Portland’s Top Chefs and Restaurateurs React to New Coronavirus Restrictions

Gov. Kate Brown’s statewide mandate forces industry leaders to make the pivotal decision: move to a takeout-only model or close up shop.

By Karen Brooks March 16, 2020

Bar Casa Vale, one of the restaurants forced to shutter in the wake of Coronavirus and new state mandates. 

On Monday morning, Portland’s food scene reacted to Gov. Kate Brown's early decision not to mandate industry-wide closures for dine-in restaurants with disappointment and, perhaps, disillusionment. Without a state-mandated closure, restaurants would have no legal means to recoup their losses and support their staff. But by early afternoon, Brown had amended that decision in a public statement: restaurants and bars will, in fact, be barred from hosting patrons inside their establishments for at least a month. Takeout and to-go orders are still allowed. (Check out our list of restaurants offering takeout and to-go services.) 

Like other Portland restaurants pivoting to new models of survival, Eem's three partners decided to go to a takeout/deliver model on Sunday. Not that business had fallen off at the year-old Thai-barbecue-tiki cocktail phenom on North Williams. Just the opposite. “People were still lining up,” says co-owner Eric Nelson. “We could’ve have made a ton of money. We couldn't do it. My front of house was terrified [by the proximity to customers.]” Even as people slurped on house curries and wild tiki concoctions, everyone was anxious, says Nelson. “All people talked about at tables was the virus. We couldn't offer a vacation from that.”

Adds Nelson: “I kept seeing restaurants open, saying ‘We’re still here for you; if you’re feeling down, come get a drink.’ That could help cause the slow death of the community. We need to all get on the same page and put this behind us, quickly. We’ve got to speak up.”

But the takeout/delivery model isn't merely a default option. Some of Portland's biggest restaurant names have done the math, and it doesn't add up. On Sunday night, restaurateur Nate Tilden pulled the temporary plug on service at his seven Portland spots, including Clyde Common, Bar Casa Vale, and Olympia Provisions. Tilden and his partners say business fell off a cliff on Friday at the restaurants, though his bars, Pepe Le Moko and Richmond Bar, continued to hum. Tilden and his partners currently employ 350 people.

“We're in the war room right now with our managers,” said Tilden on Monday afternoon. “We're not set-up for take-out, that's a financial stretch. We're trying to protect the bank account, with hopes of reopening. I fully plan to reopen.”

As for famed Olympia Provisions salumi line, one of Tilden’s other major investments: “We plan to go on a skeleton crew. We’re still selling wholesale across the country. There was a huge run ten days ago as people started to hoard the salamis and bacon. We still plan to stay USDA inspected daily. We’ll keep going until the last moment.”

Meanwhile, James Beard award-winning chef Naomi Pomeroy just scrapped plans for takeout at her tasting-menu legend Beast and bar star Expatriate, co-owned with husband Kyle Webster. “We tried to calculate how to keep payroll closing, to keep people paid. We'd have to sell $1,000 worth of take-out a day. Even if 50 people came for take-out, we couldn’t pay the bills.”

Says Pomeroy bluntly: “I'm filing for unemployment. We will reopen the second it's safe to. We will rehire our whole team.”

With a startling speed, some of the biggest names in the community joined the ranks of Tilden and Pomeroy following Brown’s announcement, including Le Pigeon, Canard, Castagna, Nostrana, and Bollywood Theater. Check back for updates as the news continues to unfold.

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