Tough Times and Good Luck: How COVID-19 has affected the restaurant industry in Portland, and how restaurant owners are managing to get by—and then some.

Nico Johnson

Despite having frequented the restaurant prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I walk up to the building feeling anxious. I grasp the cool bronze of the door handle and shudder a bit when I realize it is the kind of metal that leaves a nauseatingly sour scent on your hands. Four sheets of paper taped to the inside of the window welcome me––one instructing to maintain six feet of distance between customers, another reading “Thank you for supporting Sho!” and making me smile. Inside, I follow the scuffed blue arrows on the ground that remind me of how long we have been living with this blasted virus. Eventually, I stop behind a sign instructing me to wait to be seated. Ahead of me is a woman in black sweatpants and a black sweater staring down at her phone, surely perplexed by the kid who just walked in with a cherry red binder, two pencils, and the nub of a pink eraser that desperately needs replacing.

Many restaurants around the world have closed due to the pandemic. Photograph by Matthew Dae Smith / Lansing State Journal / USA Today

“It’s a pickup for Rebecca, and I’m with Postmates,” says the woman to the server standing behind the monitor of the point of sale (POS) system. The employee nods and rushes back to the kitchen; the woman stares at her phone again like she is too cool to be bothered; and I stand there clenching my binder to my chest, waiting to meet with the owner. Once Rebecca’s food is ready and out the door with the phone woman, I approach the front desk and await the return of the server. I explain to her that I have an interview with Katsu. She promptly guides me over to a table and informs me that he is running late but is sure to show up soon.

From my booth in the corner near the front door, I have an expansive view of the restaurant. The lofty ceilings and single light fixture overhead fit the atmosphere of the cool, jagged stone wall to my right. There is a certain peace that fills the room, perhaps from the golden oldies echoing off the rafters, the draft carrying the essence of spring rain, or the sweet aromas of long-boiled soups and crispy tempura and tender slices of tuna. Although not full of customers, Sho Japanese Restaurant seems to be running like clockwork. Not bad, given the pandemic, I consider. A young server with short, black hair, glasses, and slightly wrinkled eyes that hint at the smile hidden beneath her dark blue cloth mask asks me if I would like anything to drink while I wait. “Water, please,” I reply by instinct. So there I sit, the only patron taking thorough notes of his surroundings, sipping on my icy glass of water and overhearing a peeved mother two tables down forcing her children to eat their chicken.

Sho Japanese Restaurant has survived the pandemic. Photograph from Sho Japanese Restaurant website

ever did anyone imagine a year like the one we just experienced. While 2020 derailed all of our lives in ways we never thought possible, the restaurant business was hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lacking the financial stability that large chain restaurants enjoy, even some of the most successful, small, family-owned restaurants have found themselves devastated (Lalley). According to an article from Restaurant Business, the restaurant market “was already oversaturated with restaurants before the virus hit the U.S., and undercapitalized players will be the first to go” (Lalley). Indeed, current projections suggest that 25% of independent, full-service restaurants will not survive the pandemic (Lalley).

In attempting to overcome these frightening statistics, restaurants are now forced to be creative with their business practices, fueled by the phrase by which many restaurant owners have come to live: adapt or die (Russell, “Portland Restaurants”). Adapting does not mean simply focusing on takeout and delivery operations (Russell, “Portland Restaurants”). Much more dramatic changes are in order. No longer is a brick and mortar business the restaurant owner’s dream; rather, many restaurants are downsizing to cheaper and more accessible food trucks (Russell, “Portland Restaurants”). Some restaurants have made even more radical changes: Stacked, a Portland classic known for its meat-heavy sandwiches, completely reinvented itself in the form of a vegan grain bowl restaurant following a spike in the price of meat during the pandemic (Russell, “Portland Restaurants”).

he jolly jingle of the small brass bell above the door catches my attention, right as a spring breeze purges the entryway of stale air. Following the chime and gust of air are three people of modest height adorned in navy collared shirts, screen printed with a grand brushstroke in the shape of a “C” next to the words “Sho Japanese Restaurant”. The woman smiles at me and gives a courteous hello, but she hardly slows her gait. The girl, only a few years older than I, stands close to her mother. The man is instantly recognizable as Katsu Seki, the owner of the restaurant and the one whom my family has known since we first dined there back in 2014. Without hesitation, he waves goodbye to his family.

