Pok Pok's Andy Ricker

Image: David Reamer

Andy Ricker, owner of Portland’s legendary Pok Pok, doesn’t do, say, or cook anything lightly. He’s a force in the Thai food world, near frightening in his passion and knowledge, and one of the savviest business minds around. So, on Tuesday morning, when Ricker announced the suspension of his week-old stop-gap takeout and delivery operation at Pok Pok, he minced no words: “I simply cannot bear the thought of one of our team becoming ill for the sake of preparing some chicken wings.” 

Ricker vowed to stay closed during the duration of the COVID-19 crisis, noting he made the decision with determination, urgency, and regret for not acting earlier. Right now, Portland restaurants are grappling with the question: pivot to a takeout/delivery model and save jobs, or shutter altogether.

But the majority have not laid out their innermost thoughts and provocative conclusions. Ricker—back recently from Thailand, where he divides his time and maintains a home with his wife—is an influential voice in Portland and beyond. His actions could inspire new conversations or maybe change the conversation.

I called Ricker this morning to let his thoughts run free. During our conversation, he laid out the tick-tock that led to today’s decision. But more significantly: he’s not only took a stand but sounded the alarm: “I believe all fucking restaurants should close, unless they can operate like a medical facility.”

Here’s Ricker, as told to me, raw and unfiltered:

“Since the beginning, I thought closing down was best. But the ramifications; your instincts as a human being are for self-preservation. I realized very quickly: if we went to delivery, we’d have to lay off most people. We did that. It was really hard … and not clear the government would step up and help us. My next thought: we still can keep a percentage of employees. Can we pay the people we’ve retained?

Honestly, our first thought was not about containing the virus; it was about preserving a living for employees and making sure the business wasn’t ruined. That was the conversation. But things came into sharper focus as the administration was saying the economy is more important than public safety. That hit me pretty hard.

This morning I woke up to news that [New York’s pioneering Mumbai-born chef] Floyd Cardoz died [of complications related to COVID-19]. He was not a close friend, but we were friendly. He’s my age, relatively healthy. He’s the first person that I know of in the restaurant community that is an active chef, that a lot of my friends knew, respected, and cared about. That hit super hard and brought home the fact that we are all vulnerable.

At my commissary kitchen yesterday, I saw these people who work for a paycheck trying to stick to protocols—wear gloves, disinfect, go home if they feel sick. But these are not medical professionals. We’re trained not to contaminate food, to keep food safe from common bacteria. We’ve always taken precautions very seriously. Pok Pok gets stellar health-inspection ratings.

But a deadly virus is not the same thing as common bacteria. Fatigue is going to set in. People will make mistakes. It’s uncomfortable to work with face masks. This can’t go on. Given the statistics, there’s no way we could keep going, no way to keep everyone healthy and not sicken someone in the community.

I don’t care what anyone says. [As an industry] we don’t have the skills, knowledge, and resources. We’re using bandannas and rubber kitchen gloves. We can’t guarantee someone won’t sneeze, and that sneeze won’t escape from the bandanna. No one can guarantee that the delivery driver didn’t sneeze and touch the delivery box. We can’t force everyone to follow protocol. How can we feel this is safe? 

All of this gelled in the middle of the night.

Looking at New York, this is starting to get real. I was in Thailand in December and watched this unfold. We were watching international news, which is not like news here; it’s focused on the entire world. The coverage on China was robust. The first country outside of China [to get the virus], I believe, was Thailand. There are direct flights from Wuhan to Bangkok. So we’ve been wearing masks and staying away from people since January. I came back here recently, and people aren’t taking this seriously. We’re now in a full-blown Wuhan situation in New York. We lack the will to do what China did, which needs to happen. We need to go full-on Wuhan, but we’re not doing that shit.

In Portland, the virus is here. Believe me, it is everywhere. I might have it, you might have it, we don’t know. We have got to stay home to minimize the damage and sickness and death. We’ve all got to do this thing that modern society is not used to. We’ve never had to make this kind of massive sacrifice, ever. We have to stop fucking around making TikToks and get serious.

Everything became clear. I decided to shut down. I’m decidedly worried about the future of Pok Pok. I’m substantially worried about my ability to take care of my family. I’m substantially worried about my team, their future without a job. But I’m much more worried about happens to this country if we don’t do this right now.

I’m heartened that the government appears to be stepping up with unemployment benefits. But restarting the economy is not what we should be wasting our time and energy on. There’s a very good chance I’m going to lose my business out of this. It has nothing to do with smarts and success. It’s not just surviving, it’s reopening. The cost of reopening is massive; the rehiring, reordering, getting the liquor inventory going. We have about 150–160 employees. A two-week payroll, in full rolling operation, is close to $200K for two weeks. Where is that going to come from?

Put it this way: There’s no way to magically flip a switch and be back in business. Grants would be helpful, but no switch can just turn it back on.

The important thing right now is not the survival of Pok Pok. We have to stop the spread of this virus. I believe all fucking restaurants should close, unless they can operate like a medical facility. It’s going to get harder, more dangerous, more tiring. Now is the time. We have to face it.”

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