Portland restaurant owners are facing tens of thousands of dollars in losses in the wake of the storm
Last week, the city did not melt. On January 12, as the first waves arrived, many restaurant, food truck and bar owners prepared to close for a day or two at most. They sold “snow apocalypse kits,” hoping to make up for potential lost sales, and left their taps dripping, hoping to avoid a burst pipe. Some opened their doors on Sunday or Monday, relying on chains or drag tires to get to work.
Very few people expected a full week-long closure. Days of freezing rain and low temperatures prevented the ice from melting. Even when the days exceeded 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it was just degrees. The streets remained slippery, and many restaurant workers were unable to leave their driveways. Some restaurant owners closed their doors for longer than seven or eight days; Others were closed for a day or two. Some returned to their restaurants to find flooded dining rooms, burst pipes, or, in the case of Old Asia Teahouse in Beaverton, an 80-year-old tree fallen in the parking lot. But now that much of the ice has melted, restaurant owners are facing the financial consequences, losing tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention the damage to their buildings and equipment.
Among the dozens of Portland restaurant, food truck and bar owners who spoke with Eater Portland, businesses lost an average of $31,000 in sales, the largest losses reported at nearly $60,000. Owners have reported a 50% to 95% loss in weekly sales – even those who have closed the business for just one day or less. For example, Tryzen Patricio of Grind Wit Tryz closed his Alberta Hawaiian restaurant on Tuesday, but he and partner Candace Lacuesta stepped in to open the restaurant on Wednesday. “Our sales are down 95 percent,” says Patricio. “I would say most people from our area come to us.”
Ricky Gomez, owner of Palomar Cocktail Bar in the Southeast Division, says the choice of whether to open or close a restaurant during inclement weather is impossible: If restaurants close, workers miss out on the hours and tips they depend on, but if restaurants open, owners shoulder daily operating costs. Without any real promise of revenue. For Gomez, the lack of customers also influenced his decision to close for four days.
“We had employees willing to come to work through all bad weather, but if the consumer isn’t willing to come out, then what’s the point?” Gomez says. “It’s also a double whammy for employees who rely on tips for a portion of their earnings and for a company that operates at a consistent loss.”
To make up for lost revenue, many restaurateurs have opened, or plan to open, their restaurants on days when restaurants would normally be closed. At Urdaneta, an Alberta tapas restaurant, chef Javier Canteras closed his doors on Tuesday and attempted to reopen the restaurant with a team of three on Wednesday; Just before the service, he discovered that the bathroom pipe had frozen. They were able to reopen on Thursday with a smaller staff. However, some restaurant employees simply could not go to work, and suffered huge financial losses as a result. Urdaneta’s is usually closed on Mondays, but to make up for the lost service, Canteras decided to open for service on Jan. 22, making grandpa rabbit and navy paella to try to attract customers.
“For restaurant workers who really depend on those hours, this advice is really harmful,” Canteras says. “You have the end of the month and rent is coming, and missing a week of work is tough for a lot of us.”
Other business owners are turning to direct crowdsourcing to replace damaged equipment. Speed-o Cappuccino, the coffee cart inside Lil’ America’s pod, lost its espresso machine in freezing conditions, greatly impacting the cart’s ability to bounce back after the storm. To try to pay for a new one, owner Dalia Hanson started a fundraising campaign on Instagram, seeking CashApp donations in exchange for free drinks. “Our espresso machine is the beating heart of our business,” the Instagram post says. “I know times are tough for everyone, and small businesses like ours are going through some serious mental gymnastics to keep our dreams alive.”
For some, a change in business model helped the restaurant stay afloat. Aaron Barnett, owner of the festive French restaurant St. Jacques in Northwest Portland, decided to eat low-cost food during the storm. The bar side of the restaurant reintroduced burgers and filet au fish, cutting operating costs and attracting a wide range of diners. It was enough success that Barnett decided to revive the bar menu full-time, debuting it in February.
But Barnett is tired of coming up with new ways to adapt while the city is on lockdown. The chef grew up in Canada, where freezing temperatures lasted months, not days; “If they told everyone to stay home, the entire economy would collapse,” he says.
“This city needs infrastructure ready to handle this weather,” Barnett says. “Small operators, arguably the weakest, are left to bear the cost and losses and make the ethical decision to put themselves and their employees at risk to maintain the industry that Portland is known for.”