water,” a statement from the corporate office reads. “We also offered extended or additional employee breaks. Finally, we shifted production to early morning and late evening hours. Employee and customer safety is our highest priority; if we felt either were at risk, we would not be open for business.”
Today, temperatures will continue to soar; at the time of this story’s publication, Portland had reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit, with an estimated high between 113 and 115 degrees. That would surpass both Saturday and Sunday’s highs, which both broke of the city’s all-time records. As a result, a number of restaurants and carts that had opened over the weekend decided to close Monday, finally succumbing to the impacts of the heat. Whether businesses stay open or close, however, the overarching message echoed by workers and owners is a call for civility on the part of customers. A viral tweet, posted by an employee of a Portland-area pizzeria, showed a hand holding an instant-read thermometer in the restaurant’s kitchen, with a reading of 103.2 degrees Fahrenheit. “Work today has been a horrific illustration of the tendency of white collar liberals to view service industry workers as both sub- and superhuman,” the twitter thread reads. “Customers are still shocked that we’re closing early, still asking if we could ‘bump the ac up a tad,’ like we wouldn’t have thought of that, like we’re not feeling the heat. It’s 103 degrees in my kitchen with half the oven off.”
The poster, Portland’s Abe Carlin, says that management was generally supportive of employees and handled the excessive heat well. However, they felt more frustrated with the response from customers, who didn’t seem to understand the impact working in the heat would have on staff. “The area that we’re in, it’s a gorgeous part of town, and as a result there are a lot of fancy houses,” Carlin says. “There are folks who, if they ever worked in the restaurant industry, it was a high school job. They just aren’t as aware of the contemporary nature of service industry jobs. ... I don’t believe that any of the unending number of customers (had) ill-intentions; they were just sort of blissfully unaware.”
Updated Wednesday, June 30, 2021 at 12:27 p.m.: This story was updated to include comments from Abe Carlin.