The Pacific Northwest is known for a lot of things. The heat isn’t one of them.
But in the last week, the region reached record-high triple digit temperatures, sending hundreds of people to the emergency room and killing more than 200 people. In Portland, Oregon, temperatures got as high as 116 degrees; in Seattle, 108.
It’s a huge blow for the area, where many indoor spaces lack air conditioning — as there was rarely a need for it before. And for restaurants and food carts in the region, the heat wave led to broken fridges, lost business and higher expenses — all after an already tortuous year of extreme regional weather and a pandemic.
Outdoor food carts are particularly vulnerable
Portland has a large food cart culture, and its typically mild year-round weather makes that kind of business sustainable. This heat wave, though, left many food cart operators reeling.
“It’s pretty debilitating when we have to close for a couple days like this,” said Kyle Rensmeyer, who runs Holy Trinity Barbecue, a Texas-style barbecue food cart in Portland.
Because of its large smokers, Rensmeyer’s cart gets up to 20 degrees hotter inside than it is outside. After speaking with employees, Rensmeyer decided to close for a couple of days. Though he was able to cancel a few meat orders, which would have just gone to waste, Rensmeyer still lost $7,000 in two days alone, he said. All eight carts in his food cart pod wound up closed for at least three days, he said.
He’s not alone. Patrick Carney has owned his food cart, Skidbladnir, for about 1 1/2 years — opening up in February 2020 just before the region locked down due to Covid-19. On Tuesday, he found out the electrical system in his cart had shorted because of the heat, possibly because of something melting. He already had to close for four days because of the heat, but now he could be out longer, depending on when he can get that fixed. Including lost income, he said he’s out about $2,000, a huge hit for his cart.
“I don’t know how food carts are going to be able to manage through this,” Carney told CNN.
Carney managed to save his refrigerator, a common loss for food operations in a heat wave. As soon as the fridge doors are opened, the cold air escapes, so the unit has to work extra hard to stay cool, which can lead to failure. It happened to other food carts and restaurants he knows, he said.
Carney preemptively took all the food out and unplugged the fridge, predicting it would be an issue. And because the cart traps the hot air, Carney cut vents into the side so it could air out at night.
He had to make other changes too. It’s too difficult to keep the oven on with the heat, so he had to stop selling his pork and lamb sandwiches, which are typically menu staples. He told CNN he’s temporarily changing the menu in an effort to minimize his oven use.
“(The burners) would be radiating so much heat into the cart that it would be impossible to cool off,” he said. “It’s going to just trap all that heat in there, and I’ll have a big problem then.”
Food carts, which have become an established presence in Portland, are especially in a tough position. Summer is when food carts thrive; Carney said they make up to five times the amount of business than other seasons. But now, one friend who also owns a cart, joked that he wished it was winter.
It’s not just the equipment. When it’s hot, people want to be inside, not waiting in the sun for their food. That hurts business for carts, too.
For Carney, the difficulty of the last year has led to questions about the viability of owning a cart long term.
“We’re at the beginning of summer, and I’m not sure what else I can do,” he said.
It’s the third extreme weather event in the past year
This isn’t the first weather event that’s left restaurants in the area struggling to keep up. In February, there were rare ice storms, which left millions of people under winter weather alerts and stuck in their homes.
And before that, there were the wildfires in September, sending suffocating smoke into the region and locking down the cities. For both incidents, many restaurants and carts closed for at least a few days.
Parimal Kumar owns The Roll Pod, an Indian restaurant in Bellevue, just outside of Seattle, and also operates two food trucks.
He told CNN his staff was able to manage for about a week, but it was tough. By Sunday, the heat was so unbearable, they closed shop early and stayed closed on Monday.
Unlike the food carts which typically just have fans, his restaurant has air conditioning. But it’s just not made for aggressive heat, Kumar said. Working in those conditions is strenuous, and on top of that, the fridge broke down and the staff had to remake all the food. The sudden decrease in fridge space also meant they couldn’t prep as much food in advance or store as many groceries.
“At that point, you aren’t operating so you’re losing revenue, but you also can’t cook, so to even start the next day is going to be a challenge,” he said.
All in all, Kumar said about $6,000 was lost, with $1,000 lost from food waste alone. But his employees also took a hit — losing hours and therefore wages.
That’s just the last few days. With all the weather issues the area has seen, even without the pandemic, Kumar said his businesses probably saw at least $20,000 in revenue revenue go down the drain, while operating on an already thin margin.
As long as his employees stick around, Kumar thinks he’ll be able to survive this latest hurdle. But looking ahead — as the summer wears on, and as climate change worsens — he’s not sure how else to prepare.
“There’s nothing I can do,” he said. “I will just have to be at the loss.”
Restaurants and employees all lose
Naomi Pomeroy, former chef and owner of Beast, transitioned her acclaimed restaurant last year into Ripe Cooperative, a community market in Portland selling a mix of ingredients and prepared foods. Located in a smaller neighborhood, Pomeroy said there’s less foot traffic during the week, so weekends are their bread and butter. To have to close down because of the heat was tough, but it’s a 600-square-foot space in an old building and basically operates like a tiny oven, she told CNN. Though the building has air conditioning, once the ovens are fired up and cooking begins, the heat will only steadily rise.
Pomeroy is an Oregon native, and she remembers the days when residents couldn’t count on the sun being out until after the Fourth of July. The heat wave, she said, just added insult to injury on what was already a difficult year for restaurants in the area.
“This is neverending,” she said. “Nobody that was already struggling needed to lose $10,000 this weekend.”
Pomeroy is also part of the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which was founded during the Covid-19 pandemic to help protect restaurant workers. The group has been fighting for restaurant relief for more than a year, she said. Funding has stalled in recent months and only a few places were able to get assistance, but the ongoing struggles restaurants are facing only makes its need even more clear, she said.
“If we can get that filled, we can offset some of the things that have been happening,” Pomeroy said.
Short of financial assistance though, there’s not much that restaurants can do to protect themselves as climate change worsens around the world. It’s one reason why Pomeroy shifted her restaurant into a market in the first place, wanting to make something more “pandemic proof.”
But it’s not just the pandemic, she said, or the changing weather. It’s also customer eating habits, the rise of delivery and staying in. It’s made everyone think differently about the way restaurants operate — leading to changes like meal kits or to-go cocktails, which are now permanent in Portland.
“The pandemic kind of laid bare a lot of the flaws in our business model,” Pomeroy said, referencing issues facing restaurants like the labor shortage, partially a result of the low wages many restaurants pay.
“At the core of it, it’s really going to be about big versus small, and … everything feels like it’s weighted toward big business,” she said.
Kumar, of The Roll Pod, said he doesn’t think he will give up the restaurant business just yet. But he also noted how difficult it is for smaller operations like his to compete with corporations like McDonald’s or Taco Bell. Though the pandemic led to some financial assistance, there isn’t much available when incidents like an atypical heat wave occur.
“The restaurants suffer loss; employees suffer salary loss,” Kumar said. “There should be some kind of programs to help such causes. That would help a lot, not only to me but to everybody.”