Huber’s Cafe, Portland’s oldest restaurant, threatened by COVID-19 freeze


Huber’s Cafe in downtown Portland has weathered many storms over the past 141 years.

Founded in 1879, the city’s oldest restaurant survived World War I, the Spanish influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II, the Great Recession, and the months of protests that closed from many surrounding businesses.

But company president James Louie is unsure whether the legendary restaurant at 411 SW Third Ave will survive COVID-19. Louie told the Portland Tribune the restaurant was just recovering from Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s first dining room order to close in the spring when she ordered another shutdown for at least a month; this started on November 18. Louie said he assumed it will last longer.

“Huber could be history in about six months. Our lease expires in July 2021. We will have to decide by this spring whether to renew it, ”Louie said of the family members who still own the restaurant.

According to Louie, the state’s second shutdown came at the worst possible time for the company. Huber’s is famous for four things: its dark paneled dining room and atrium in the historic Stock Exchange building, its turkey dinner, its ham dinner, and its flamboyant Spanish coffee.

“There are two big turkey and ham feasts coming up,” Louie said, meaning Thanksgiving and Christmas. “And the weather is getting cold, that’s when people start to think about Spanish coffee.”

Louie said the restaurant will try to recoup some of its losses by returning to take out. But alcohol sales generate 40% of its income, and state law prohibits take-out cocktails.

According to Louie, he and the other owners in the family are of retirement age and they will retire from the business they love if Huber closes. They were hoping that at least one of their children would take over when the time came, but that doesn’t seem likely now.

“We don’t want to pass on a restaurant that is a liability, and that’s what Portland restaurants are now with COVID,” said Louie, who has pledged that Huber’s Cafe will continue to serve take out until then. whether the frost has lifted or the restaurant closes if it is too long.

Huber’s Cafe may be historic, but in many ways it’s typical of the state’s thousands of small family-owned restaurants. Dozens of people in the Portland area have already closed due to pandemic restrictions and the rest are worried about the effects of Brown’s “freeze” – which will last at least four weeks in Multnomah County – limiting them to dishes at take out only.

Most of the remaining restaurants are represented by the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, which has filed a lawsuit in federal court with the Restaurant Law Center in Washington, DC, challenging the legality of the freeze. The lawsuit claims the freeze is unconstitutional and unfairly penalizes restaurateurs who have spent thousands of dollars on safety equipment to comply with Brown’s previous orders, while other companies are allowed to continue operating under their responsibility.

“The restaurant industry prefers to engage in partnerships with our government leaders,” said Jason Brandt, president and CEO of the association. “We hope to initiate communication with Governor Kate Brown and her professional staff as soon as possible to work on a resolution which has not been available to us at this point.

The frost did not come out of nowhere. Brown and the Oregon Health Authority say they are trying to prevent an even worse upsurge in the pandemic. In November, Oregon quickly went from about 500 cases per day to more than 1,500 per day. Oregon is not yet a national hotspot, but with the nation hitting the worrying quarter-million death mark last week, Brown and the Health Authority are fighting to maintain this list of “hot spots.”

“We are on the verge of facing what could be the most difficult days of the pandemic,” Brown said last week, as the daily number of cases in the state continues to exceed 1,000 people.

State epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger agreed. “This is probably Oregon’s most dangerous time,” he said. “We cannot pretend that COVID-19 goes away on its own.”

Andrew Louie with a Huber’s Cafe turkey in 1962.

Sidelinger and other health officials have continued to warn that hospitals will soon reach capacity if the spread of the virus is not curbed. The number of beds available in intensive care units is declining statewide as more patients with the virus are hospitalized.

The Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems issued a statement in support of the new freeze, saying “It is imperative that we act now to preserve the capacity of hospitals.”

“Hospitals face dark days ahead,” Brown said. “It’s a collective call to sacrifice.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who has encouraged townspeople to patronize restaurants for take out if they can, said the four-week freeze “is a necessary step to turn the tide of this. pandemic”.

He added: “Many Portlanders have made major sacrifices during this pandemic. This gel, although difficult, will help ensure less sacrifice on the road and a strong recovery. And, above all, this gel will save lives. “

Two days after Brown announced his order, the Independent Restaurant Alliance of Oregon sent him an open letter asking for help.

“Restaurants and bars cannot survive on take-out only operations. A survey of independent restaurants indicates that the loss of indoor restaurants results in an average loss of revenue of 81.75%, forcing closures and massive layoffs. Plus, our businesses don’t operate like hardware stores – we can’t just flip a switch and go. Every time we close we lose perishable inventory and we have to maintain the payroll to properly close the business. “

The letter was signed by around 300 restaurateurs.

A week after announcing his freeze, Brown’s office promised that $ 55 million in federal CARES funds would be released to help businesses affected by the pandemic. Financial assistance will be a priority for businesses in the hotel sector, those affected by the freezing order, small businesses and those in black communities, Amerindians and other historically disadvantaged communities.

The funds will be distributed across the counties. Brandt said the money was not enough. His organization sent a letter to the Joint Emergency Board of the Oregon Legislature on Nov. 17 calling for the immediate creation of a $ 75 million Home Relief Fund to help operators and their employees survive a another stop, just to start.

“There is no federal relief package waiting to be voted on and distributed by Congress or the White House,” Brandt said. “No stimulus checks are printed to help Oregon families pay their bills. There is no weekly $ 600 check available for those waiters, cooks, hosts and hostesses who are on the verge of losing their jobs or having their hours cut again because restaurants cannot survive take out and deliver. if they can do it.

Restaurant owners also note that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has allowed alfresco dining to continue in that state. Brandt said many restaurant owners recently spent tens of thousands of dollars on tents, heaters and other equipment to keep eating out in wet weather. Los Angeles recently closed its outdoor restaurants after a spate of cases.

Other professional organizations are sounding the alarm as well, and not just for restaurants and bars. Anticipating the announcement, the 38-member Coronavirus Recovery Business Coalition sent Brown a letter ahead of the announcement, saying such restrictions would harm workers without guaranteeing any public health benefit.

“We implore you, Governor, if you are considering further restrictions or actual closures, please take a break. Let us work with you to develop a better plan. Arbitrarily shutting down businesses and responding to this crisis without a plan that tackles the root of the problem will certainly hurt Oregonians in our state without guaranteeing real results, ”said the letter, which was signed by Oregon Business & Industry, Portland Business Alliances and many more business organizations.


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