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Kitschy Portland diner among 78% of restaurants struggling to hire staff, recoup revenue

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Tom Moore, a longtime Fat City Café employee, serves customers during lunch hour at the Multnomah Village diner. The restaurants owners say they still dont have the staffing or revenue they need to survive as a business.Just before lunch hour on a Monday, Helen Johnson peered out into empty seats in her diner. It was a bleak reminder.

"This will probably be only a $300 or $400 day, it's so slow," Johnson said. Johnson and her husband Mark own Fat City Café on Southwest Capitol Highway.

The iconic diner in the heart of Multnomah Village has been serving traditional American breakfast and lunch since the mid-1970s. The Johnsons bought the place in 2000 and have run it since then.

Known for its classic diner layout and wall-to-wall kitschy décor of license plates and road signs, Fat City is a staple of the Southwest Portland restaurant scene, but its future has been in limbo for nearly two years.

"We were doing great before the pandemic," Johnson, 57, said.

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Abbie Reisman delivers a check to a table during a busy shift at Fat City Café.When Oregon prohibited indoor dining in April 2020, restaurants moved to a takeout-only model. Business tanked. Many restaurants, like Fat City, laid off their staff and watched revenue dry up. Most never fully recovered from the financial hit and others didn't recover at all. Nearby, Italian restaurant Casa Vacca closed permanently during the pandemic. Other business owners in Multnomah Village said the restaurant was struggling before the pandemic hit, but the coronavirus may have been the nail in the coffin.

With no real staff except their two adult daughters, the Johnson family worked the restaurant, cooking and serving to-go orders until the state restrictions lifted and they could invite customers back inside. Like others, they added outdoor seating and pivoted to accommodate a larger share of takeout orders, but the restaurant model was quickly transforming in Portland.

Third-party online ordering apps like Uber Eats, DoorDash, Grubhub and Postmates suddenly took on an outsized role in business operations. Other restaurants eventually adopted their own online ordering platforms to try to circumvent the hefty third-party fees, but the all-digital, contactless model was untenable for Fat City, which is a cash-only business.

Johnson said they briefly accepted credit and debit cards, but the transaction fees were too high, so they stopped.

For some customers, the diner's simplified model and unrefined atmosphere are all part of the appeal.

"It's the cutest place. You go back in time. It's Americana at its best," said Mady Toombs of Sellwood, who stopped in with a group of clients on a Wednesday afternoon for lunch.

A group of diners poses for a photo at Fat City Café in Southwest Portland. Pictured, clockwise: Jack Grote, Diana Lauer, Mady Toombs and Mady Schumacher.Just half an hour before closing, nearly every booth was full.

Longtime server Tom Moore, 27, juggled orders and coffee refills alongside Abbie Reisman, who started working at Fat City about four months ago after spending years on the other side of the counter as a customer.

For both Reisman and Moore, Fat City feels like a second home. Moore grew up in Southwest Portland and has worked at the diner for eight years.

"It feels like we're still lagging in business a little bit," Moore said, reflecting on pre-COVID years. Working short-staffed in the food service industry has its own challenges.

"Peolple seem to be lacking a little patience, love and understanding for what we're going through," Moore said.

Fat City's owners have tried tirelessly to get back to the staffing levels they once had.

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Fat City Café has been a staple in the Multnomah Village neighborhood for more than 45 years, but the owners say the pandemic crushed their business and they may not be able to keep it open."I'm so exhausted by the whole thing," Johnson said, her voice cracking. "On the surface, it looks busy in here, but we're still at half. We never got a break on our rent. Our staffing—it's making the weekends hard. It's hard to find good short-order cooks. We do everything. My husband and I are here every day. It's hard to get those spots filled anymore. I don't know where everybody went."

According to the National Restaurant Association, restaurants around the country have struggled to regain pre-pandemic staffing levels.

"Although the industry added back many of the jobs lost during the early months of the pandemic, a majority of restaurants remain understaffed," the association reported in October. "In a September 2021 survey fielded by the Association, 78% of operators said their restaurant did not have enough employees to support existing customer demand."

Fat City's owners said they've always tried to pay a fair wage. Their cooks make $21 an hour, plus tips, but a lingering labor shortage means employees are demanding higher pay, or don't want to work on weekends.

The Johnsons got a big break early in the pandemic, when two GoFundMe crowd funding campaigns drew more than $30,000 in donations. They also got roughly $23,000 in PPP loan money, but Johnson said the windfall funds could only carry them through a few months. Restaurants, even old-fashioned small diners like Fat City, have much higher overhead costs than small retail shops. Johnson said utilities like electricity and garbage are high, along with rent in Multnomah Village. Restaurants also command higher staffing levels and big grocery bills for food.

"I don't want to lose the diner," Johnson said, fighting back tears. "I don't want to do another GoFundMe, I didn't feel comfortable asking in the first place. Our customers have been so supportive. There are so many incredible people standing behind us."

To add salt to the wound, Fat City was burglarized recently after hours. Johnson said someone broke in and stole about $250 from the register. They no longer leave cash on site overnight.

"It all would've been OK if it was six or eight months, Johnson reasoned, but 22 months, it's crushing us."


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