Cocktails

Dispatches From Portland

April 06, 2020

Story: Jordan Michelman

Photo: Nick Hensley

Cocktails

Dispatches From Portland

April 06, 2020

Story: Jordan Michelman

Art: Nick Hensley

Testimonials from bartenders, owners and community organizers in the wake of COVID-19.

The year 2020 promised to be a bellwether for drinks in the city of Portland, Oregon, evolving the Portlandia-hype of yesteryear into a modern identity: a soggy little city, still mostly affordable and still growing, yet home to a bar and restaurant scene punching well above its weight. Genre-defining bars like Clyde Common and Expatriate shared space with plucky newcomers, including Voysey, Palomar and the bar program at Eem, a Thai-Texas barbecue mashup. Tourism has boomed, driven in part by a thoughtful evolution of the city’s food and beverage scene.

But a statewide shutdown enacted on March 16 by Gov. Kate Brown, has, for the moment, stunted this growth and optimism, leaving the hospitality industry reeling, and forced to take stock of what matters most before deciding what comes next. According to The Oregonian, over 150,000 people are employed by the state’s hospitality industry, a not-insignificant number in a state where the majority of those jobs are situated around a city of 650,000. Bars and restaurants are open only for delivery and pickup, and though wine and beer can be sold for takeout and delivery, bottled cocktail sales are not allowed. At least, not yet.

The worst of times can bring out the best in people, and the industry leaders interviewed here are no exception. Some are already plotting a comeback; others are looking to new cities for new opportunities. And though nobody can say for sure where they’ll go from here, it’s certain that tomorrow, doors will still be closed—and it’ll probably rain.

Eric Nelson | Co-owner, Eem

In the midst of the shutdown, Eem decided to lay off its employees and close its doors, for now. Eric Nelson, bartender and co-owner, has in the meantime joined in efforts to reach out to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to help bars obtain a temporary license to sell cocktails.

A full week before [the shutdown] we had started talking about it. We made the decision at that time not to pay ourselves as owners that month, so we could see how the coming week would shake out. Would it stay busy? Would it get busy over the weekend? We figured it would start getting slower because people would be afraid to come out, and that we would be forced to use our personal income to fund the restaurant.

And then the weekend rolled around [and] it was so fucking busy. We were still running three-hour waits for a table, with people crammed into the restaurant. But by Sunday of that weekend, I went in and talked to my partners on behalf of the bar staff—by that point some of my staff had voiced concern. We tried doing some spacing of tables, but by Sunday night we talked about it all again, and I voted personally to shut it all down.

Eem has always been this place we could invite people inside of to get away from all the shit happening outside. Everything is so fucked up in this country right now, with Trump and everything else, and Eem was built as a cure-all for that. And then all of a sudden, coming to Eem felt like doing the opposite. I attach feelings to a lot of things—I’m not always so pragmatic—and it felt like, if I sell someone a curry or a cocktail and they’re eating it or drinking it embedded with fear, they are literally swallowing fear and anxiety. I don’t want to sell that. It defeats the purpose of Eem, which is to be a safe place for our guests and employees.

Jeffrey Morgenthaler | Bar manager, Clyde Common

A stalwart of the drinks scene in Portland, Clyde Common, headed by longtime bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler, has determined the best thing to do to keep its staff and city safe is to close for now, then wait and see.

When this whole thing landed on our shores, I had no answers—I had no purpose. I was just like, “Well, you know, I guess we’ll keep bartending and … keep the glassware clean?” But now I feel like I have a real sense of purpose, which is taking care of my staff and keeping us together. Checking in daily, even hourly, and making sure everyone is OK. Which is comforting, I guess.

We aren’t selling anything to-go and have no interest in that. We’ve been taking this as responsibly and seriously as possible, and my response has been, “Hey, let’s just shut it down and give everybody the opportunity to do unemployment.” What we care about the most is our people, and trying to make some money for the business just didn’t make sense for us.

