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'It changed our business for the better': Portland restaurants hope for long-term outdoor seating

The city's current permit for expanded outdoor seating is set to expire November 1.

PORTLAND, Oregon — A lot has changed since the pandemic hit 15 months ago, especially for restaurants.

“Looking back the beginning it was incredibly tough, it was excruciatingly depressing,” said Jeffrey Ottman, owner of Portland Sports Bar & Grill on Portland’s south waterfront.

In an effort to just save his business, Ottman moved several tables outside last year to continue serving customers during the pandemic. Customers used those outdoor tables and then they came back; spring, summer, fall and then in a big surprise—even winter.

“Now we're actually profitable every single month,” said Ottman. “Now we can have a full patio successfully in November with heaters—something we never had before. We're excited how it's going to change our business for the future.”

Ottman's patio space is in their lease agreement so he plans to keep outdoor dining year-round. Restaurants without the luxury of outdoor space are grateful for the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s Healthy Business permit program. Since May, 2020, the program has allowed hundreds of restaurants to seat diners in parking spots along the curb or on side streets closed to accommodate them. That's what McPeet's Portland Pub did on Northeast 45th Avenue and Fremont Street.

“It's been kind of a life saver for the business,” said bar manager Chad Becker. “It literally changed our business for the better.”

Becker said before they got their permit, the restaurant was barely surviving with its take-out only model. Now, they have more seating than they did indoors, pre-pandemic. Becker said that's helping make up for the difficult times.

“The neighborhood has come out full force, they're constantly thanking us for being here, giving them a space where the feel comfortable to eat and drink and be merry,” said Becker.

A PBOT spokesperson tells KGW they're thrilled with the community's response to the Healthy Business program and are exploring how to make it sustainable going forward. The current permits expire November 1. Outside of Portland, restaurants are finding similar outdoor seating allowances including in Hood River.

“We wouldn't have survived the pandemic without it,” said Norraine Lyons, co-owner of 64 OZ. Taphouse on Oak St. in Hood River. 

The City of Hood River is giving restaurants 6-month permits for street space parklets. After the success they've had with theirs, Lyons said they can't imagine business without the expanded outdoor seating.

“We've had thousands of people comment saying they love that feeling of outdoor dining as though they are overseas somewhere,” said Lyons. “So our hope would be that eventually it would be a permanent situation.”

Back in Portland, Jeffrey Ottman will never take the last year for granted, or the unlikely path that brought him here.

“I am blessed with how we've been able to adapt,” said Ottman, “and come out of this with a positive.”

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