In the struggle to stay afloat, independent eateries in Portland, Oregon, are adapting their workflows, their menus, and their business plans to serve customers under lockdown.
ON SATURDAY, MARCH 14, before the lockdown began in Oregon, Kurt Huffman took his family out to dinner at the new restaurant he co-owns called Bar King. It had just opened around the corner from another of Huffman’s restaurants called Loyal Legion. Both venues were packed.
Normally, a pair of full houses is a welcome sight. But when Huffman saw both restaurants that crowded just as the scope of the coronavirus pandemic was becoming clear, he was disquieted. Huffman began to worry that leaving the restaurants open would put his diners, his staff, and his family in danger. Late that night, he convinced his business partners that it was time to close the doors.
“We felt like we had to serve as an example to show public officials in our tiny way that the industry was in favor of protecting ourselves and the general public,” Huffman says.
That same weekend, chef Peter Cho of the award-winning Korean restaurant Han Oak grew uneasy when he saw the number of reservations on the books. The restaurant has been a local hot spot for years, and its recent appearance in the Netflix show Ugly Delicious has only raised its profile. Cho was especially eager to enforce social distancing, because he and his wife and business partner, Sun Young Park, live in the same building as their restaurant.
“I was feeling a little unsafe about it,” Cho says. “I was ready to close that Friday night. But I put it to a vote, and the staff wanted to work through the rest of that weekend. They were like, ‘We have people booked.’”
The following Monday, Oregon governor Kate Brown ordered dining rooms closed statewide. The state government restricted all restaurants from serving food that isn’t takeout or delivery and banned all gatherings of more than 25 people. By the end of the next week, 28 states including Oregon had shelter-in-place orders in effect, with nonessential businesses shuttered and residents ordered to stay inside unless absolutely necessary.
In the wake of widespread closures, many restaurants have turned to delivery and takeout to keep revenue coming in. Some restaurants are weathering the storm, even as they deal with unforeseen complications.
Chef Aaron Adams runs Farm Spirit and Fermenter in Portland. The former is a chic farm-to-table restaurant, the latter a casual lunch counter. The two are also right next door to each other, 400 feet apart, with a walk-in refrigerator between them.
With three distinct and separate spaces, Adams set up a new workflow for his kitchen and service that allowed individual cooks work totally separated from one another. He posted the prep flowchart to his Instagram page, and it’s been making the rounds on social media.
Adams was inspired by the guidelines that his wife, Jenny, a registered nurse, was following at the hospital where she works. “[We] have one person work in one kitchen and another person working in isolation in another, and then have them deliver at separate times coordinating food into the walk-in cooler,” Adams says. “Then they sanitize their spaces and then they leave. And then another person comes in and sanitizes the space again for redundancy and then they leave. We basically created a system where nobody comes near each other.”
Adams took his flowcharts outlining the new system to a food scientist at the University of Oregon, as well as to a doctor and professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University. Both approved of the new workflow. The strongest endorsement came from the doctor who, after looking at Adams’ safety measures, called in an order from the restaurant.
Han Oak’s Peter Cho is looking to Adams’ model to develop a system that could work for his restaurant and customer experience.
“I talked to [Adams] for like an hour yesterday, and it was the first time I felt like, yeah, here’s a plan that I feel comfortable putting in place,” Cho says.
Even with Adams’ plan in hand, it’s going to take a lot of fine-tuning to adjust for Han Oak, which has less built-in separation than Farm Spirit and Fermenter. Still, Cho has no plans to reopen Han Oak, even for limited delivery or take-out service, without first implementing a similar workflow.
“I think that’s going to be the new standard, and we have to put that in place ourselves and manage it ourselves,” Cho says. “There are still no guarantees, but we’re going to operate this restaurant like a surgical procedure.”
World-shaking events have a habit of changing tastes as much as they do priorities. British haute cuisine became much less showy in the aftermath of World War I. While improvements to the US highway system during and after World War II saw fast food quickly spread as the newly affluent middle class took to the roads. More recently, in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, diners flocked to comfort foods and moved away from traditional fine dining.
Adams opened his first restaurant during the 2008 recession, so he’s familiar with what the dining landscape looks like in a depressed economy. Still, he’s not optimistic that Farm Spirit will be the same kind of restaurant it was before its doors closed.
“I’m going to count on the fact that we’re going to enter into another recession, and I’m thinking to myself, what kind of restaurant needs to operate in that economy? And I don’t necessarily believe it’s as precious a restaurant as Farm Spirit is now,” Adams says.
A pre-pandemic meal at Farm Spirit would have involved 10 to 12 courses and cost about $120 per person. Adams’ patrons were largely well-heeled tourists who came to Portland to visit extravagant restaurants like his.
“If we were trying to stay the same, I think we would be insane,” Adams says. “I’m looking forward to that change because, frankly, I’m never sitting around craving a 10-course meal. You know, like I’m never going, ‘Damn, honey, let’s go and get 10 courses tonight.’ I want to have something that makes me feel good.”
For Cho, it’s a tricky but not impossible proposition to scale back the business for a smaller audience. Han Oak started out as a very small operation, and Cho is looking back to those early days to figure out his next move.
“We opened very small. It was just me, one other cook, my wife, and a family friend of ours.” Cho says. “We served like 25 people a night. So, I know how it is to pare everything down, start slow, and rebuild.”
For Adams and others who grew up in and around the restaurant industry, changing things up to cater to a new clientele and customer experience isn’t just a shrewd business move to keep doors open and people employed, it’s something bigger.
“After this, seeing how precarious the situation is with the capitalist environment that we’re dealing with, how can I continue to have a restaurant that emphasizes feeding only people of means?” Adams says. “If I were to do so, I would be someone without a conscience.”