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‘You Could See Your Breath in the Bar’: What It’s Like Working at a Restaurant During an Ice Storm

Despite sheets of ice on the road, fallen trees, power outages, and burst pipes, Portland restaurant workers made it in to boil pasta and pour cocktails

Lille Allen/Eater
Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

Since Saturday, January 13, Portland has seen snow, freezing rain, 45 mile-per-hour winds, and temperatures dropping into the teens. Thousands have lost power, MAX lines screeched to a halt, and sheets of ice have transformed many roads around the city into treacherous skating rinks. Restaurant and food cart owners have dealt with burst pipes and flooded dining rooms. Line cooks, servers, chefs, business owners, and bartenders have been tasked with a difficult dilemma: work and risk dangerous conditions, or call out and risk lost wages.

Even some of those who did open ended up closing early, either from lack of business, a glacial dining room, or power outages. Many restaurant owners consulted with staff to decide whether to close for one or all of the days during the storm. Some braved the roads and arrived at work, and faced other challenges once they arrived: missing deliveries, walk-in mishaps. Those who did work often relied on some form of community support to stay open. Below, we share their stories, as told to Eater Portland. Interview responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Liz Serrone, head chef at Gabbiano’s

This year, we tried to get ahead of the snowstorm. We went through all of our staff and asked every single person, “If it snows — and worst case scenario, the buses aren’t running — are you comfortable getting into the building?” I had a hard line drawn in the sand: Nobody is obligated to come if they feel unsafe getting to work. People have to be comfortable saying no. If people are reliant only on buses, that’s a hard no for me, because last time people got to work and then the buses stopped running, so they couldn’t get home safely. This happens every year and the city does nothing about the road conditions.

On Saturday, only two cooks and I felt comfortable getting into work. So we had a really slim staff there, and then one person still couldn’t make it in. Thankfully my partner lives in the neighborhood and he used to cook, so he helped us out. We were pretty well stocked for front-of-house; I think we had two servers, a bartender, and a support staff person, and then Blake (Foster), one of the owners, was there. Typically, we stagger the scheduling of employee’s shifts throughout the night, but for this case, everyone worked the whole night.

We ended up only doing a pared down menu one day, that was Saturday. I picked our fan favorites, what we sell the most of. The only reason I did that is because I was like, “Alright, I have two yeses. Three of us cooking, one is a prep cook. I need a menu I can do with just two of us, maybe just me if the other cooks don’t feel comfortable coming in.” Also, we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to get any deliveries in, which ended up being the case. All our deliveries were canceled, and Sundays are a dark day for deliveries. So we did a short menu Saturday, and we were able to run the full menu Sunday and Monday.

We were able to open every single day except for Tuesday; the restaurant closed because of the icy conditions. Honestly, I was surprised at how many people came out. That first day it wasn’t slick yet, but it was so cold. Everybody was on foot, everyone came out bundled up. I was happy that people were there, I was happy that we could be a warm spot for people to come in. But if it were me, I’d be on the couch.

Jayden Nyx, line cook at Sad Valley and Pine State Biscuits

I was at Pine State on Friday when the snow started falling. We lost power at some point, really briefly, but it came back on because we have a generator. We were slammed — everyone loves their breakfast. One of the managers drove me home, and they were even weighing their options with me, whether they would open or come in. Everyone needs money right now, so some people wanted to be open, some people didn’t.

On Friday night, the power went out at my place. I have cold urticaria, I’m basically allergic to the cold, so I stayed at my friend’s. From their windows, you could see cars drifting in the snow on MLK — people trying to stop and hitting other cars. My managers tried to contact me about working Saturday and Sunday, but I slipped on the stairs and my phone shattered. I couldn’t contact them until the next day. I was terrified of telling them I couldn’t work. I was so worried I’d get fired, but my managers said, “It’s fine, we’re sorry that happened.” Certain spots, they’re not as understanding.

I was out for two days. My friends Nate and Earl had access to a truck that was able to deal with some of the snow in the beginning; seeing some of the homeless who were unable to find shelter, they grabbed as many jackets and beanies as they could, and we ended up distributing them around town.

