A PDX Free Fridge located in Southeast Portland.
A PDX Free Fridge located in Southeast Portland. Alice Wolfe

The onset of the pandemic followed by continuous protests after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year pushed Portland’s food industry to a tipping point. Almost a year later, the industry is approaching a comeback, perhaps wiser than before.

“The sense of death was such a big arc of last year,” said Kara Gilbert, co-founder of Vibrant Valley Farm, which supplies produce to Portland restaurants. “And then you see someone killed innocently, that had nothing to do with a virus…. It brought this whole new lens and perspective.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced an industry accustomed to long hours and late nights to slow down. It provided time for self-reflection and critical thinking, which pushed many to demand a more equitable restructuring of the restaurant industry. The summer’s racial justice movement pushed the efforts toward radical change even further.

The inward reflection and interrogation of the workplace was just the beginning for some. Many restaurant workers also looked outward, considering how they could help their community individually or through their place of work.

Jae Kmeto, a farmer at Vibrant Valley, thinks empathy grew from the pause that the pandemic forced. It found its place in mutual aid projects, in creative ways of getting food to those in need, in restructuring power dynamics in restaurants, and attempting to squash toxic behavior.

“There was nothing else for people to do, besides pay attention to what the fuck was happening,” she says.

Restaurants Restructure Through Reckoning

Portland, like many cities across the country, was presented with an opportunity in 2020 to enact positive change in the face of upheaval—to dismantle toxic culture in the restaurant industry and to increase mutual aid, a community-based sharing of resources with those in need.

That opportunity first took shape as an online reexamination of restaurant culture. On July 7, a surge of anonymous restaurant workers across the city began to call out chefs and owners for their toxic behavior on Portland’s 86’d List Instagram account, a spinoff of a national page with the same name that reposts anonymous claims of harassment or abuse in the restaurant industry.

Accusations ranged from overt sexism and racism to more subtle examples of workplace harassment or abuse.

Between July and August, 86’d List posted 147 allegations of injustice at various Portland restaurants. Under fire were upscale fine-dining restaurants, Portland locations of major chains, coffee shops, bars, delis, breweries, and more. Although the posts have since slowed, with 27 complaints added over the last eight months, the accusations have stimulated hard conversations and changes throughout local restaurants.

One major change from this upheaval was within Toro Bravo Inc., a former restaurant group owned by John and Renee Gorham. John Gorham stepped down from the company after violent and threatening Facebook posts he made targeting a trans woman of color surfaced in June 2020, sparking a public outcry.

“Ultimately it comes down to the people in power becoming aware of how their power influences their workers."

Shortly after the posts surfaced, Gorham told Eater that the restaurant group plans to emphasize racial justice within their training program and that his wife and co-owner of the group, Renee Gorham, would take over. Within a couple of weeks of this decision, the Gorhams decided to dissolve their company altogether. The two former owners left Portland in December 2020, and have since opened a restaurant consulting company in central Oregon. Their statement on the events of last summer is no longer available on their website.

“Ultimately it comes down to the people in power becoming aware of how their power influences their workers,” said Aimee Plante, a line cook at Indonesian restaurant Gado Gado. The 86’d List and other online accusations against Portland chefs inspired accountability in some of those people in power.

Chef Aaron Adams, owner of Portland’s vegan restaurant Fermenter, was one of those chefs. Last July, Adams was accused by several employees of yelling at staff and ignoring problematic power dynamics in the restaurant. After the accusations came out, Adams gathered the staff together in his backyard and apologized. His employees discussed issues they’d had with Adams and the culture in the restaurant, and ideas for how to change it.

“In conversations about kitchen culture before 2020, people were really focused on the economics,” Adams reflected, “So I thought, ‘Hey, I’m paying my dishwasher $18 an hour and they have medical insurance,’ like, ‘I’m a great boss.’ But it’s not the whole picture. They also have to feel listened to.”

A wall at Portlands Vibrant Valley Farm.
A wall at Portland's Vibrant Valley Farm. Alice Wolfe

Adams suggested they keep an anonymous comment box in the employee bathroom, giving staff members a space to submit issues they have with him or each other. He worked to dismantle the hierarchy in the restaurant because, he said, “You have to allow everyone to participate in the conversation.”

“I manage the restaurant horizontally, which gives everybody a piece of creativity,” Adams continued. “It turns out people are really smart, and really want to do cool things, and make beautiful things in the world.”

Fermenter’s manager, Maya Carlisle, corroborated the accusations of Adams’ toxic behavior, as well as Adams’ attempts to make the restaurant a more equitable, healthy environment. Because of these changes, she says, “We don’t allow for the front-of-house versus back-of-house, or for the misogyny or racism or any of that kind of talk to creep in.”

