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Abe Asher

The story of Bridges Cafe, a beloved Eliot neighborhood brunch spot forced to close after more than two decades in business, is not unique.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic first shuttered Portland in mid-March, more than 80 restaurants, cafes, and bars across the city have closed permanently, while many others have closed temporarily or turned to fundraisers in their attempts to survive.

Among those restaurants were a number of Portland’s most renowned, including Pok Pok and Beast. But many, like Bridges, which sat on the corner of NE Knott St. and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., were pillars of their neighborhoods that have disappeared in the wake of the pandemic.

When the coronavirus hit Portland, Bridges laid off all but three of its employees and pivoted to takeout only. When the state tentatively allowed restaurants to reopen in June, owner Tom Lane-Ruckman worked to expand and revamp the cafe’s famously small dining room to make space for socially distant indoor meals.

But the adjustments did little to make up for revenue losses. Over half of the cafe’s income came from its catering business, and with offices shuttered, demand for catered meals plummeted. Bridges fell months behind on its rent.

Building owner Bill Leigh was willing to work with the cafe to keep it in the space, but in November, after assessing their financial situation, Lane-Ruckman was left with little choice but to close.

He recalled telling Leigh, “We can’t even pay our staff and pay utilities. We’re still losing money if we didn’t pay you anything. So I guess it’s time to call it.”

Bridges closed for the final time one week later. That afternoon, the owners and remaining staff sat down with a bottle of champagne in the dining room and reminisced—reflecting back on nearly two decades of hard work torn down in less than eight months.

Bridges opened in the late 1990s and was sold by its original owner shortly thereafter. Lane-Ruckman and his wife Laura, who served as the cafe’s general manager, were its third owners — taking over and establishing Bridges as a favorite even as the neighborhood gentrified.

Given its longevity, many patrons could track decades of their lives through meals there. Stedman Bailey, an academic advisor at Portland Community College, said that she ate at Bridges at least several times per month for the last 15 years—watching her kids grow up at its tables.

For her, and for many others, the restaurant’s defining trait was not its food but an employee: Phreddie, a server who started working at Bridges fifteen years ago and became, willingly or not, its most recognizable figure.

“Phreddie is such a funny person, because she really doted on my kids,” Bailey said. “We felt very special every time we came in. She always had a bucket of toys for them to play with when they were little, and as they grew up, she got more sophisticated toys for them to play with.”

Those more sophisticated toys included various Legos and puzzles, and she’d frequently tease the kids about their orders. They called the restaurant “Phreddie’s.”

Their story was one of many. Heidi Snellman’s connection with Phreddie dates to even before the pair began seeing each other at Bridges. Back in the 1990s, Phreddie was working at an Italian restaurant in Northwest Portland where Snellman’s kids loved to eat — including by themselves when Snellman was out of town.

“She was super protective of them,” Snellman said. “She was kind of irreverent—she’s definitely not a person who's going to tickle a baby under the chin, or anything—but she got their sense of humor and they got hers.”

Snellman’s son moved away from Portland years ago and now lives in Greece, but every time he returned to the city, he’d stop into Bridges to see Phreddie. Similarly, when Snellman discovered that she had close relatives she’d never met, she took them to eat at Bridges too.

“It was a real family place,” she said.

Phreddie, who prefers to go by one name only, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Bridges was known for its bowls of grits—rare brunch fare in Portland—and Lane-Ruckman’s experimentation with other southern and Tex-Mex staples like gumbo and breakfast burritos won the cafe a niche following throughout the city.

But for many patrons, it wasn’t so much the food as it was the tiny, cramped dining room that encouraged diners at separate tables to get to know one another, its accessibility, and its reliability. Many felt like the cafe was an extension of their homes.

“It was there, it was casual, sometimes the food was wonderful, sometimes it wasn’t, but it was always a really intimate place to gather with friends and strangers,” said Snellman, who for years ran the Union Knott art gallery, which shared a building with Bridges.

“Bridges being there for breakfast every morning, no matter what you've gone through in your day, no matter how much money you have, if you have a hangover, if you just want to sit down and have breakfast... there isn’t anything like that around [this neighborhood],” she continued.

The walls came to tell the story of the neighborhood. The cafe decorated its dining room with bridge graphics by local artist and neighbor Mike Beard, and, over the years, regulars started bringing in artwork of their own and asking Phreddie to hang it. The great Portland activist-journalist Lee Pearlman ate at the cafe nearly every day, and when he died, one of his friends gave the cafe a bridge illustration in his honor.

The community ethic that grew inside the cafe informed its practices outside the cafe’s walls, too.

“We’ve never been flush and able to keep up with trying to remodel and replacing windows to save energy or anything like that, but there are all these little, tiny things in the neighborhood that we tried to support,” Lane-Ruckman said.

One of those organizations was Red Dress PDX, a nonprofit that supports queer youth and community members living with HIV and AIDS. Bridges donated food to the group’s annual gala for years. Bridges also had long-time relationships with local unions, including SEIU Local 503, and regularly catered meetings for the county’s HIV Services Planning Council.

Lane-Ruckman was in his early 30s when he bought Bridges from its previous owner. Now in his mid-50s, he has no plans to re-enter the restaurant business and said he will likely try to find a driving job. He and Laura tried to sell the restaurant to new ownership after closing it, but weren’t able to.

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“There’s so much restaurant equipment on the market right now that equipment older than two or three years is worthless,” said Leigh, Bridges’ building owner. “I know some other property owners where restaurant owners have closed and they’re selling dining room tables for five dollars apiece.”

Lane-Ruckman believes the failure of Bridges, as well as countless other restaurants in the city and country, were as much due to government neglect as the pandemic itself.

Portland restaurants and bars—and, by extension, the thousands of people they employ—have not received any federal aid since the spring.

“A lot of these small places just can’t afford to hang on,” Lane-Ruckman said. “We revamped things a little bit, probably not as quick as we could have, as far as opening up the dining room and making more space, but very few people wanted to come inside anyway.”

“I just think that if there had been a nationwide source for a little more financial help for these small businesses, we probably wouldn’t be losing so many of them,” he continued.

Their closures both inflict and reflect a level of economic hardship that is manifesting itself in Northeast and North Portland. Violent crime has increased significantly in those areas of the city this year, while many other longstanding restaurants and businesses in the Eliot neighborhood have closed—robbing the area of resources and foot traffic.

“The neighborhood has evolved a lot, just in the business opportunities and people feeling safe to walk down the sidewalk, especially at night,” Lane-Ruckman said. “And I don’t know how sustainable that is, especially in these times. And it’s not going to get much better real soon.”

COVID-19 vaccines could begin to ease the suffering. But for Bridges and many establishments like it— places that brought neighborhoods together and became repositories of memories both individual and collective—it will be too late.

“It really was such a heartbreak,” Bailey said of Bridges’ closure. “It was the end of an era.”