On Monday, I had an evening service at Sad Valley. I came in and started my shift at 5 p.m., and the heater broke at 5 p.m., just as I came in. You could see your breath in the bar. It was busy at first, because people had the day off, they were having a drink, taking a break from everything going on, but then they started getting cold. It was dead by 8 p.m. We tried to hold out for a few hours, but at 10:30 p.m. we decided to shut down early.

I have not worked since, and I’ve had really mixed feelings. Yes, I don’t want to have to deal with the weather; I walk everywhere. But it will really hurt when I pay rent this month. I hope people are giving line cooks the same level of understanding. I wish there was more of a system to support people through these things — we’re losing money and struggling to pay rent — but it’s just not safe to go in.

Nicholas Numkena-Anderson, front-of-house and bar manager at Jade Rabbit

We are a vegan restaurant, so the weekend was actually not too bad, business-wise. Less than normal, of course — lunch was a ghost town. We closed on Saturday and Tuesday, because most of our staff couldn’t get into work and it wasn’t worth the risk. Still, we were able to open on certain days. We’ve come to learn that vegans will weather many things to get their food.

We ran a limited service the other days, and when he was able, our owner and chef, Cyrus (Ichiza), used his all-wheel drive car with chains to cart everyone home safely. Without deliveries though, we started to wonder what we would have left when the storm finally passed. Our door was frozen shut and, once we opened it, we had to get creative to get it closed. Thank God for our distillery crew — they were super helpful with their equipment.

Overall, we were a bit lucky, compared to our other friends in the businesses around us that had pipes burst or something. Normally on a Saturday we are super busy, and some of our staff are concerned that they aren’t going to be able to make rent or pay their bills because of the slower month, not even piled on with this snow storm.

Gabriella Martinez, co-owner and pastry chef at Libre

It started as a conversation between owners and staff; we wanted everyone’s input on whether we should open. We were going to open on Saturday, but speaking with Carlo (Lamagna) at Magna, we decided to close. The wind was a big factor — no one was going to walk through that wind. We’re typically closed Sunday and Monday, but on Tuesday, the roads were pretty clear, so I talked to Chris (Reeder), our manager and bartender, and we decided to open, just the two of us, to give people a place to have a drink. My roommate was able to bring me in, and I got there at around 1:30 p.m. that day; it was actually a pretty time of day. I had spoken with Chris, and he had communicated that he would take me home.

Our first table was a table of regulars who came in for a birthday — they were able to Uber to us and back home. But we had four people total; we were struggling real bad. It was so slow that we decided to close early. It was still too cold and nobody wanted to be out. The heater wasn’t really working because we have these big windows; once the sun goes down, our heater isn’t strong enough to warm up the space. It got down to 50 degrees in the restaurant. And with the ice Wednesday, we closed.

The way that everybody has been supporting each other, posting on social media, has been really special. These are the realities of what we have to go through every winter. Seeing that Toyshop closing, saying they just couldn’t make it through this year, Baker’s just closing…if we don’t make it through January, we might close. But the community showing each other support, it’s really special.

A hand holds a hot cocktail outside the door at River Pig in Portland’s Pearl District.
A beverage on a snowy day at River Pig.
River Pig

Harol Mendieta, kitchen manager at River Pig and co-owner at Papi Chulo’s

First, we talked with the owners, to figure out the plan for the weekend. When we decided what we wanted to do, we talked with the team, to see who could help us out. Davide (Bricca), one of the owners, and I, we split up the employees who wanted to go in and picked them up and drove them home, so they didn’t have to worry about transportation. For the people far away from the restaurant, it was better to stay home. That’s our first concern, talking to people, seeing if they would feel safe coming in.

I think we had full staffing through the weekend. With the snow it was easier — people could walk. On Tuesday, we had to close early, because we didn’t know what to expect with the ice. We closed around 3 p.m., so people could get home safe. But we didn’t close on Wednesday. We had a few people who were able to make it on the bus, so they were able to work.

It was busy. We were one of a few places that was open. DJ Motaz lost power at home, so he played at River Pig Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. People enjoyed themselves, despite the weather. We have a lot of regulars from around here; they knew that we would probably be open. That’s something we want to keep going, making sure they know we’re there when they need us.

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