The problems that have become characteristic of the restaurant industry have led some to leave the service side of business altogether. After 13 years in the industry, Kmeto, a queer Black woman, moved from restaurant work to farming with Vibrant Valley in 2020. The change followed years of microaggressions within restaurant culture.

“Those little things that people might not realize, greatly perpetuate systemic racism, and that leads to the killing of my people,” Kmeto said. “People just need to stand up, to realize there are marginalized people who are treated differently, and to be advocates for those people, and to have a zero-tolerance. I just feel like that’s such a necessity and such an important thing for a lot of small businesses that don’t have HR.”

Beyond the Kitchen

Some restaurants are going further than reflection and reform to show up for communities beyond their front doors.

Ranch Pizza often provides free pizza for the bi-weekly marches for Justice for Patrick Kimmons, which memorializes a Black man killed by Portland police in 2018. Mexican restaurant Güero donates 10 percent of sales every 10th day of business to organizations like Raphael House and La Colectiva de la Comida. Malka, an Asian and South American fusion restaurant which opened a couple of months before the pandemic began, recently offered free meals to those in need via Instagram.

Food-focused mutual aid groups have pushed need-based food distribution even further, and many current or former restaurant workers are leading the charge.

As unemployment soared and poverty levels rose in Portland, community-run “free fridges” started popping up across the city last summer, offering free food to anyone in need.

“We’ve been getting involved by making meals from your kitchen that you can put in a fridge,” said Collette Higgins, a long-time line cook and baker at Woodlawn Bakery. “And that output of creativity—whether it’s from the pantry that you take home, and make into something and give back—is fucking amazing.”

Lisa Chiem, a Portland food activist and employee of vegan Vietnamese restaurant Mama Đút, got involved with the PDX Free Fridge project last summer. Chiem helps foster community support through Instagram and incorporates artistic elements to the fridges. “I really just wanted to build community for Black and Brown folks,” Chiem said. There are now over 20 free fridges around Portland, and many more free food pantries.

“That output of creativity—whether it’s from the pantry that you take home, and make into something and give back—is fucking amazing.”

Mark Guzman is a first-generation Mexican American who helped found the mutual aid group Meals On Us. Guzman has worked in restaurants for over 20 years. Now working full time with Meals On Us, he recalls being underpaid, overworked, and constantly ridiculed by chefs throughout his time in the industry. The shift to Meals On Us, “feels like a dream,” he said.

“For me, it works out because I’m still cooking, I still get to create, use what we have, working with amazing teammates, but also not have to worry about a manager, a GM, a head chef, yelling at me,” Guzman said.

At the start of the pandemic, Meals On Us provided food for healthcare workers, then shifted its attention to individuals experiencing houselessness, as that became a more dire need. The group noticed a shortage of breakfast offerings for unhoused Portlanders and started cooking “real homey classics,” like french toast, breakfast burritos, and scrambles. They operate out of Haleakala PDX, a community kitchen that only charges them only $10 an hour for use.

Guzman is ultimately grateful for the impetus for restaurants to change their structures, and for the increase in mutual aid across the city.

“I say it’s a great start but this should’ve happened a long time ago,” he said.

Good Things to Come

It’s possible that even bigger, sweeping changes to the restaurant industry may be on their way as unions form in landmark Portland businesses. Following in the footsteps of Burgerville, which became the first official fast-food worker’s union in the country in 2018, restaurants Little Big Burger and Voodoo Doughnut began unionizing.

Little Big Union gained traction in 2019, demanding wage increases, paid sick leave and vacation time, reliable scheduling, and respectful management.

A picket sign made by Little Big Burger staff.
A picket sign made by Little Big Burger staff. Little Big Union

Voodoo Doughnut workers, meanwhile, kicked off a union campaign just a few weeks into the pandemic. The COVID crisis hurried Voodoo’s already growing union efforts, as workers demanded paid time off for those impacted by the pandemic. Many Voodoo employees are expected to vote for union representation by Doughnut Workers United throughout May and June.

Shift Change PDX, a group formed in the summer of 2020, encourages restaurant staff to fight workplace issues by making direct and collective demands of ownership and management. They hold multiple meetings and training sessions each month to establish community in the restaurant industry and provide resources for unionizing.

“I hope for a line cook’s life span to grow from this experience,” said Higgins, the baker, reflecting on the changes of the last year. “Hopefully there will be less burnouts. I think good things will come out of this, I really hope so.”