Restaurant Association Calls City Odor Code “Unfair” and “Unbelievable”

Reaction to the closure of Pho Gabo has reached City Hall.

Pho Gabo's closed Fremont location, photo by WW staff

Trade and community groups are speaking out against the closure of a Northeast Portland Vietnamese restaurant due to the smell, but the restaurant owner says their efforts will not be enough to resuscitate the shuttered Pho Gabo.

The Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association is demanding that the city review its “subjective, unfair ‘smell’ code immediately and cease targeting small restaurants and their owners, many of whom are people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds.”

“It’s unbelievable that an anonymous person’s repeated complaints about an odor can shut down an entire restaurant, potentially displacing its workers and causing the operator irreparable financial harm,” says Jason Brandt, ORLA’s president and CEO. “There are a number of factors that contribute to Portland’s air quality (and livability) but forcing restaurants out of business does not seem like the most constructive way to address the problem.”

As WW reported last week, Pho Gabo on Northeast Fremont Street closed earlier this month after an 18-month back-and-forth with the city’s Bureau of Development Services. A persistent neighbor complained that the neighborhood “smelled like a wok dish,” triggering a dozen visits by city inspectors, fines, calls for a $40,000 air filtration system, and eventually the Feb. 3 closure of Pho Gabo.

Brandt was particularly incensed that the city code for odor violations does not require any equipment beyond the inspector’s own nose.

“For other code violations, such as noise, vibration and even glare, there are measurable, objective standards, but surprisingly, the city’s code written for ‘odor’ violations is entirely subjective,” Brandt says.

ORLA also says that the city’s suggested solution of installing a filtration system to prevent the odors from traveling outside the restaurant are extremely expensive and at best, would only mitigate the smells, not eliminate them.

Ken Ray, a spokesman for BDS, responded: “BDS implements and enforces code as adopted by City Council. This code dates back to at least 1991.”

Ray found zoning codes going back to 1942, including a period that required use of a “scentometer” to test for odors. (Justin Lindley, the city inspector who made most of the visits to Pho Gabo, says the device is “more of a gimmick than actual science” and equated it to trying to hear better by putting a cone up to one’s ear.)

Ray then passed the buck to City Commissioner Carmen Rubio’s office, who is looking into the issue.

“Commissioner Rubio is concerned and has directed her staff to launch an immediate evaluation of this code and to make recommendations on changes,” says Jillian Schoene, her chief of staff.

Pho Gabo owner Eddie Dong has received messages of support from Vietnamese community organizations and has heard about City Hall’s interest.

“Everybody is getting involved now, so I’m proud I’m getting all this support,” Dong says. “Just because one neighbor complained about the smell of the food, they are making us close the business? That’s not how it should work.”

It will be too little, too late for Dong’s Pho Gabo location at 7330 NE Fremont St., though. He already laid off his staff, and the landlord is planning to sell the building. It would be “like opening a brand-new restaurant again,” he says. Dong owns two other Pho Gabo locations, in Happy Valley and Hillsboro.

“This started a wildfire that is going to spread, and that’s a good thing,” he says. “Myself, I cannot do anything with the city. I’m just a small business.”

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