The restaurant and food service industry doesn’t have it easy right now, between the pandemic and the wildfire smoke which have brought both indoor and outdoor dining nearly entirely to a halt. But many Portland food businesses, including restaurants, pop-ups, and food carts, have shown up to support their neighboring communities in impressive ways.
Over the weekend and into the week, the fledgling Malka decided to close for takeout. The restaurant had opened just weeks before the pandemic, and margins were already stretched thin. But on the weekend, owners Jessie Aron and Colin McArthur headed to the kitchen early in the morning to make rice bowls to donate.
“I had this fantasy of about what it would be like [opening my restaurant],” Aron says. “And then a lot of stuff happened in the world, and my desire for what a restaurant can do and achieve had changed. Rather than create a fantasy, I’m more interested in being a force for good in the reality that we’re in right now, which is not a magical time.”
Malka has actually been making meals for people in need throughout the pandemic. Early on, two Malka employees, Adrian Groenendyk and Eli Goldberg, created Crisis Kitchen, which gives out tamales and other free meals to people in need of food. Soon afterward, owners Aron and McArthur began donating rice bowls to people in need, thanks to pay-it-forward donations from customers.
To feed wildfire evacuees, Malka teamed up with Feed the Mass and SnackBloc PDX, both of whom helped coordinate delivery of free meals where they were most needed. Feed the Mass, a volunteer-run group, has been feeding hundreds of wildfire evacuees each day, along with other food-insecure people. SnackBloc, which started in 2017 as a way to provide supplies and support for protests and other community events, has expanded its aid to include wildfire evacuees. Malka has also been making barbecue pork bowls, sambal-glazed fried chicken bowls, and tofu and chickpea fritter bowls for firefighters for the Clackamas Fire Department, all full of the signature mélange of fruits, veggies, textures, curries, and complex sauces Malka has quickly come to be known for.
“We could probably feed more people if we were just making more simple food, but I still want to cling on to my identity as a cook,” says Aron. “I am proud of what I make. I’ve seen people eat it and be comforted by it in a way that is unusual. There’s a lot that goes into it. ... it can make people feel cared for in a unique way, I hope.”
Italian beef and pastrami shop Sammich, which has locations in both Ashland and Portland, lets customers pay a sandwich forward. The shops have been closed while owner Melissa McMillen teams up with World Central Kitchen to feed people affected by the fires in Medford. Naomi Pomeroy of Beast has been working with World Central Kitchen, feeding 800 people a day. Some of the other restaurants that have donated include Boke Bowl, Red Sauce Pizza, and Dove Vivi.
Pop-ups and food carts have stepped up to help people displaced by the fires, too. HeyDay Doughnuts, which specializes in mochi donuts, sold stickers at its pop-up last Friday. Money collected from sticker sales went directly to people affected by the wildfires, and HeyDay matched it in additional donations. Keeyeowo, a pop-up that specializes in treats like tea-flavored chocolates, kimchi pizza, and bungeoppang (fish-shaped pastries) donated proceeds from its pop-up on Monday at La Perlita to wildfire refugees.
Jacky Ren, co-owner of the jianbing food cart and pop-up Bing Mi, decided to donate the proceeds from Thursday’s pop-up at La Perlita to people affected by the wildfires. The event ended up raising $200. The cart closed early on Saturday afternoon due to poor air quality, but Ren continued to serve the community by donating jianbings to the volunteers at Feed the Mass.
Donating meals is nothing new for Bing Mi. The business has been partnering with Adopt a Restaurant to feed people in need of food throughout the pandemic. There’s a donation box at the cart, and whenever customers donate cash or buy a gift card, Bing Mi will use all those funds to donate food, and will also match the value of those funds in food donations. Ren says the expressions of gratitude are always appreciated—he recalled donating jianbing to firefighters in Clackamas yesterday and receiving a heartfelt thank you.
Asked why he continues to donate food even while restaurants are stretched thin due to the pandemic and smoke, Ren says, “We have lots of people supporting us. I feel like it’s our responsibility to do something for the community, and it’s not that difficult for us to do.... Even though it’s not that much, it might bring more people into this who might also be interested in donating more food or helping.”