The light at the end of the tunnel is approaching. What's on the other side isn't entirely clear.
It's no great revelation that the coronavirus pandemic was as much an economic disaster as a public health crisis. Millions of jobs were lost, the country plunged into a recession, and there might still be people on hold with the unemployment department today.
As vaccinations ramp up, though, a blurry image of everyday normalcy is coming into focus—it's getting easier to imagine summer day drinking on a patio, taking in a play in the fall and maybe, by winter, seeing a real live concert in a packed club again.
As for the job market? That's still unknown.
In Oregon, the short-term prognosis is one of incremental recovery—the most recent report from the employment office shows the state added almost 14,000 jobs in February, the most growth coming from the beleaguered hospitality industry as bars and restaurants gradually ramp back up. But when it comes to the long view, many questions remain.
What occupations are coming back, and which have disappeared completely? Will remote working become the norm, and how will that impact those who don't have the option of working from home? Are the robots that were already threatening our jobs now even closer to replacing us?
The answers aren't obvious, but we went looking for them anyway. We asked two of the state's leading economists what work will look like in the post-COVID world. And we spoke to a New York Times tech reporter who's written a book about automation and what humans can do to protect their livelihoods from the rise of the machines.
One thing we know for sure, though: For many, the grind never stops.
It's something we've already seen over the past year. In this issue, we talked to six Portlanders who hustled and scraped to stay afloat after the pandemic interrupted their careers. There's the hairstylist who reinvented herself as a vegan restaurateur and the aspiring zoologist that went from working with cheetahs in Africa to pet-sitting for frontline workers. A software engineer shifted to building a whole sci-fi universe, beginning with an innovative podcast. A barbecue chef switched to bottling his own hot sauce after his hours got cut, while a laid-off customer service rep turned to supplying restaurants with microgreens grown in his garage.
As with any disaster, it'll take some time to sift through the damage of COVID-19. But as these stories show, whatever's on the other side, there are those who will always find a way to make it work.
—Matthew Singer, A&C Editor
THE VEGAN RESTAURATEUR
A year after the pandemic shut down her work as a hairstylist, Thuy Pham is busier than ever.
Before COVID-19 hit, Pham was working out of a studio in her home. She had developed a stable, dedicated customer base that would fly in from as far away as L.A. But when she had to stop working due to health and safety concerns, she made a sharp career change that surprised even Pham herself—on a whim, she started selling vegan pork belly out of her home.
Less than six months after that, Pham opened her first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Mama Dut, on Southeast Morrison Street.
Pham never expected she'd open her own restaurant, let alone one that blew up so quickly. Even during the pandemic, while the restaurant is open for takeout only, Mama Dut regularly sells out of its fresh, hearty Vietnamese vegan fare, and has already received attention from local and national press, including The New York Times.
"People would tell me, 'Oh, you're food's so good. Why don't you open a restaurant?'" Pham says. "It was never something that I felt like I could do. So this is very surreal, this whole experience."
It started last April, when a friend sent Pham a YouTube video of Vietnamese Buddhist monks making heo quay chay, a meatless version of the crispy, fatty pork roast that's a staple in Vietnam.
After watching the video, Pham decided to make her own soy-based heo quay chay with her daughter, Kinsley. At Kinsley's suggestion, Pham livestreamed the process on her Instagram, including the part where the pair first savored the rich, chewy center and crispy outer layer.
The stream caused a flood of DMs from former hair clients asking if they could buy some. Pham came up with a logo and a name—which means "Mama, feed," a phrase Kinsley started saying as a toddler.
From then on, Mama Dut continued to grow with demand, and often to Pham's surprise. A week after the Instagram stream, she realized her kitchen couldn't accommodate the volume of orders she was receiving. In late April, on Pham's 40th birthday, she moved into her first commissary kitchen and then expanded into a pop-up, offering bao buns and vegan fish sauce wings. Last November, after a summer of sellouts, Mama Dut moved into the former Fermenter space.
