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Vitaly Paley Says Trying to Reopen His Downtown Restaurants Was a Fiasco

“And then, of course, the issue of homeless [people] that would walk up to people sitting, eating outside, and snatch food off their plates. It was heartbreaking.”

This weekend, Portland leaders are holding a reopening festival downtown. Acclaimed restaurateur Vitaly Paley can’t imagine returning.

Paley, the Ukrainian chef who redefined Portland cuisine and won a James Beard Award in the process, oversaw three hotel restaurants in the city’s downtown core: Imperial, Headwaters and the Penny Diner. He says they never recovered from a cascade of disasters that followed in the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns.

“We tried to reopen Imperial in the summer of 2020, as we were allowed to,” he says. “We built a [dining] platform on Broadway. And the business just never came back. We went maybe 15% of the business we used to have at Imperial. And then, of course, the issue of homeless [people] that would walk up to people sitting, eating outside, and snatch food off their plates. It was heartbreaking.”

As Portland debates what factors paralyzed downtown neighborhoods—protests, homeless camping, or proper caution around public health—Paley argues on this week’s episode of the Dive podcast that it’s not possible to isolate one cause. Each disaster exposed another social ill.

“There’s nobody downtown, shopping is very limited. There is nobody in the hotel, the streets are barren. On a Friday night when we decided to close up shop, I walked in the middle of Broadway and I stood in the middle of Broadway looking one way and looking another. There was not a single car, not a single person walking anywhere, only homeless. Did we have a homeless problem before the COVID? Yes, we did. Was it as visible? No, it wasn’t—because there was all of us present.”

Here are three other noteworthy exchanges from Paley’s interview.

WW: You recently closed all of your restaurants except for Paley’s Place due to COVID-19. How were your other places doing before COVID?

Vitaly Paley: Business was booming. We were doing really well. The Imperial had its heyday back in 2016. We all kind of experienced unfortunate circumstances with the start of the [Proud Boy vs. anti-fascist] riots. That kind of marked the time for us when we started seeing downtown businesses start to slump a bit.

So what happened in February with COVID-19?

I was in a bit of a denial. I was one of those optimists…it’s just always been a part of my nature. But as we were talking about closures, we all kind of thought a couple months, we will be right back at it. And we just kept on dragging and dragging and dragging.

COVID was only one of the reasons why you closed your business. What else played a role?

I think the homelessness issue is a big challenge for our leadership. It’s a challenge and it’s also a really difficult thing to manage your way through if you’re a business owner. People just don’t want to go when they don’t feel comfortable and safe.

Listen on Spotify.

Listen on Apple Podcasts.