We're celebrated around the country for the variety of our restaurants, the quality and imagination of our chefs and our devotion to authentic cuisine and local, seasonal ingredients. But Portland's formerly bustling scene is squeezed as never before. Soaring ingredient costs, escalating gas prices, vanishing credit lines, a looming increase in the minimum wage and consumers who closed their wallets back in October all contribute.On its surface this may not appear to be a beer-related story, but there are ominous signs. Oregon beer has followed a singular trail to success distinct from wine, liquor, and food--the details of which are the stuff of a different post. Taken together, though, these tongue-pleasing segments do relate to one another. Portland and Oregon have enjoyed the blossoming of sophisticated restaurants that encourage experimentation. Wine and beer play a role as elements within a meal. As consumers have grown accustomed to thinking of the incredients, methods, and regional inspiration of their meal, they have also become aware of conceptually-related concepts like terroir and dry-hopping.
"I've heard some people say their business has dropped by as much as 40 percent in the last month or so," says Bill Perry of the Oregon Restaurant Association. "Things weren't too bad until October -- sales were off just 4 percent or so over the year -- but then, two or three weeks before the election, things just froze. I've never seen anything like this; if we want to avoid a big rut in January, people are going to have to begin spending again."
I worry that if the best restaurants begin to die off in Portland (we've lost 20 this year, including renowned Genoa), the creative minds who founded them will leave. The erosion of talent in the restaurant scene is just generally bad. I don't know that it will have immediate or long-lasting influence on breweries. On the other hand, I was confident that the restaurant scene here was introducing new consumers to beer, and putting beer in menus traditionally reserved only for wine.
Like everyone else, Sally and I have already slated '09 as a restaurant-lite year. Going out is one of the first expenses to jettison in a down economy. But it has its sad consequences. May this economy improve--soon.