During the January ice and snow storm, Portlanders endured slippery roads, fallen trees, frozen pipes, and power outages on a massive scale. As a result, the city’s economy took a hit, including its restaurant sector. Restaurants with staff unable to travel, or crucial equipment damaged by the weather conditions, closed for days on end; even those that did open saw a dramatic drop in business, with diners posted up at home or in warming shelters due to the ice. Now, the city’s restaurant scene is in jeopardy: More than half of restaurant owners surveyed by the Independent Restaurant Alliance of Oregon, or IRAO, said they were “at risk of permanent closure without immediate assistance from local and regional governments.”
In an attempt to curb the impact on the restaurant industry, the IRAO sent a letter to Governor Tina Kotek, as well as the state’s county and city leadership, requesting aid in a variety of forms. The IRAO is calling for a 90-day suspension of payroll taxes for restaurants, bars, and food carts with fewer than 100 employees, as well as a 90-day moratorium on commercial evictions. The alliance wants to establish a relief fund for independent restaurants, food carts, and bars with fewer than 100 employees, particularly those that closed for more than two days as a result of the storms; the fund would distribute “grants, low-interest loans, or other forms of financial assistance,” according to the Saturday, January 20 letter.
The letter also noted desired changes that weren’t specifically related to the industry. The IRAO wants the state and city to “allocate resources to ensure proper road maintenance during winter storms,” specifically requesting an increased number of deicer and salt trucks on the road and more plows. “Timely and effective road treatment is essential to prevent closures that directly impact the operations of our businesses.”
Back in October, the Oregon Department of Transportation, or ODOT, warned that a funding deficit may result in fewer snowplows and deicers on the roads during winter storms, one that the department projects will reach $720 million by 2027. In response, Kotek and Oregon lawmakers set aside $19 million for new snow plows and winter road-safety improvements. However, roads continued to be dangerous throughout the duration of the storm and afterward, and ODOT recommended drivers stay home for multiple days. In a press release, ODOT said the department was using “hundreds of thousands of pounds” of deicer, but “the amount of ice and extremely low temperatures limit the effectiveness of these tools — especially for vehicles without chains.” But many restaurant workers — and Portlanders in general — from other parts of the country say the city is particularly ill-equipped at dealing with inclement weather.
The letter also called for better management of the city’s urban canopy, to reduce the number of power outages due to fallen trees. According to Portland General Electric, outages peaked at 165,000 over the course of this storm, with days of outages climbing above 1,000 customers. In restaurants, power outages can be financially disastrous, not just because of the lost business, but because of the spoiled food in walk-ins. “It is long past time for city and state leaders to acknowledge that extreme weather events are not an anomaly,” the letter reads. “We must invest in infrastructure to navigate these challenges.”
“Having the support available to make sure our small businesses don’t just survive but have the opportunity to thrive is a priority for me,” says Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson in a written response to Eater Portland. “I know small businesses are heavily impacted by severe weather and were hit hard by the duration of our recent storm. I appreciate the leadership of the Independent Restaurant Alliance in asking for assistance and we’re looking into what resources we and other partners can offer as immediate aid.”
Last week, the IRAO conducted a survey of Portland restaurant owners and staff to gauge the impact of the winter weather on business. Respondents reported financial losses between $30,000 to $75,000, and said restaurant workers were averaging $1,500 of lost income. Eater Portland spoke to around one dozen Portland restaurant, food cart, and bar owners, who reported between 50 and 95 percent drops in sales related to the weather this month.
Updated Thursday, February 1, 2024 at 1:25 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comment from Vega Pederson.