Oregon has a full unemployment system—it’s overloaded right now, but it’s a good system that we’ve all been paying into for a long time, so we’re taking advantage of that. I know a lot of states don’t. My staff is all receiving benefits as we check in with them hourly, and that’s all that matters for me.

As for what happens next, I think it’s wait and see. We’re a different kind of bar team than a lot of bar teams, but all we can do is just hang on to each other and hope for the best. That’s our future game plan: We’re all in this together.

Katie Stipe | Founding bartender, Voysey

Early on, Chefstable, the group that owns the lounge-style cocktail bar Voysey, decided to close in the interest of their staff’s health, and to preserve the business. Katie Stipe, Voysey’s cornerstone and a veteran Brooklyn bartender, has been using this time to refocus and consider what comes next.

My first priority has been to take care of myself and my health, as working in the industry and being exposed to so many people certainly puts me at risk of being an asymptomatic carrier. So I’ve made it a mission to pump vitamins, eat well, move, breathe, go for hikes or kayak and reach out to friends across the States. As for next steps, I think like many of us, I plan to focus on hobbies or projects that our work takes us away from. For myself, I was able to rent a potter’s wheel from my ceramics studio that closed, and this will allow me a creative outlet using my hands in a different way. I’m trying to [be] disciplined [with] a daily regimen that keeps me busy, not looking at my phone or news too often, and keep my mind stimulated so when I try to sleep at the end of the day, I am not kept up by anxiety. I know for myself, this may be time to look into other career paths and other sources of income because, unless a vaccine is solidified, this could very well continue or come back to haunt us every “flu” season.

I think this has been an enlightening experience for many on what truly is a work/quality-of-life balance and that being a productive person doesn’t necessarily mean working in an “office” 80-plus hours a week. This moment of slowing things down and connecting to the community and taking measures to protect your community are what will preserve us. Unfortunately, I don’t think the hospitality industry will fully bounce back from this, and if it does it will take years to recover, as culture is currently making a shift and the way people socialize and spend their money has already shifted. Although imbibing is a large part of global social culture, I think that luxury items like craft cocktails will not be a priority for many people moving forward. I don’t want to sound like the cocktail glass is half-empty, I just think that the recipe will have to change.

Phaedra Brucato | Bartender, Montesacro and Bar Rione

A bartender at two Italian establishments, Phaedra Brucato represents a kind of worst-case scenario for what comes next in the bar world: a talented up-and-comer now openly considering leaving the industry altogether—and perhaps the country—for a fresh start.

Both of the places I was working for when this all happened are Italian places, owned by Italian families, and so I think there was a little bit more of an early awareness of what was happening. When the situation in Italy became world news in February, our GM was actually back home visiting family in the Veneto. She flew in and out through the Milano airport. Our other manager has a newborn, so he was hyperfocused on his kid not getting sick. Our GM returned from Italy on February 28 and called her doctor to try and get tested, which would have cost upward of $1,200 at that time, if it was even possible to get. And we saw our business slow down fast; while it was certainly not as apparent as the horrible prejudice facing Chinese restaurants, Italian restaurants were also hit hard.

On March 13, I was laid off. From there, I’ve been able to get unemployment pretty efficiently here in Oregon. There’s a trick: You wake up early and start calling right at 7:58 a.m., a few minutes before they open at 8. By 8:02 a.m. my call was placed on hold and, 47 minutes later, they were able to process my unemployment paperwork.

Honestly, I have no idea what I’m going to do next. I’ve wanted to move to Taiwan for a while, and that’s looking really attractive! They’re probably the country that’s handling it better than anyone else, and there’s an incredible drinks scene there, and a small burgeoning natural wine scene with a few small wine fairs getting started. It’s definitely feeling like, you know, moving into a different industry is going to be my best bet if I’m looking for a job in the near future. I feel for everyone in this industry because realistically I don’t see it being nearly as vibrant when everything gets up and running again. It’s sad for me to think about what the future of drinks in Portland is—we are so based on small businesses, and individualism, and anyone being able to make it, but, unless there’s some kind of giant small-business stimulus package coming down the line, I just don’t see that realistically coming back. I just don’t see it.

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