For restaurant owners, the coronavirus pandemic has meant impossible choices.
On Monday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a temporary moratorium on seated dining at bars and restaurants, as part of the state effort to curb the virus’ spread.
The Portland restaurant group ChefStable took action even before the governor’s order, a decision that brought owner Kurt Huffman to tears during an interview this week.
His company comprises 26 different businesses, including 20 restaurants, a catering company, events spaces and a bakery. The group employs about 800 people.
Huffman called the past couple of weeks a “tumultuous time” with an overwhelming amount of information to take in.
“It started sinking in that this was going to be metastasizing into something big,” Huffman told OPB’s All Things Considered. “And the thought process I was going through was, ‘How do we survive?’
Huffman figured business survival was what all restaurant and bar owners – all food and drink purveyors – were thinking about:
“In that scenario, for me it was ‘Let’s pare down our staff, let’s pare down our menu, let’s do everything we possibly can to live in this new reality, save our business, save our employees, do everything we can to stay open.’”
But Huffman said he started wavering late last week, and decided to recommend closing all the ChefStable restaurants. Then he heard another point of view:
“I got a call from a friend saying I was going to destroy the social fabric of our small communities, telling me all the things I know,” he said. “That our workers are not the highest paid workers in the general population, that we live in a society with very little social safety net, and that we couldn’t just let them all go and not fight for them. For 48 hours, I was committed to figuring out a way to fight for them.
“During that period all these articles were coming out showing the dramatic potential increase in the number of cases, the spread of the virus. There came a point where I became terrified of the idea that somehow we were contributing to something whose long-term effects could be totally devastating for the industry that I’ve committed my life to.”
Huffman became emotional at this point in the interview, and took a moment to compose himself. “It’s still pretty raw,” he said.
Then, he said, just being out and witnessing the numbers of people socializing brought home a realization:
“Saturday night, we were at one of our brand-new restaurants … to celebrate my stepson’s birthday, and the restaurant was completely full,” he said. “I walked outside after dinner, just feeling a bit troubled, and looked inside a bar we have next door. It was just packed full of people and I thought, ‘I don’t think we’re doing the right thing.’
“Next day, I woke up around four and starting texting my partners that we should close. By about 9:00, everybody agreed. And so, that’s what we did.”
Now, Huffman said, his company’s HR department is focused on helping its employees get unemployment benefits through the state of Oregon:
“Normally, within a week they’ll have unemployment. Our job over the next two to four weeks is to scour the programs to find anything and everything that we can push down to employees,” he said. “Our Chef’Stable catering has really been hit by the cancellation of events. You can imagine that’s really the canary in the coal mine in this whole world. So, we’re getting that team together and we’re going to start doing prepared meals for all of our employees.
“During this closure, money’s going to be tight, so we’re going to try to work with our partners and our purveyors, set up some sort of GoFundMe page to send to our investor groups to help us in getting food to families that are affected.”