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As refrigerators break and air conditioners stall, Portland restaurants struggle against rising temperatures to stay open

Lisa Nguyen, the owner of the mochi donut pop-up Heyday, thought she’d beat the heat on Saturday June 26 by making the donuts of the day at 3 a.m. when she was in the Psychic Bar’s kitchen Arrived in North Mississippi, the kitchen was already 85 degrees hotter than the still dark night outside. She had to keep the dough in the refrigerator so it wouldn’t rise too much. “Our decoration station was easily 10 degrees hotter,” she says. „We died and it was only 4 in the morning.”

Nguyen, like many other Portland business owners this weekend, spent the last few days battling the heat. As Portland temperatures broke all-time records, the city’s restaurants and bars extinguished emblematic fires all weekend: One outage left more than 6,000 Portland General Electric customers in the Portland area – including some companies like Sandwiches on the bunk – without electricity. Fridges and freezers shut down in the middle of operation, doughs were overcooked, and air conditioning systems succumbed to the scorching heat. Worst of all, some hospitality workers developed heat exhaustion, leaving kitchens understaffed and staff sick.

Last week, meteorologists warned that an atmospheric blockage pattern combined with a warming planet could result in triple-digit temperatures in the Pacific Northwest all weekend. Some restaurants, food trucks and bars announced closings ahead of the heat wave, while others planned to cut service or adjust menus to cope with rising temperatures.

Working in a restaurant during a heat wave can be dangerous: most kitchens rely on ovens or gas stoves, so the heat in restaurant rooms rises even higher, making temperature control difficult even with air conditioning. Food carts are even more dangerous when you consider that the kitchen is small and made of metal; It takes a lot less heat to warm up a food truck, and with the added pressure of a super-hot sun, it can be extremely difficult to cool down. Jason Killalee, the owner of Batterfish in Hpy Valley, knows how hot a food truck can get in temperatures above 100; Working in Los Angeles before moving to Portland, he saw the temperatures rise exponentially in his food truck. This is one of the reasons he decided to close his fish and chip cart for the weekend. “In a truck near the deep fryer or grill, it gets 140 degrees,” he says. „In LA, I know a lot of people (who) get exhausted, and every year people die of heat stroke … it’s better to lose a weekend than lose a life.”

However, some hospitality workers did not consider the closure to be an option. Rebecca Powazek, the baker at Bee’s Cakes, has yet to open her cafe to the public as she relies on wholesale accounts and cake orders. But the heat was causing problems even before the weekend: the freezer and refrigerator broke, and as the temperature rose, the dough would overflow. Concerned about the risk to employees, Powazek sent employees home before the kitchen got too hot, but then spent the afternoons catching up on lost jobs, keeping them near the hot ones until the hottest hours of the day Bakery ovens. “I do wholesale (orders) seven days a week and all these people rely on me. I am in no financial position to do anything, ”she says. “I came in at 4am to brave the heat, but people still get their orders later in the day … until I get my orders [Sunday], it was 109 degrees. „

Tryzen Patricio, the owner of the Hawaiian restaurant GrindWitTryz, was expecting business to slow down this weekend. While the restaurant often lines up long lines for poke and ono chicken, he thought the rising temperatures would keep the crowds at bay. But the hordes came anyway and stood in line before the restaurant even opened on Saturday. The restaurant’s air conditioning failed to keep the temperature down, and Patricio sent several employees home who showed signs of heat exhaustion. Those who stayed exchanged ideas about standing in the walk-in to cool off. Two rice pots overheated during operation and a freezer in the storage room was broken. The staff brought mugs of cold water to the Portlanders, who were waiting to be ordered when the temperature was more than 100 degrees. At 5:30 p.m. Patricio decided to throw in the towel. „We closed early when it was peaking because we wanted to make sure that our employees work safely in this condition and that our customers are safe too,” says Patricio. „Everyone was drinking water all the time, but it was too much.”

Natalee, an employee at a Little Big Burger location in Portland who just wanted to give her first name, says the heat was a constant problem for the restaurant before the team decided to close on Saturday. At one point, the temperature of a walk-in dropped and the team had to keep some products in a cooler until they were repaired. „We kept an extra bowl of ice under the meat of the cold table because we had problems with keeping food refrigerated,” they say. „It was 85 degrees in the restaurant, not even in the kitchen … We had the air conditioning as high as it could, but it was still very hot.”

While many restaurant and food truck owners have chosen to close or send their workers home early, not every business has. Employees at Voodoo Donut went on strike on Monday, June 28, to protest working conditions at the Southwest Portland Cafe after dealing with excessive heat all weekend. „Other establishments took the sensible step to shut down during this period, while Voodoo Donuts (sic), with its large SW-facing windows and deep fryers, did not,” a statement from the donut shop’s union said. „Attempts to remedy the situation, like Gatorade and wet towels, are not enough and the current air conditioning system is not up to the heat wave.” The union says the company has not responded to employees’ heat concerns or the announcement of their strike.

The Voodoo Donut corporate office does not recognize the workers’ union afterwards lost an election to the National Labor Relations Board and believes his heat wave response was sufficient. “In 2019 we installed a new air conditioning system specifically for the old town. Because of the current heat, we have provided the employees with unlimited Gatorade and cold water, ”said a message from the corporate headquarters. “We also offered extended or additional employee breaks. Finally, we shifted production to the early morning and late evening hours. The safety of our employees and customers is our top priority; if we felt that either was at risk, we wouldn’t open to business. „

Today temperatures will continue to rise; At the time of this writing, Portland had reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit, with an estimated high between 113 and 115 degrees. That would beat both Saturday and Sunday highs, both of which broke the city’s all-time records. As a result, a number of restaurants and carts that were open over the weekend decided to close on Monday and eventually succumbed to the effects of the heat. Whether businesses stay open or closed, the overarching message from workers and owners is a call for courtesy to customers. A viral tweet, published by an employee of a pizzeria in Portland, showed a hand holding an instant thermometer in the kitchen of the restaurant that reads 103.2 degrees Fahrenheit. „Today’s work is a terrifying example of the tendency for business liberals to view workers in the service industry as both under- and super-human,” the Twitter thread read. “Customers are still shocked that we’re closing earlier and are still asking if we could ‘take to the streets’ like we hadn’t thought of it, like we couldn’t feel the heat. In my kitchen with the oven half off, it’s 103 degrees. „

• An ongoing list of Portland restaurants and food trucks that will be closed due to the heat wave [EPDX]
• Before the heat wave, Portland food carts are forced to get creative [EPDX]