Rising like a soufflé, Portland’s food scene ‘will be reborn’

Is Portland Over?

Hundreds of Oregon restaurants have closed due to the pandemic. Others have pivoted into something new.

Editor’s note: This is part five of an ongoing series this week through May 17 looking into issues the City of Portland faces. Click here for the full series, send us your comments to isportlandover@koin.com and tune in Monday, May 17 at 7 p.m. for our hourlong special.

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The pandemic has taken a devastating toll on the food scene in the Portland area, forcing local institutions like Pok Pok, Le Bistro Montage, Irving Street Kitchen and Beast to shutter.

A total of 1,185 restaurants closed in 2020, according to the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association which analyzed data collected from CHD Expert and OLCC licenses. Another 81 closed in the first three months of 2021.

“Some of the bigger groups that have lots of restaurants — the Gorhams with Tasty n Alder and Toro [Bravo], Andy [Ricker] and all the Pok Poks — those closing down was kind of shocking because those are the places that you just feel like, oh, they’re busy all the time, they’re bulletproof,” said Gabriel Rucker, a James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Le Pigeon and Canard.

Eater PDX Editor Brooke Jackson-Glidden tracks the trends, as well as openings and closures, in Portland’s vast food scene.

“From the perspective of diners, a closure is a loss of a place often associated with particular memories that are core to who we are, at least in my experience,” Jackson-Glidden said. “If you’re a restaurant owner or if you’re even a server or you work in a restaurant, that is so much of your life and that is so much of not just your job — that is your art.”

Rucker said he watched as some of his fellow chefs in Portland made the tough decision to close. He said many of the smaller, chef-driven and chef-owned restaurants have been trying to push through.

“I’ve been able to keep some staff on. You know the word ‘pivot’ — I never want to hear again once this is all over,” he said. “I have just hustled, right? It’s in my fiber. You want a cooking class? Sure. Luckily, corporations are where people, businesses, office buildings are in trouble, too, and they’re like ‘we can’t have holiday parties, so let’s hire a chef to teach everybody on a Zoom class.’ Whatever it is that we can do, we’re hustling to do it.”

Business owners say pivoting is what they’ve had to do to survive. James Beard Award winner Naomi Pomeroy said she was “really glad” she decided to close her restaurant, Beast. But she’s opening a new venture: Ripe Cooperative.

“There’s a few things I’m most excited about with this pivot but one of them has really been about accessibility,” said Pomeroy. “So we’re trying really hard to create a space that people of all different walks of life can come into. So we have people that walk by, they grab a half a loaf of bread, they grab some flowers and a bottle of wine.”

Suppliers have also been forced to adjust in order to survive. Geoff Latham’s Nicky USA is a family-run meat wholesaler. They’ve been in Portland for 30 years and cater to chefs on whatever kinds of meats and cuts they want to cook with.

“I built this so that we can do the best quality for our chefs,” said Latham. “Nothing here is really massively automated. It’s more of the small butcher shop.”

Businesses like Nicky USA saw a dramatic drop in orders to fill for restaurants and chefs when customers were no longer permitted to sit down and eat.

“This last year, we’ve pivoted and been very thankful for the general population that’s really coming and supported us on our new Dockside program,” Latham said.

Instead of relying on wholesale transactions, Latham opened up sales to people who wanted in on what local chefs were using. Others haven’t been so lucky.

Matt Breslow opened the first Grilled Cheese Grill when the food cart scene was just getting off the ground in 2007. In 2019, a block of small businesses at SW 10th and Alder had to go to make room for a high-rise that will be a Ritz-Carlton with hotel rooms and condominiums. Breslow was forced to close the Grilled Cheese Grill. He decided to move on amid COVID-19 closures and the possibility that the original food carts on Alberta would be forced out by development.

“There’s no way I’m going to find that again in this city without also having the fear that that property could get sold and I could be kicked off of there in five years,” said Breslow. “At some point you realize you gotta know when to walk away.”

Yet some businesses have thrived during the pandemic. Ian Williams with Deadstock Coffee said business improved in 2020. While the pandemic may not have had a negative impact, Deadstock Coffee has had to contend with other issues such as Portland’s homeless crisis. Williams says different walks of life can feel welcome at the shop in Old Town Chinatown.

“We’re here to serve the community and this is the community,” said Williams. “And if you are wealthy or if you’re too cool or whatever, I got no problem being like, ‘bro, you can take that noise elsewhere.'”

All of these business owners say hope is not lost and the Portland food scene will bounce back. They all have a love for Portland and despite these hard times, they have a drive to succeed and to see the Rose City succeed.

“It will be reborn,” said Breslow. “There will be another version of Portland.”

“Portland does have so much to offer,” said Rucker. “And there is going to be a lot of young talent and a lot of a new wave — a newer re-emergence.”

“Next year, it could be like the Roaring Twenties,” added Latham. “So that’s what I’m hoping for.”

We want to hear from you. Send us your comments to isportlandover@koin.com and tune Monday, May 17 for an hour-long special at 7 p.m.

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