Market forces knock Grill out of the ring
Not even the Steak Bites could save RingSide Grill.
The go-to gathering spot for celebrations, anniversaries and prom-night parties closed its doors Wednesday, Aug. 30, ending a 38-year run in East Multnomah County.
"Everyone is either sad, or they're angry," reported server Greg Williams, a Tualatin-based father of three who's worked at the restaurant on Northeast Glisan Street for more than two years.
A new tenant has already been found for the roughly 9,000-square-foot property, which was leased to RingSide by Metro, the tri-county regional governmental authority. Terms of the sale weren't disclosed, but the anonymous buyer is said to be an experienced dining operator.
Craig, Scott and Jan — three scions of the Peterson family that founded RingSide's iconic uptown location on Burnside Street in Northwest Portland in 1944 — didn't want to sell. Nor were they given an offer they couldn't refuse.
Instead, executives for the three-restaurant chain say a witches' brew of mandatory minimum-wage hikes, tight labor market and shifting consumer preferences forced the Grill's closure.
"This isn't the first restaurant that has closed under the pressure, and it probably won't be the last," warned Bruce Porter, director of operations for the RingSide Hospitality Group.
"I think the landscape for our industry will be dramatically different in the next 18 months," he continued. "There are many, many operators who are making these tough decisions."
The restaurant industry is notorious for tight profit margins that hover around 4 percent nationally.
Many providers were squeezed when the Portland area minimum wage jumped 15 percent — from $9.75 to $11.25 hourly — on July 1. That's only the second of seven planned raises that will give all workers almost $15 an hour by 2022.
Most servers make minimum wage. But the bump for front-end employees means concurrent raises for the non-tipped chefs, who now expect to make roughly $16 to $18 an hour, Porter said.
He estimated labor costs are accounting for as much as 30 percent of some restaurants' total overhead, compared with just 10 or 15 percent in other parts of the country.
Since 2015, state lawmakers also have required most Portland companies to provide 40 hours of paid sick leave a year. And Oregon is one of seven states without the tipped income credit that allows employers to subtract gratuities from front-of-the-house staff's paycheck.
"A lot of people think there's a pot of gold left at the bottom (for restaurants)," Porter noted. "We believe there should be an increase in the minimum wage. The difficulty is figuring out how to pay for it."
The wage boost will be a cold comfort for the roughly 40 former employees of the Grill, located adjacent to the Glendoveer Golf Course. Williams, the server, said he had no full-time prospects, but would return to his side gig selling supplements after the last diner departed around 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
But the joint bustled on Wednesday, as patrons packed the bar, patio and dining room for one last bite of the Grill's famed onion rings or French dip sandwich served with all the trappings — and drippings.
"You can't get this place anyplace. You could go to Versailles and not find anything like it," remarked Forrest Jensen, a retired upholstery manufacturer enjoying a scotch on the rocks. The 91-year-old said he "rarely" visited the establishment more than three times a week.
"It's like losing my best friend," he continued.
Tim Gauthier, 64, was dining out with his wife, Tina, and their 28-year-old daughter, Bailee Sullivan, who was visiting from Atlanta. The Gauthier's 11-month-old grandchild Penny also was there.
"I grew up here," commented Sullivan.
"It's like our 'Cheers,'" replied Tina.
Another customer, Donna Stacy, had just learned she was visiting RingSide on its final day.
"This is such a beautiful ambiance," she said. "I'm really sad. It's my favorite place to eat in all of Portland."
A change of decor was key to the million-dollar refresh of the site completed in 2015, the first renovations since the mid 1980s.
Workers punched windows into the airless dining room, swapped the high-back red vinyl seating for more casual gray booths and added new landscaping, wine display cases and outdoor pillars.
Ditching the white-tablecloth setting was supposed to help attract the changing demographics in East Multnomah County, who these days tend to prefer smaller portions, cheaper plates and faster service.
But ultimately, RingSide decided to return to its core competencies: an elegant dining atmosphere, quality customer service and a high-end product.
"It's easy to sit at home and call (food couriers like) Grubhub, Caviar or Amazon, and have whatever you want delivered to your home," said Porter. "You don't have to get dressed up, you don't have to get in your car — you don't even have to do dishes."