How a Portland restaurant owner revives dine-in service.
When COVID-19 shut down all of Oregon in March, Sol Bowl, an Asian fusion restaurant in downtown St. Johns, had only been open a few months.
Owner Cindy Hymer already had a successful restaurant in Northeast Portland. Table 6 Cafe catered to the convention crowd and local business people looking for a fast lunch.
Sol Bowl was more of a passion project. While Table 6 Cafe served a lot of meat and potatoes, that wasn’t the kind of food that Hymer enjoyed herself.
Hymer started cooking the Korean dish bibimbap and thought, “I could eat this every day.”
When a prime location opened up in St. Johns, the neighborhood where Hymer lives, she thought, “Well, it’s a weird menu, but maybe I’m not the only one who wants to do like a clean eating thing.”
Business was good and Sol Bowl soon employed nine people. But then, less than four months after opening, everything stopped.
“Corona came and it went from a rapid boil to pan off the burner,” said Hymer.
She tried to keep Sol Bowl open for takeout, but business was too slow to make it viable, so Hymer decided to temporarily close. All the employees were laid off. Table 6 Cafe closed its Northeast location permanently because there was no business in the area without the convention center operating and all the nearby offices vacated.
The COVID-19 pandemic poses big challenges for restaurants, but owners are adapting to the new reality as pent-up demand for eating out brings people back to dining establishments.
When Portland was approved for phase one reopening, Hymer wanted to reopen Sol Bowl, but in a way that would provide a safe place for families to eat. Unlike many other restaurants that have scaled back customer service by only offering takeout or delivery, Sol Bowl went in the opposite direction.
Hymer got a permit from the city to close one lane of N. Burlington Ave. for the half a block that runs along the north side of the restaurant. In this space Hymer and her husband Damon have created a full outdoor dining room with socially distanced stone tables sheltered by large umbrellas.
The business model has changed from fast-casual, in which people would order at the counter and wait for their food, to full, sit-down service.
While dining is now on the street, the inside of the restaurant is blocked off almost entirely, including the bathrooms. Customers only have access to a desk at the entrance.
Hymer also invested in a new wireless pay system that can be brought out to the table and allows the transaction to be almost touchless.
Hymer feels that business is going well and will continue to improve over the summer. She offered three of her former staff their jobs back. Table 6 Cafe is also going to start offering takeout from the Sol Bowl kitchen.
But with the change of seasons comes another time of uncertainty. “The whole patio has to go at the end of October. What happens after that, I don’t know,” she says.