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An assembly line of sandwiches.
Melissa McMillan prepares sandwiches at her shop Sammich for distribution at warming shelters.
Sammich PDX

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Storm-Walloped Portland Restaurants Served Family Meal to a City in Need

When diners couldn’t make it to dinner, Portland cooks fed the food insecure instead

Janey Wong is Eater Portland's reporter.

Melissa McMillan is no stranger to cooking through a crisis. The Sammich chef has fed sandwiches to Oregonians who lost their homes in wildfires, families struggling at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and unhoused Portlanders in the city’s tent encampments. So when the snow, ice, and freezing rain hit the Pacific Northwest in quick succession last week, McMillan decided to pivot from cooking for paying customers to cooking for guests at the city’s warming shelters.

During last week’s storm, the Portland restaurant industry took a hit during an already slow season. As the winter storm set in, business owners debated opening, while others suffered burst pipes and lost product. The Portland Bureau of Transportation urged Portlanders to avoid travel and public transit service was suspended for a record duration, making it nearly impossible for customers to visit the restaurants that managed to open. With the downtime in regular business, a couple of restaurant teams shifted their focus to making free meals for the community, including people who had lost power and couldn’t cook, folks who are food insecure, and unhoused people. For them, it felt like a worthy alternative to wasting food from lost business, and in certain cases, a way to support their employees and community through a perilous period.

Over the course of four days, McMillan and her team made 640 meals, which they personally distributed to warming shelters in the Portland area — as far out as Oregon City and Hillsboro — navigating the perilous roads in her four-wheel drive truck. The enterprise was a partnership with Rogue Food Unites (RFU), a Southern Oregon nonprofit that McMillan helped found in 2020 to assist residents displaced by the Almeda and Obenchain fires. When the nonprofit isn’t actively engaged with disaster response, it focuses on combating general food insecurity through programs like its no-cost farmers market.

McMillan is no longer directly involved with RFU, but when snow and ice immobilized the city, Rogue Food Unites CEO and executive director Amber Ferguson called her up and asked for help. The nonprofit was tasked with serving warming shelters in six counties, which included four shelters in Clackamas and Washington counties.

On January 13, the first day of the storm, McMillan opened Sammich so folks could have a warm place to go. But a few days further into the storm, the decision to open or stay closed was an easy one. The sandwich shop was only staffed with three people, McMillan included, and there was a choice between making 150 meals for people in need or charging the few customers who were able to make it in. McMillan and her team chose the former.

She sees the program as a win-win for both folks in need and for restaurants that can’t open for regular service. RFU reimburses its restaurant partners for making meals; flat rates are variable depending on the level of disaster response and if the meals are for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Instead of losing out on hours, Sammich employees who were willing and able to work could do so.

“[The program] is really helpful in so many ways,” McMillan says. “And the most important way is feeding people. I was so excited when we were able to drop off hot steaming meals. Food can be one of the most healing and comforting things on the planet.”

At the time of its inception, Rogue Food Unites served seven counties. In January 2024, it started serving 36 counties statewide as part of a contract with the state’s Office of Resilience and Emergency Management to respond during major emergencies or disasters. Ferguson says that while RFU is well-connected in the southern part of the state, the nonprofit is currently looking to build up its network of partners statewide. Restaurants, grocery stores, food trucks, and caterers can inquire on how to get involved by emailing the nonprofit’s development coordinator Heather Brazille.

“The big thing is to continue to work with existing food businesses, whether that’s wholesalers, caterers, food trucks, or restaurants, to uplift and keep those dollars in our communities,” Ferguson says.

Some Portlanders didn’t rely on a warming shelter last week, but still lost access to a working kitchen or workable hours. Restaurateur Akkapong Earl Ninsom wanted to help them. Before the storm arrived, he and his team met to discuss a game plan, knowing that regular service would more than likely not be feasible. Instead, three of Ninsom’s restaurants provided free meals for the community. The projects were spearheaded by different members of his teams, including Paadee sous chef Somphong Kanyota, Hat Yai lead line cook Prawit Pramuansup, and Phuket Cafe chef Kitsanaruk Ketkuaviriyanont. At the beginning of the year, Ninsom prioritized community service and supporting other restaurants in his 2024 business plan.

“One of my cooks went back home in September, and what they do when they go home is feed the village,” Ninsom says. “They served food at the temple in their hometown — just to show their appreciation of growing up there. So I felt, ‘Why don’t we do something for the community that has been supporting us for 15 years?’”

The cooks used ingredients to whip up dishes akin to what the restaurant staff eats for family meal. Portlanders were able to pick up rice soup and tom kha from Paadee, a rice porridge with pork and poached egg from Hat Yai, or panang curry with short ribs, eggplant, and gai lan at Phuket Cafe. After seeing an Instagram post announcing the food offer, Ninsom says a customer reached out and volunteered to distribute some meals to homeless people.

“We didn’t know if people could come out,” Ninsom says. “We wanted to make sure with this extreme weather we’re doing what we can to feed those who need it during this time.”

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