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Italian restaurant in the Pearl feeds frontline workers once a week, but owner eyes June reopening

PMG - A series checking in with Portland businesses during the viral economic collapse of 2020.

Restaurants taking a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic are turning to new ways to stay active. Piattino, an Italian restaurant at 1140 N.W. Everett St. in the Pearl District, has scaled back to one cook and a helper three nights a week, takeout only, with the three owners taking turns doing the cooking.

One of the partners, Ajay Narayan, said business is down 90% since February. And takeout is expensive: Delivery service Grubhub takes 35% of the cost of an order, plus the tip.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - One of three owners of Piattino Italian restaurant, Ajay Narayan (purple shirt) delivers free pizza, pasta and garlic bread to the Portland Police in downtown Portland. Business is slow so they decided it wouldn't be too hard to feed workers one day a week who are on the front lines facing the new coronavirus.

The partners recently decided to offer free food once a week to workers on the front line fighting COVID-19. Three weeks ago, they dropped off pizza and pasta for 50 at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital in Northwest Portland, timed for the 8 p.m. shift change.

The next week it was food for 50 at Oregon Science & Health University's emergency room on Marquam Hill. (Staff came out to get it from the parking lot, since visitors are not allowed in.) A week later, they fed 10 people manning the coronavirus testing tent near the Moda Center, and OHSU again. On Tuesday, April 14, they delivered pizza and pasta for 50 to the Portland Police precinct downtown on Southwest Second Avenue.

Instagram marketing

Narayan said they put the word out on @piattinopdx and some people donated cash to pay for the food. An Indian restaurant in Beaverton was inspired to donate food in Washington County.

"If we can spread something #contagious in these tough times, let it be love, #compassion and of course delicious food for those who are fighting this covid crisis on all our behalf. … We prioritize #peopleoverprofits," he wrote.

He's hoping restrictions will be loosened soon and customers will be allowed to dine in at Piattino again. How long the business can survive, Narayan isn't sure.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Mokshada Shah, a partner at Piattino Italian restaurant, packages free pizza, pasta and garlic bread for the Portland Police in downtown Portland. Business is slow so Piattino staff decided it wouldn't be too hard to feed workers one day a week who are on the front lines facing the new coronavirus.

"We're cooking ourselves, so we're not paying for that," he said. "I wouldn't pay myself $35 an hour to clean my home, so I don't pay myself $25 an hour to make pizza."

Narayan preps smaller amounts of food. When an item sells out, it's pulled from the menu for the night.

He applied for the Payroll Protection Program but did not get it because funds were exhausted. Now Narayan is looking into Small Business Association loans. Keeping the restaurant alive is doable for now, especially since they got a break on rent. But time is of the essence.

Narayan has contacts in the Bay Area, which, so far, has had relatively few COVID-19 deaths because social distancing was put in place early and strictly.

Still, the economic impact there is dire.

"A lot of places I know in the Bay Area are shutting their doors for good. My friend has a deli in San Francisco in the Embarcadero Center," he said. "They walked away from it because they couldn't make it work. The rent alone was $18,000 a month. The same thing happened in San Pedro market in San Jose. I have friends that had a Japanese restaurant in the big Asian center. The rent was $25,000 a month. It's closed."

The idea of giving food away is part marketing, part desire to give back.

A site called AdoptarestaurantPDX is trying to coordinate charitable efforts around restaurants in Northwest Portland. It connects people who want to buy takeout food, or donate a meal to someone more in need, or just give cash to the nonprofit Friendly House.

Narayan has been reaching out to institutions, but interested parties also have been contacting him via Instagram. One individual wanted to help the Portland Police, so they paid for half the food.

Narayan had another feed lined up for Saturday, April 18. This time it was dinner for 25 at Legacy Emanuel Hospital's emergency room staff.

He sees such an effort as sustainable in the short term, because his overhead is small — Narayan is not paying anyone any extra to do it. But he's keeping an eye on the day when he can reopen for dine-in business.

Narayan has heard contradictory things from the Trump administration and from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown about whether dining in would be allowed in Phase 1 of reopening the economy.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - One of three owners of Piattino Italian restaurant, Paresh Warke, packages free pizza, pasta and garlic bread for the Portland Police in downtown Portland. Business is slow so owners decided it wouldn't be too hard to feed workers one day a week who are on the front lines facing the new coronavirus.

People get ready

The owners have been in favor of Oregon increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour next year. It applies to servers, who supplement it with tips. Food prep workers in the back get more. With high unemployment and fewer restaurants opening, assuming many have gone out of business, would this depress wages? Narayan said he doesn't think so. In any case, Piattino's owners will stick to the current wage structure.

To get information, Narayan talks to staff at neighbor restaurants Pink Rabbit and Oven & Shaker more than to any restaurant association.

Having seen traffic backed up on I-5 when heading to his home in Vancouver, Washington, on the afternoon of April 17, Narayan thinks people already are starting to ignore the stay-at-home rules. He would be happy to reopen on May 1 with social distancing. "May the 1st, June the 1st, whenever the government says they're ready."

This means a maximum of four people could sit together, inside or outside. Servers would wear masks and have to wash their hands when switching between tables. Hand sanitizer is no longer allowed at Piattino because he says people do not use it as effectively as soap and water.

Staff already have to throw away or wash anything, like a fork, that they drop on the floor, and then wash their hands. So, the coronavirus etiquette is not that different from the normal rules for gaining an Oregon food handler card.

Diners will have to be spread out at alternate tables, effectively halving the capacity of the restaurant.

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