It's easy to see why customers and Portland food media have been so quick to rally around Mama Dut. Pham employs long-established techniques to create vegan food that's as comforting as it is decadent. And on top of making some of Portland's best vegan food, she's used Mama Dut's platform from the very beginning to speak out against racism, supporting the protests against police brutality that began last summer. More recently, she asked for space to heal from the trauma of the Atlanta shootings, and the generational pain it brought to the surface, and closed the restaurant for a day last week.
Pham says she's still processing the rapid success of Mama Dut.
"To be honest, it doesn't really feel like this is mine," she says. "It feels like this is what happens when a community comes together." SHANNON GORMLEY.
THE GREEN THUMB
It took losing his job for Donnell Coats to rediscover his green thumb.
He'd only recently quit his five-year job in customer service at Nordstrom and was looking forward to being his own boss. By early 2020, he was picking up odd jobs, reselling clothes, shoes and collector's items, and had just landed a material handling gig.
Then, like many, he was let go.
To soothe the uncertainty and fill his newfound time, he turned to his plants. Coats, now 31, got into growing in his early 20s when a friend gave him their marijuana grow boxes to babysit for a week. Since that introduction, he's grown flora of his own: cannabis to begin, and soon tomatoes, peppers, dragon fruit plants, and lemon and orange trees. Now, he's mass-producing microgreens.
He stumbled upon microgreens—young, nutrient-rich vegetable shoots—while researching care practices for his other plants on the internet. After purchasing a few seeds to grow, he came to appreciate the short life cycle of the plant.
"I like to experiment," Coats says. "Microgreens are cool because you get to learn quick—a plant only takes 10 to 21 days to grow."
Now, Coats grows cantaloupe, corn and wasabi microgreens under artificial lights in his two-car garage in Beaverton. It's not just a hobby: In October, he and his girlfriend, Kaitlyn Murray, began building partnerships with local restaurants under the name 503 Microgreens.
Now, you can find his product topping spicy jackfruit rolls at Yoshi's Sushi in Multnomah Village, sprinkled between seeded buns at Cliff's on Northeast Russell Street, and mixed into ceviche at Mestizo. Most recently, the greens found their way to plates at Fair Weather, the new brunch spot formerly known as Jacqueline. (Customers can purchase online, too.)
Coats has his eye on a warehouse space to rent and urban farming grants so he can turn 503 Microgreens into fully realized form. Eventually, Coats wants to incorporate education into his work, with workshops geared toward communities who can use the growing process as therapy, like veterans returning from military service or inmates coming home from prison.
"I need to help those people out," Coats says, "'cause that could have been me." ELIZA ROTHSTEIN.
THE HOT SAUCE MAKERS
Ricky Bella knew he had to do something.
It was early in the pandemic, and the 30-year-old chef de cuisine at Bullard had taken a significant pay cut to help the lauded Portland barbecue restaurant keep the burners on. He was one of the lucky ones: Most of the rest of the staff was laid off.
His girlfriend wasn't so fortunate, either. She'd lost her job at a downtown wine shop, and having to take care of their 8-year-old daughter after schools shut down precluded her from even searching for another.
"Being full time with the kiddo," Bella says, "there was a lot of sitting around, wondering and waiting and feeling hopeless."
That's when it dawned on him: hot sauce.
In his previous gig as the head chef at Bit House Saloon, Bella slathered the bar's chicken wings in a housemade concoction that still makes him salivate: jalapeno, serrano, fresno and ancho chilies with onion, garlic, vinegar and butter. If he could figure out the logistics of bottling it, it would open an extra revenue stream for both of them.
"The dynamic between the two of us is that I'm very spontaneous," says Angela Gravelle, 33. "He came at me with the idea and he was half-serious about it, but behind the scenes, I got to work on ordering labels and looking into licensing fees and what it would really take to start the business and run with it."
It took three batches to achieve what Bella calls "white people heat"—an accessible balance between spice and sweetness. He named it Grandpa Guero's, the nickname for his actual pale-skinned grandfather, "a grumpy old Mexican" who put hot sauce on everything.
