It’s been more than a month since Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued her stay-home order. Almost every business sector has been affected, directly or indirectly, but few large sectors have been hit as hard by the economic fallout of the pandemic as restaurants, bars and coffee shops. Many have closed temporarily. Some have shifted to delivery or to-go orders. An increasing number are closing permanently.
As it becomes clear that we're in the middle of a seismic shift in the food and drink scene, locally, regionally and around the country, "Think Out Loud" recently asked three restaurants to share how they're navigating the occasional ups, and frequent downs, of the coronavirus era. Since that conversation, Gov. Kate Brown unveiled a framework that could allow some restaurants and bars to allow indoor service as soon as May 15 — but it's not yet clear exactly how that might unfold.
Across Portland coffee chain Nossa Familia, Bend-based brunch attraction The Lemon Tree, and Portland Korean food cart Kim Jong Grillin, some aspects of the story are the same: owners and customers are intensely concerned about public health and cleanliness; sales are down, or non-existent; and the near future seems unfamiliar when viewed through pre-coronavirus lenses.
Yet each business also has faced its own choices about when to close, whether to reopen and what it will mean to sell restaurant food as the state’s stay-home restrictions gradually ease.
The Lemon Tree: Waiting for restaurant seating to return
After Brown’s stay-home order mandated all restaurants to close or switch to takeout and delivery only, The Lemon Tree’s co-owners, chefs Jaclyn Perez and Betsy McDonald, switched to takeout.
But as they assessed their responsibilities to their staff and the community they serve in Bend, they soon decided to close up shop.
“I’m certainly not judging anyone that stayed open – I partake of those lovely places, and am so blessed that they’re open. But for us it made more sense to close and try to be part of the change we needed, to get everybody healthy and not let this [pandemic] overwhelm Bend, Oregon,” McDonald said. “We just wanted to do our part in that.”
With all employees on temporary leave, the Lemon Tree is developing plans to reopen under new restrictions – some that may be required by law, and others based on community concerns – and there are numerous concerns.
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As “Think Out Loud” audience member Valerie King said via Facebook, before returning to indoor dining, “it would help if restaurants also did fixed seating with lists of customers for tracing, temperature checks at entry, regular testing of employees, meticulous hygiene, distanced kitchen and seating.”
McDonald said some of that is already in the works for The Lemon Tree. The restaurant expects to space out its seating and limit customers, to increase distancing of staff in the kitchen, and to mandate gloves and masks for employees before it reopens. It’s also developing a plan to check temperatures as people enter.
“We hope that our clients – our lovely ‘lemonheads’ – will embrace all this in the spirit it is,” McDonald said. “It is going to be done in the spirit of keeping us all safe, them safe. And let’s face it, the worst-case scenario that could happen is for us to jump the gun, not be prudent, and then possibly incur another closure later. That might be devastating for us. So everything we can do for safety now is going to be done.”
Kim Jong Grillin: Open again, after a closure
Sales collapsed at Southeast Portland foot cart Kim Jong Grillin even before the governor’s stay-home order went into effect, so closing seemed like the obvious choice, at first, said owner Han Ly Hwang.
“We just didn’t have the business to sustain it,” he said. “I’m so fortunate that my landlord literally told me, ‘Just stay alive. Don’t worry about rent. Just stay alive.’”
For a few days in March, the food cart went to a limited menu, but that was not enough to make the business financially viable.
“Before we closed, 17,000 people lost their jobs in the restaurant industry,” Hwang said. “So I took it upon myself to kind of spread the love and just feed people.”
In the third week of March, he gave away his food supplies and closed his doors. But as time passed and Portlanders became accustomed to eating take-out in place of sit-down food, many food carts saw business tick up.
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Hwang reflected on a seasonal trend that’s already quite familiar in his line of work: “Food trucks go through winter. Some of our business goes down 60 to 70% in the wintertime, so we are prepared,” he said.
“What I wasn’t prepared for, at the beginning of March, no one knew the prompts for what to do” during a pandemic,” he said. “We didn’t know to mask up. The whole general public had no idea. That threw us off guard.”
Kim Jong Grillin reopened two weeks ago, after a month-long closure, with new practices learned based on public health concerns. The cart only accepts digital currency — online orders or credit card payments. Workers in the cart wear masks and gloves, and sanitize between taking customer orders.
“I didn’t know if people were going to be OK with it,” Hwang said. “It’s been booming. We are so fortunate to have so many people still remember us.”
Nossa Familia: Coming back soon, in a limited way
At the start of the year, Nossa Familia employed 45 workers across its roaster in Oregon, three Portland cafes, and downtown Los Angeles espresso bar. Now it’s down to 15 people working at the roaster, which sells coffee wholesale to grocery stores, and to individuals online.
But founder Augusto Carneiro, whose title at the business is “chief friendship officer,” said Nossa Familia is slowly preparing to reopen — starting with one downtown café.
That decision was based in large part on customer feedback, Carneiro said.
“We wanted to get an idea of what the sentiment was out there,” he said. So the company conducted a survey of customers. About half said they had visited a café in the past two weeks. Asked if they would go to a café in the upcoming weeks, answers split evenly three ways – yes, maybe and no.
“And then we asked: What is it going to take for you to want to go visit a café again?” he said.
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The answers have guided Nossa Familia’s preparations as it gets ready to reopen next week. Customers said they want to place orders online to avoid paying with cash or contact with credit card machines. And at the first café to reopen, orders will be taken at the door, with no temptation for customers to seek an indoor seat.
“We’re trying to blend what we’re hearing from officials and what we think are good safety measures for the public and for our staff,” Carniero said.
As to whether those changes will be enough to keep the café afloat? A Small Business Administration loan and a Prosper Portland grant will give Nossa Familia some breathing room to see how reopening goes.
“Coffee shops don’t make that much money, even when we have lines out the door it’s a hard business,” Carniero said. “It’s going to be interesting to see if we can make it financially viable to open. We expect that we’re going to do about half the business of what we were doing before, for at least a couple months.”