They say love goes through the stomach. Then again, a gut punch does too. Over the past few years, the restaurants and bars of Central Oregon have seen both. Lucky for us, the good ones keep fighting. It’s no secret that restaurants have been some of the hardest hit businesses during the pandemic. Facing countless challenges from mandated closings to paying staff, owners were lucky to see the other side when their businesses were allowed to reopen. Though Central Oregon lost its fair share (say it ain’t so, Jackson’s Corner Eastside!), little by little the area is seeing a rebound in the food and drink space. Several new restaurants have opened over the past year, and a few pre-COVID successes are expanding as well. But don’t let the fancy new façades fool you. It’s really a tale of two sides—one on the outside, public-facing and shiny; the other on the inside filled with grit, heart and a whole lot of tears.
The Good News
First, the good news. Bend is growing, tourists continue to flock into town, and locals’ appetites are as big as ever. In a city filled with great restaurants, nothing excites foodies more than a new one to explore. According to Regional Economist Damon Runberg of the Oregon Employment Department, from a pure numbers standpoint, Bend is nearly at the same levels of establishments currently as it was pre-pandemic. In February 2020, there were 322 restaurants and drinking places in Bend that reported employment, he said. Fast forward to February 2022, exactly two years from the pre-pandemic peak, and remarkably there were 320 restaurants and drinking places reporting employment—only a net loss of two. Runberg did note that not all were the same and the restaurants that closed were largely replaced by new businesses.
For SixTop Restaurant Group restaurants (Bos Taurus, Miyagi Ramen, Hablo Tacos and the new Nome Italiano) co-owner Kyle Mckee, making it through the pandemic was all about change agility. “The heart of the pandemic taught you to be nimble and flexible,” he said. “It’s a lot of re-imagining what a restaurant is and how things work.” McKee said. Miyagi Ramen transitioned well in the pandemic because it was already set up for take-out, and was stronger post-pandemic as a result. “Whereas Bos Taurus was more difficult,” he said. “It’s more about the dining experience, and the shut-downs were harder.” Andrew Soriano, co-owner of Boxwood Kitchen and the freshly opened Meadowlark in south Bend, said federal funding and outdoor seating helped to bridge the gap as well. “With the financial help, we were able to keep our good employees through the pandemic,” he said. The owners both say that teachings from the pandemic have been applied to their new locations as well. “The main thing you learn is how to operate in an inconsistent environment,” said Soriano. “You figure out how to lean on good people with less.”
Response to Unpredictable Times
Whereas pre-pandemic restaurants could be somewhat predictable, McKee said it’s anything but predictable today. “It used to be [that] you knew Mondays were the slow days and Fridays were going to be busy,” he said. “Now you’re just trying to figure out what the public wants and when.” This uncertainty has led to many restaurants paring down menus to cut food costs and implementing technology such as tableside ordering systems. The one thing that can’t be overlooked is good staff, however.
San Simón owner Brian Trottier said COVID provided an opportunity to show his staff how much they meant to him. “We’ve always said what made San Simón so special is the staff,” he said. “When the pandemic hit, we did what we could to help everyone out. We sold apparel; we did a Go Fund me campaign for staff before the federal programs started. The community was incredibly cool with their support.” According to SixTop Restaurant Group McKee, staffing is a balance. “You don’t want to burn people out,” he said. “Stress levels are at all-time highs and we’re trying to be more cognizant of what’s important to people. We really focus on creating a positive work environment to help.”
The challenge, however, is that restaurants can only pay staff so much while balancing the rising food costs and overhead to make a profit. Pair that with the high cost of living in the area and the low inventory, and it creates a tricky situation for staffing. Boxwood’s Soriano said he has been able to maintain his key staff but getting new employees in the door is difficult. “We see about a fifty-percent no-show rate for interviews,” he said. “People will say they’ll be there and then just never show up.” This has led many restaurants to operate with less-than-ideal hours, or close on days they’d otherwise be open. Ultimately, it creates a scenario that many owners fear could lead to the degradation of the food scene and ultimately, the culture of Bend.
Eat, Drink and Be Gracious
If the staffing is dialed in, though, there’s an upside for restaurants and bars in Central Oregon, according to SixTop Restaurant Group’s McKee. “There have been a number of new locations popping up, and it’s great to see a lot of the old ones surviving and thriving. Bend is known for being a great place to live and experience and food is a big part of that. As long as people continue living here and visiting our establishments, we can keep providing an opportunity for a great culinary experience.”
Hungry visitors to the area and locals with an appetite can help: Support your local restaurants and drinking establishments when you can, be gracious (yes, things may take longer) and tip your staff generously. Enjoy long-time favorite spots and visit some of the newest places in town to eat and drink.
Successes at First locations lead to Sibling restaurants
Nome Italiano is the newest spot from SixTop Restaurant Group. Upscale Nome models itself after “the classic red-sauce joints that made us all fall in love with Italian cuisine.” A great choice for a date or reliving fond memories from your vacation to the Boot.
1465 SW Knoll Avenue, Bend
Meadowlark, from the owners of Boxwood Kitchen and Rapa Nui Tiki Lounge, Meadowlark brings some much-needed goodness to the south side of town. Expect a range of offerings from artisan pizzas to pasta, and classics like pot pie, along with creative cocktails. Casual but refined, Meadowlark has a comfortable atmosphere perfect for happy hour with friends or dinner with your partner. 19570 Amber Meadow Drive, Suite 100, Bend
Blue Eyes Burgers and Fries—the name says it all. Simple, classic and affordable, Blue Eyes Burgers and Fries is the newest venture from the folks behind Jackson’s Corner. A great option for the budget conscious or those who just want a good burger, Blue Eyes provides a classic diner vibe with a modern twist. 706 NE Greenwood Avenue, Suite 100, Bend
Flamingo Room Don’t let the name fool you. The Flamingo Room—brought to you from the San Simón team—is not a tiki bar. Instead, with its oxygen-inducing plant life and a creative drink menu, the atmosphere is cozy and accommodating for singles, doubles and small groups. 70 SW Century Drive Suite 130, Bend
The Lair Now in its fifth year, Kobold Brewing out of Redmond expanded with a downtown Bend location. The Lair, located in the space formerly occupied by the Whitewater Tap House, has an inviting patio in the back—a new spot for Central Oregon hopheads to gather. 1043 NW Bond Street, Bend