How the Pandemic Has Reshaped Portland, Oregon’s Restaurants

Han Oak’s Peter Cho is looking to Adams’ model to develop a system that could work for his restaurant.

“I talked to [Adams] for like an hour yesterday, and it was the first time I felt like, yeah, here’s a plan that I feel comfortable putting in place,” Cho says.

Even with Adams’ plan in hand, it’s going to take a lot of fine-tuning to adjust for Han Oak, which has less built-in separation than Farm Spirit and Fermenter. Still, Cho has no plans to reopen Han Oak, even for limited delivery or take-out service, without first implementing a similar workflow.

“I think that’s going to be the new standard, and we have to put that in place ourselves and manage it ourselves,” Cho says. “There are still no guarantees, but we’re going to operate this restaurant like a surgical procedure.”

Quarantine Cuisine

World-shaking events have a habit of changing tastes as much as they do priorities. British haute cuisine became much less showy in the aftermath of World War I. While improvements to the US highway system during and after World War II saw fast food quickly spread as the newly affluent middle class took to the roads. More recently, in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, diners flocked to comfort foods and moved away from traditional fine dining.

Adams opened his first restaurant during the 2008 recession, so he’s familiar with what the dining landscape looks like in a depressed economy. Still, he’s not optimistic that Farm Spirit will be the same kind of restaurant it was before its doors closed.

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“I’m going to count on the fact that we’re going to enter into another recession, and I’m thinking to myself, what kind of restaurant needs to operate in that economy? And I don’t necessarily believe it’s as precious a restaurant as Farm Spirit is now,” Adams says.

A pre-pandemic meal at Farm Spirit would have involved 10 to 12 courses and cost about $120 per person. Adams’ patrons were largely well-heeled tourists who came to Portland to visit extravagant restaurants like his.

“If we were trying to stay the same, I think we would be insane,” Adams says. “I’m looking forward to that change because, frankly, I’m never sitting around craving a 10-course meal. You know, like I’m never going, ‘Damn, honey, let’s go and get 10 courses tonight.’ I want to have something that makes me feel good.”

For Cho, it’s a tricky but not impossible proposition to scale back the business for a smaller audience. Han Oak started out as a very small operation, and Cho is looking back to those early days to figure out his next move.

“We opened very small. It was just me, one other cook, my wife, and a family friend of ours.” Cho says. “We served like 25 people a night. So I know how it is to pare everything down, start slow, and rebuild.”

For Adams and others who grew up in and around the restaurant industry, changing things up to cater to a new clientele isn’t just a shrewd business move to keep doors open and people employed, it’s something bigger.

“After this, seeing how precarious the situation is with the capitalist environment that we’re dealing with, how can I continue to have a restaurant that emphasizes feeding only people of means?” Adams says. “If I were to do so, I would be someone without a conscience.”


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