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'The hits just keep coming': Portland restaurateur gets brutally honest about latest shutdown

Kurt Huffman, owner of ChefStable, said right now Portland is "the worst market in America to be a restaurant owner."

PORTLAND, Oregon — As 15 Oregon counties move into extreme risk, restaurants have closed their indoor dining rooms.

Kurt Huffman, the owner of Portland restaurant investment company ChefStable, joined KGW's live streaming digital show Sunrise Extra to talk about what what these new restrictions mean for the industry. ChefStable partners with chefs to design, build and operate restaurants. They take care of all the operational details to let the chefs focus on the food and quality. Huffman is in partnership with such restaurants as Grassa, Lardo, St. Jack, Cooper's Hall, La Moule, Oven and Shaker, Ox and XLB.

A lot of restaurant owners are very upset and frustrated with this order from the Governor, others understand. A group of county commissioners statewide have written a letter to Gov. Brown asking her to let counties decide on risk status. What are your thoughts on it?

Kurt Huffman: "We feel terrible and it's a huge pain. The hits just keep on coming. The biggest frustration is that it doesn't seem to be equitable relative to other industries. I can go to Costco and it's just packed full of people. And then you look at our restaurants where we were only at 25% capacity, right? So it's not like we were packed shoulder to shoulder, like you are in a supermarket. At our restaurant St. Jack, that normally can hold 75 people inside, we had 15 people in it at max capacity during the high risk level. We were being very careful. Windows are open, we've invested a large amount of money into an air purification system. But despite all that work, it just feels like we're kind of the easiest industry to pick on. We've been beaten down and we happen to be the lowest margin business out there. We employ disproportionately low-income people, compared to other industries. We're a massive employer in those demographics. So it just feels like from a policy perspective, don't you want to keep our industry vibrant or at least alive, because of all the benefits that we bring in terms of community and employment?! It feels like all those questions are left out."

Some have asked why can't restaurants stay open indoors and just ask to see a vaccine card. KGW asked the governor's office that and they said it's an "equity and privacy issue" they don't want to tackle. What do you think? Would that be too much for restaurants to handle?

Kurt Huffman: "I know from a legislative perspective, I don't think that that's possible. But as a private business, I could. That's what I suggested in the opportunities I had to talk to different elected officials was just to say, 'Hey, this is our business. You know, my partners and I, we own this thing and you know, no shoes, no shirt, no service, we can say no vaccine card.' And I am certain that if we would do that, some people would fake it, right? But as of Tuesday next week, every single employee we have working anywhere is fully vaccinated. So we know our workforce is safe. And so I think it's a great idea. You know, 29% of Oregonians are fully vaccinated and 44% have at least one shot. So that's a huge number of people that can safely dine out. And it seems like a missed opportunity not to do what you're suggesting, which is to say, 'Hey, if you're vaccinated, come on out.' I mean, they're going to do that for concerts."

Portland was one of the country's best food cities, with chefs moving here specifically to open restaurants. Where do we stand now?

Kurt Huffman: "Right now, Portland is the worst market in America to be a restaurant owner. Every city is dealing with COVID. But we have a homeless problem that predates COVID and is really metastasized into something much bigger. We just haven't, as a community, figured out how to manage it and in COVID has become much, much worse. You have to be either willfully ignorant of it or just not looking to not see that. And then, third, is that we have these very small groups of protesters that go out and wreak havoc. As a result, the downtown core is shuttered in a way that is completely unique to Portland. Downtown Portland is just not a place that you want to visit. 

The protests have completely killed Portland as a tourist destination because they killed the reputation of us as a clean and safe city. If you live here, you don't even know the protests are happening. You don't know these knuckleheads are breaking windows and attacking the Boys & Girls Club. But you read about it in the morning and you're just like, 'Ugh! What a mess!' And so those three things together just make it mission impossible."

How many positions do you have open at your restaurants and why is it so hard to hire?

Kurt Huffman: "We had about 850 employees pre-pandemic, and we cut down to about 180. Of those 600 or so, about half of them we've reached back out to see if they want to come back to work. They're basically no longer in the industry. Another huge impact from shutting down the industry like we did in Oregon compared to other areas, the immigrant workforce that's so critical to our industry and who may have been afraid to file for unemployment or couldn't get unemployment, those groups have just moved on to where they can work. 

"We're having to offer signing bonuses for dishwashers to even get people in. We start people at $15 an hour and we're almost there to get them also $5 an hour in tips in the kitchen. So if you work in our kitchens, you make $19-$20 an hour. We pay more than Costco does for a starting employee. But it's so hard to find people to work right now."