While Bella made the sauce, using the kitchen at Bullard after his shifts, Gravelle did pretty much everything else, from running the Shopify account and designing the packaging to pouring the product into bottles and driving them to UPS for shipping. After getting its name out with a series of pop-ups, Grandpa Guero's has sold 1,500 bottles between the brand's three flavors, Bella estimates—enough to meet the modest goal of supplementing the couple's income with a few hundred dollars each month.
It's also enough to convince them to keep going, even after Bella had his hours restored. Bella and Gravelle are currently trying to get Grandpa Guero's into grocery stores—and, from there, maybe hire another employee or two.
"It's not at the point yet where we're paying for labor or anyone else to do it," Bella says. "That's the scary next step." MATTHEW SINGER.
THE PET SITTER
A year ago, Nikkola Hadley was in Africa, working with wild cheetahs.
Today, their job still entails getting up close with cats—only when these felines get hungry, the worst they can do is whine.
Pet sitting isn't precisely what Hadley, 24, intended to do with their degree in zoology. But as someone whose lifelong dream is to tend to animals for a living, it's at least in the same ballpark.
"I've worked with animals all of my life," Hadley says. "Being able to roll with that versatility, with animal behavior, sizes, personalities, species, etc., is really essential, especially working within animal husbandry."
For their last term at Oregon State University in early 2020, Hadley landed an internship at the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, observing how rural communities in Africa care for the big cats they share the land with. When the pandemic hit, Hadley was forced to return to Portland early, moving in with their partner, a tuxedo cat named Lady Maria, a snake named Linnaeus, and a tank of unnamed potato bugs.
After four months of quarantine, Hadley took a job at a veterinary clinic in Lake Oswego—a stopgap before moving toward their goal of working at the Oregon Zoo. They also signed up for Hot Diggity, a dog-walking and pet-sitting service.
Then the clinic made staffing cuts. Suddenly, "my side gig turned into my main profession," Hadley says.
Again, though, at least it still involves animals. And in the midst of the pandemic, the job took on some added importance: Most of Hadley's clients right now are health care professionals working long hours who might need them to stop by and feed their pets dinner, or breakfast, or even stay overnight. Hadley, of course, has developed favorites: Namely, there's a West Highland terrier named Celeste they describe as "the highlight of my week."
Hadley is still hoping to get in at the zoo, but the pandemic has made a competitive field even harder to break into.
"I've been looking into leaving the state," they say, "or even leaving the country, to have a better chance of finding jobs." MATTHEW SINGER.
Ghan Patel spent quarantine building a new universe.
At the start of the pandemic, the 38-year-old software engineer had a contract gig get cut off unexpectedly. He took it as an opportunity to indulge an idea that had long been kicking around in his head: an immersive sci-fi musical he called Spacetime Diaries.
"It was a pretty special time for me last year," he says. "I would wake up, 100% devoted to the project."
Patel—who moved from New York to Portland specifically to give himself more space for creativity—wasn't entirely sure what form the project would take at first. He ended up settling on a podcast. Described as a "cinematic, bedroom pop sci-fi adventure," the inaugural first season features a protagonist named Karima who finds herself caught up in a war on a faraway planet. It takes place in the distant future, but the themes—climate change, invasive technology and, yes, global health crises—are distinctly 2020.
Patel collaborated with writers, musicians and voice actors from New York and elsewhere. He did the sound design and wrote the songs
"I'd be sitting at a piano for hours at a time," he says, "trying to find the emotional nugget of what the character would feel for this song."
Without a day job, Patel spent the year "making decisions that support the artist-first model," living off savings until that became untenable. He's since started freelancing again, but he's far from done with the world of Spacetime Diaries. He imagines sprawling the story out across multiple platforms—the next installment is a series of guided meditations placing the listener inside the head of a super-intelligent space fungus.
And then from there? Figuring out how to monetize the whole thing, so he can live the "artist-first model" without going broke.
"I'm in a much worse financial position now," he says, "but I don't regret it." MATTHEW SINGER.