Justin Hintze, owner of the popular food cart and soon-to-be restaurant Jojo, can’t remember all of the times he has been forced to close his cart due to extreme weather in the last two years.
“I don’t remember heatwaves anything like the ones we get multiple times a year,” said Hintze, who grew up in Portland. “One hundred degrees was unheard of. Now it’s pretty normal. It’s definitely really scary, and it makes me wonder where we're going to be in ten years.”
Hintze said that cart closures due to extreme weather—be it heat, wildfire smoke, or snow—have cost his business $120,000 in gross income over the last two years. Factor in closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which evidence suggests is climate change-related anyway, and that number rises to nearly $300,000.
For everyone in the food industry, from restaurant and cart owners to food service workers, climate change has begun to have an easily measurable, frightening impact on their ability to survive year-to-year.
In Portland, which has suffered from a range of climate change-induced weather disasters in the last several years, people at every level of the industry are questioning how they might sustain their livelihoods as the climate crisis continues to intensify.
For restaurant and food cart owners like Hintze and Kim Jong Grillin’s Han Hwang, the lost revenue from unplanned, weather-induced closures is just one of the expenses that climate change is already exacting.
Another, particularly for restaurants and carts that serve meat, is rising prices in a global food system dominated by massive corporations who frequently exploit both workers and the climate and that has been stretched over the course of the pandemic. Beef prices have risen by more than ten percent, while the price of chicken at one point doubled from its 2019 level.
Those increases in prices have a measurable impact for customers. Both Hintze and Hwang said that they were left with little choice but to raise their prices this summer, in line with national menu price increases.
In the Pacific Northwest, long advantageous for its abundant local ingredients, Hwang said that extreme heat—which is forecasted to only get more common in the immediate future—is a significant driver of supply-side prices for restaurants and food carts alongside other factors.
“The public needs to reconcile with, what are the true costs of their cheap food? Crappier ingredients, people—particularly undocumented people—getting abused… Food should be routinely more expensive than it is right now.”
“Everything is way more expensive when it’s that hot, because things fail,” Hwang said. “The rate of machinery equipment failing is really high, and… small businesses—not corporations, but small businesses—are the ones that suffer the most when that’s happening. We have to pay insane prices.”
Hintze said that rising prices also make it more challenging for restaurant and cart owners to buy local, ethically sourced meat and produce.
“It makes that calculation a lot more difficult when the cost of even the baseline chicken is what free-range chicken cost a year ago,” Hintze said.
One option—which may soon become an economic or moral necessity for many—is to simply buy and eat less meat. Hintze, whose cart is acclaimed largely for its fried chicken and hamburgers, believes there will be no other choice.
“As an industry, we’re going to have to start serving a lot more vegetables,” he said. “Part of opening the restaurant is about increasing our vegan and vegetarian options. We’re going to have to stay light on our feet.”
But even if food prices stabilize in the short-term, the days of artificially low prices at carts and restaurants may be over.
“The public needs to reconcile with, what are the true costs of their cheap food? Crappier ingredients, people—particularly undocumented people—getting abused…. Food should be routinely more expensive than it is right now,” Hintze said. “We will be in a much better position if we can charge those prices and not get backlash from customers.”
Working out of a brick-and-mortar restaurant should protect Jojo from the elements to a certain extent. But that will not fully alleviate a financial burden of operating in Portland in a period of climate crisis that Hintze said is “factored in” to yearly budget projections.
Not only is it unsafe for many employees to work in extreme weather conditions, but it is unsafe for people to go out and eat in them. That means opening might not make financial sense for owners or employees, who often make a significant portion of their income from tips.
Hintze said that while he tries to find ways to utilize his employees when he does not open, like deep-cleaning the cart, he said that employees “definitely lose some pay” when extreme weather strikes.
“There’s no way I’m going to subject anybody from my team to that,” Hwang said. “That’s just fucked up. Anybody who made anyone work during that time, you’re a fucking asshole.”
But plenty of businesses did make their employees come in during the heat dome. One was Voodoo Doughnuts, which remained open at its downtown location, despite the fact that it was 90 degrees inside the shop and considerably hotter for the worker standing over the fryer and the worker stationed outside to open the door for customers.
“The dude looked like a lobster,” Voodoo employee Max Fleischer told the Mercury. “He was just cooking out there.”
A Voodoo spokesperson told Willamette Week in June that “employee and customer safety is our highest priority,” and that, “if we felt either were at risk during this time, we would have adjusted operating hours and otherwise made sure everyone was safe.”
Voodoo employees felt otherwise. At the onset of the June heat dome, Fleischer said that the only concrete step management took to ensure worker safety was to bring in a six-pack of Gatorade—despite the fact that Voodoo had nine people working that day. As the temperature rose in the coming days, the shop stayed open.
“We were exhausted, people were getting hazy, we could tell that it wasn’t going to be good,” Fleischer said. “People weren’t even showing up. We had so few customers that we questioned why we had to be there.”
The workers decided to walk out, according to Fleischer, with the blessing of a regional manager. When they returned to work the next day, everyone who participated in the walkout was fired.
Voodoo workers filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which last week found that seven workers were fired illegally. Voodoo will be compelled to re-hire those seven workers with back pay.
Employees who do not work during periods of extreme weather face a separate slate of problems. Fleischer said that during the worst of the wildfire smoke in 2020, the only people who went to work at Voodoo were people without standard benefits—namely people who had been hired in the last 90 days—and people who could not afford to take a day off.
“The only other person who showed up that day was a single mother,” Fleischer said. “And she always shows up for work no matter what. Demons could be running outside killing people and she would still show up to work, because what else is she going to do? She has a kid.”
That situation, Fleischer said, is why he has been part of the effort to unionize Voodoo workers in downtown Portland with the International Workers of the World.
“As running businesses gets harder, as customers stop showing up because of worries about disease or air quality or the plethora of things that happen, businesses are going to try to take that lost income from their workers,” Fleischer said. “Workers need to be able to survive.”
That goes for so many of the people who comprise and are devoted to Portland’s food scene and are trying to make it on thin margins.
Hwang said that, as a food cart owner, he has always had to adapt suddenly with little margin for error. He believes that, though it may get increasingly difficult, demand will stay high and the city’s food scene will find a way to survive.
“I’ve been in this business as a business owner longer than the seven years I’ve been open,” Hwang said. “I’ve had a fire, I’ve survived bankruptcy threats, I’ve survived so much shit. I’ve survived every mistake you could make in this industry, and I’m still standing.”