On Monday, March 16, Buddies Sports Bar & Grill was packed.
The Aloha bar, a local institute, was very, very crowded that evening.
The next night, March 17 — St. Patrick's Day — was supposed to be an even busier day. Traditionally, St. Patrick's Day was one of the grandest events of the year at Buddies. As usual, Buddies had local acclaimed accordionist Joe Szabo set to play for the expected huge crowd.
But instead of a joyous celebration, Buddies sat empty on St. Patrick's Day.
"It's usually a really big day for us," said Steve Cutone, one of the owners of Buddies Sports Bar & Grill. "So, we had all of this food prepared for St. Patrick's Day and we ended up with lost product. It was a disaster. We took a big hit. I called Joe and told him it was off, and he said, 'Oh well. Maybe next year.' But, knowing Joe, he probably went out and played in the parking lot."
All of that happened because, on March 16, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown declared that, on March 17, all restaurants and bars across the state would be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. That, of course, led to the hectic night of March 16.
"It turned out to be a very busy Monday," Cutone said. "People knew it was going to be their last day to go out."
But after that very busy Monday, Buddies, like most every other restaurant or bar in the area, was facing an immediate dilemma.
"All of a sudden, we were thinking, 'What are we going to do?'" Cutone said. "We laid off the employees in the (bar), but we wanted to keep the (restaurant) open (for carry-out orders). The hardest thing was ordering the food. We didn't know how much to order."
Buddies, located at 18520 S.W. Farmington Road in Aloha, was long known as Heidi's before Cutone, a big Detroit Tigers fan, bought the business back along with Ed Gilbertz and Greg Jansen on July 1, 1991. The trio decided to keep the name Heidi's for a year, before changing the brand to Buddies in 1992.
"Heidi's had been there for 40 or 50 years — that's why we decided to keep the name Heidi's for a year," Cutone said. "Waiting ended up working out well."
Since then, Buddies, with a sports bar in the west side of the building and restaurant seating on the east side, has built a loyal following.
"Since we've been here a long time, the support we've gotten from our regulars has been the
biggest thing we have going for us right now. We couldn't make it without them," Cutone said. "We care about people and people care about us."
Buddies, like so many other businesses, had to make adjustments following the March 17 closure order, and they had to make them quickly.
"I've been in the business for over 40 years and I'd say we're pretty good at adjusting. You have to be ready for anything," Cutone said. "We always try to have a Plan B. When everyplace had to become non-smoking, a lot of bar businesses shut down, but we relied on our strong food program to keep us going."
Once again, Buddies found itself having to rely on its strong food program. But, of course, there was still plenty of reason for concern.
"It's kind of scary. The biggest fear is the unknown," Cutone said. "That first week, everything was crazy. We figured that, if we could do the minimum and reach a break-even point, we should be OK. If we can pay for labor and product, and pay the light bill, then we hope we can keep rolling when we reopen."
Buddies decided to be open for business, for carry-out orders, from 4 to 8 p.m. seven days a week.
"People are saying, 'We need something better than fast food,'" Cutone said.
Buddies is offering a full menu (which can be found at buddiesaloha.com) for takeout, with exception that there is no soup, except for clam chowder on Friday.
"When we set the menu up, we did it so that there may be one item, but we can do 10 things with it. We're also getting some specials going and they'll be up on our reader board," Cutone said. "We're trying to expand our operation without stepping on our own feet."
The process for getting a carry-out order is basic and simple — just call Buddies at 503-642-5151 and place your order.
"We want people to call in and we'll tell them how long it will be until their food is ready," Cutone said. "Usually, the phone starts ringing at about 4:30 and keeps going until about 7:15."
There are large tables set up in each of Buddies' two doorways and that's where transactions — payment for food — take place, at a safe distance.
"We want to let people know that we're doing things as clean, safe and as good as can be," Cutone said.
Fighting to survive
While Buddies is battling to keep going, Cutone knows it's going to be a constant battle.
"We're working with the bank on a small business loan," he said back on April 1. "For now, if we can make five, six or seven hundred a day, we'll be OK, and not bleeding. We're still in the game."
Meanwhile, Cutone and Buddies, are looking forward to the day when the establishment can reopen for more than just carry-out orders.
"If we can open on that Monday, it's a bright spot," Cutone said, referring to May 1 as an example. "But who knows? I'm afraid that a lot of places won't reopen."
For now, Cutone is going out of his way to meet Buddies' loyal customers with a smile and pleasant greeting.
"I keep my morale high," Cutone said. "Our employees see that, and so do our customers, and that's a big thing."
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