Larry Alexander, of Salem, places an order with server Jessica Strong at Wild Pear Restaurant on Wednesday, September 30. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
For restaurant owners like Riley Vannoy, one of the co-owners of Noble Wave in downtown, 2020 has been marked by pivots.
Specializing in po’ boy sandwiches, fried chicken and other Louisiana-style fare, Noble Wave celebrated its one-year anniversary in March, just as the Covid pandemic was taking hold in Oregon.
After Gov. Kate Brown issued stay-home orders to slow the spread of the virus, the restaurant, located at 189 Liberty St N.E., stayed open by offering contact-free pickup and adjusting to online delivery apps, said Vannoy.
When the orders were relaxed in May for Marion County, Vannoy said Noble Wave increased sanitization and reduced indoor seating to provide distance between diners. As the weather warmed, the city closed four parking spaces on Liberty Street that allowed it to set up 10 more tables, which Vannoy said helped Noble Wave maintain business.
“People feel safer eating outside because of the way the virus spreads,” said Vannoy. “It's gorgeous and people want to eat outside.”
But as the summer turns to fall and the rains set in, restaurants will have to again pivot. It’s not clear what that will look like, but it comes just as the restaurant industry is recovering from historic job losses and not all are expected to survive.
In May, online reservation service OpenTable predicted that one in four restaurants were at risk for closures. In June, the Independent Restaurant Coalition found that up to 85% of independent restaurants may go out of business by the end of 2020. In Salem, restaurants including The Portland Press and Salem Ale Works both announced they were closing their doors.
Lori Little, director of communications for the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, said in an email that restaurants are already struggling with having limited indoor seating under new Covid restrictions. She said that was made worse by the smoke from last month’s wildfires.
“I think it’s a little too early to tell,” when asked about how restaurants were planning on adapting to the change in season that’ll bring an end to outdoor seating.
Oregon’s restaurant industry has bounced back after stay-home orders in March caused them to shed jobs and close their doors to dine-in service.
According to data from OpenTable reservations halted in April when the stay-home orders were in full effect.
As the governor relaxed her orders for some counties, including Marion and Polk, in May, diners returned to restaurants. By the end of June, reservations were down 62% from where they were a year ago. By the end of September, they were down 36%.
The restaurant industry in the Salem area, and the rest of the state, have also begun adding back jobs. In April, the Salem area lost half its jobs, 6,800 positions, classified as accommodation or food services. But it’s added positions back every month since then. There are 10,100 jobs in the industry in Salem as of August, according to state numbers.
After Oregon lost more than half of its food service and accommodation jobs in April, they’ve risen from 8,800 to 148,500 in August.
The industry’s rebound has been helped by cities, including Salem, closing off streets to allow restaurants to expand outdoor seating during the summer. Outdoor settings are considered less likely to spread the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In June, the city of Salem began closing parking spaces downtown to make way for more seating. The city also began closing State Street between Commercial and Liberty streets during the weekends to allow more seating for restaurants.
“The street closures really helped us out during the summer,” said Jeremy Knoll, front of house manager at Wild Pear, located at 372 State St.
Before the pandemic struck, he said that the restaurant had 16 tables. Wild Pear now has 10 tables inside and two places for people to sit at the bar. The street closures have added another four tables outside, he said.
The city intends to continue the street closure program as long as the weather continues. Restaurants are preparing for the end of outdoor seating.
Knoll said that the restaurant is looking to remove smaller tables inside and put in more booths because dividers can be put between them. But he said that the restaurant is limited in the alterations it can make because it’s in a historic building.
Mark Davis, owner of Bigwig Donuts, unloads supplies in front of the storefront on Liberty Street on Wednesday, September 30. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Mark Davis, the owner of Bigwig Donuts, said since reopening after the initial stay-home order his business has stayed steady. Dine-in at the small shop, located at 111 Liberty St N.E., remains closed, he said. That hasn’t made a difference since most customers want take-out orders of the vegan, gluten-free specialty donut holes sold at the shop, he said.
While he said he hasn’t relied on outdoor seating, he said he would like the city to increase the number of 15-minute loading zones downtown that make picking up take-out orders easier.
But he said that all the pivoting has caused fatigue among restaurants.
“I feel like it’s gone okay,” he said. “But there is this unsettling unpredictability of what’s going to happen.”
Vannoy said he’s not quite sure what Noble Wave will do this rainy season but has some ideas. The restaurant might set up bubble tents outside and put up plexiglass at the bar. He said Noble Wave will also start offering “crowlers,” 32-ounce cans of beer that’s brewed at the restaurant, for take-out.
“If we need to pivot, we'll figure it out,” he said.
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Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.