Pacific Northwest restaurants struggle as temperatures rise

On Wednesday, the temperature in the sealed kitchen at Blotto , a pizzeria in Seattle, reached 108 degrees. Like many restaurants in to...


On Wednesday, the temperature in the sealed kitchen at Blotto, a pizzeria in Seattle, reached 108 degrees. Like many restaurants in town, Blotto does not have air conditioning. Facing due west, it benefits from hours of sunshine in the summer afternoon.

The owners of the pizzeria, Jordan Koplowitz and Caleb Hoffmann, work in the kitchen, by far the hottest area of ​​the small shop. To cope, they drink lots of water and wrap themselves in cold, damp towels.

“We try to finish making pizzas as soon as possible so we can turn off the ovens, and we can get our employees and us out of the restaurant to go down and relax by the water,” Mr. Koplowitz said.

Blotto is just one of hundreds of restaurants trying to pull out a week-long heat wave which engulfed the Pacific Northwest, bringing record triple-digit temperatures to a region where air conditioning is not the norm. But the extreme heat, brought on by human-caused climate change, looks like a new reality for an industry that relies on a hot oven in the kitchen and cozy customers in the dining room.

More and more days eating out is out of the question, cooling costs are skyrocketing and temperatures for kitchen workers are approaching unbearable.

High temperatures this week – which are expected to last through the weekend and top around 110 degrees in parts of eastern Oregon and Washington – are a reminder the heated dome which moved into the area last summer, killing hundreds of heat-related people in Oregon, Washington state and British Columbia.

Blotto opened its doors a little over a year ago, just before the start of the heated dome. The heat forced the restaurant to close for a day and temporarily change its menu. To stay open this summer, the owners are trying to keep service hours as short as possible and encouraging customers to order takeout.

“Everyone has been very out to toughen up and take care of us,” Hoffmann said.

But working during the heat wave is out of the question for Erica Montgomery, the owner and chef of the Erica’s soul food, a food truck in Portland, Oregon. During last year’s heat wave, she stopped the truck after losing all her food when the local power grid failed. This year, she is not taking any risks. Her truck was shut down this week and any food she prepares for catering is stored in an air-conditioned kitchen.

“If it’s 95 degrees outside, it’ll be at least 10 to 15 degrees warmer than inside the truck,” she said.

In Washington, only 53% of households use some form of air conditioning, and that number is 76% in Oregon, according to a 2022 study. report by the US Energy Information Administration.

But even though Kirsten Weiler McGarvey, a 33-year-old college student in Portland, doesn’t have air conditioning in her tiny apartment, she doesn’t crave the cool dining rooms of restaurants, “since Covid-19 is still in the air. ”

Last year, when the temperature in Portland hit 116, she noted that eating out wasn’t even an option as many restaurants closed.

“Portland as a city is not at all equipped for the heat,” she said. “I think a lot of people in other parts of the country really benefit that air conditioning is a normal thing. They don’t necessarily understand how crippling it can be. Last year things were melting down. The window blinds were melting. The roads separated.

Nostranaan Italian restaurant in Portland, had to completely close its doors during last year’s heat wave.

This year, the restaurant has so far only closed its outdoor dining area. Cathy Whims, the chef and owner, said no outdoor seating was permitted on Tuesday and “hardly anyone chose to sit outside” on Wednesday. She also planned to close the patio on Friday and Saturday nights.

Ms Whims said it was difficult to cancel outdoor dining because it means losing reservations for the many people who are still not comfortable eating indoors due to the recent surge in Covid. During heat waves like this, Ms. Whims estimates business drops 30-40%, during what is normally the busiest time of year for restaurants in Portland.

She added that energy costs also increase during periods of high heat, and air-conditioned places “don’t have the kind of power to handle that kind of heat.”

Running a restaurant over the past few years has been one pivot after another, Ms Whims said. “All of those decisions unfortunately are at the moment, the same way the Covid decisions were and are.”

Double Mountain Brewery, about an hour’s drive east of Portland on the Columbia River in Hood River, Oregon, serves pizza with its beers — but only if the temperatures cooperate. The impact of this week’s heat wave has been relatively minor for customers at Double Mountain, where air conditioning and cold beer are able to keep them cool, said Matt Swihart, the owner and brewmaster.

The kitchen bears the brunt of the heat, he said. The extractor hoods of the pizza ovens, which help to evacuate the smoke from the building, also bring in hot air from outside. After having to close during last summer’s deadly heatwave, Mr Swihart now turns off pizza ovens when the kitchen hits 100 degrees, as it did on Wednesday and Thursday. When this happens, the brewery switches to a sandwich-only menu.

“It kept the peace with our staff,” he said. “The pandemic stress and changes that restaurants across the country have faced have been particularly difficult for the service industry, and we simply have no wiggle room. We err on the side of keeping our staff happy and as comfortable as possible, and giving them accommodations.

On days when Double Mountain can only serve sandwiches, Swihart estimates the company loses 30 to 40 percent of its daily revenue. His electricity costs have gone up 25% during those hot spells, he said, and the refrigeration and HVAC systems are “really working overtime right now.”

During last year’s heat, monthly energy costs jumped thousands of dollars. Looking ahead, Mr Swihart said he was planting more trees along the outdoor dining area to create more shade and installing an additional $20,000 cooling unit.

But at Blotto, the Seattle pizzeria, Mr. Hoffmann and Mr. Koplowitz do not plan to adapt the restaurant for future heat waves. Since there’s no air conditioning, high temperatures mean slightly higher refrigeration costs, but nothing that breaks the bank, they said. “It affects us two days a year,” Mr. Koplowitz said. “It’s hard to spend money or time solving a problem that barely exists.”

“It certainly makes me grateful that it’s something we deal with about once a year – obviously with increasing frequency, duration and severity, which is scary,” Hoffman added. “But overall it’s pretty easy here in Seattle for most of the rest of the year.”

Mr. Swihart is less optimistic.

“The climate is indeed getting warmer every year,” he said. “I just hope these events don’t increase, but my science brain tells me they’re going to get worse.”

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