“Hello, Nico. It’s nice to see you,” he greets me while settling down into the bench across from me but remaining upright. I look up to see his round face covered by a large mask, above which his friendly eyes glance around my binder before landing on me. His hair is short, dark, and straight, only interrupted by the ordinary pair of glasses atop his head. As his arms on the table form an arch, an air of confidence emanates from him that makes me feel less tense. I am surprised by how he prefaces the interview: “I don’t really know how much I can help you with this, but we’ll see.” His initial modesty does not upset me––as a nervous interviewer, I can only imagine what he must be thinking as the interviewee. But we soon find that there is no need for my nerves nor his apologetic attitude, since the questions I ask and the information he provides are just right.

is restaurant saw an initial 30% drop in sales in March, April, and May of 2020, right after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Indoor dining first shut down on Monday, March 16, 2020, forcing Sho and restaurants across the Portland area to shift entirely their business operations. Luckily, the transition for Sho was not as difficult as for some other establishments. “It was good timing,” Seki explains, “because in 2019, I started looking around for a new POS system, since we needed an upgrade.” Although unaware of the turbulent waters to come, Seki outfitted his restaurant with a top-of-the-line point of sale system (the one behind which the server at the front desk was standing) that allowed for online ordering, a service the restaurant previously had never offered. “That was very good timing because people like curbside pickup, right?” Indeed they do, I think, imagining the innumerable times my family has ordered through the convenient online system and waited outside to pick up our meal. Seki adds that the new system has made customers feel more comfortable with supporting the business; there is no need even to step into the building (Seki).

While it is fortunate timing that Sho installed a POS system capable of online ordering right before the pandemic, the prospect of ordering online and arriving for curbside pickup is not unique to Seki’s business. Restaurant Business writes that, since the pandemic began, restaurants have focused on four main categories of service: takeout, delivery, off-premises service, and catering (Lalley). Other businesses have curated and produced meal kits, boxes of ingredients that customers can buy and prepare at home (Russell, “Portland Restaurants”). Some restaurants have even purchased vehicles just to make delivery possible (Lalley). Nonetheless, takeout has seemed the most prominent money-making venture by far. While the transition to takeout was certainly not easy for many restaurants, this new business model has kept numerous restaurants afloat, like Lawson Smith’s and co-owner Dax Mason’s eponymous six-year-old restaurant, Mason.

Smith––a native Oregonian and former Oregon Episcopal School (OES) student who participated actively in the theater and French language departments before leaving the school the summer before the devastating Mount Hood Climb accident––had not always imagined owning a restaurant. Initially, he was a landscape designer for twenty years before electing retirement. However, the opportunity to own a restaurant presented itself, and his interest in cooking since his childhood inspired him and his husband Mason to purchase the Italian restaurant (Smith). 

Like Sho, Smith’s business has experienced many ups and downs throughout the pandemic. Unlike Sho, Mason was hardly prepared for the shift to takeout in early March 2020. “We actually tried to do takeout initially for a week,” says Smith. “We were so busy and we didn’t know what we were doing; we had to shut down for two weeks.” Mason had never been a takeout restaurant, making sales during the early days of the pandemic difficult, especially since the government provided less than one week’s warning before the shutdown. During those initial two weeks, the restaurant was able to create a plan to move forward, and from that point on, their takeout service was successful, even if a little rough during the first few months (Smith).

Mason is a French-/Italian-inspired restaurant in Sherwood, Oregon, owned by Lawson Mason (left) and head chef Dax Mason (right). Photograph from Mason website

Making a profit, especially in the spring of 2020, was never the goal for Mason. Indeed, they often lowered prices on their takeout offerings and discounted their wine-to-go selections in order to maintain a flow of customers. “I won’t lie: early on there were a few,” claims Smith when I ask him if patrons were upset with the unusually long wait times they experienced for their takeout orders. Smith adds, “The majority of the people were understanding and very appreciative that we were trying.” So although he always hates to see customers walk away unhappy, he was less concerned about the 1% of patrons who were not pleased with the inevitably slow service that comes from transitioning a high-end, sit-down restaurant to one of entirely takeout orders. No doubt, many customers found the lower prices a worthy tradeoff for waiting a few extra minutes (Smith).

Restaurants across the Portland area echo Smith’s and Seki’s sentiments. Since the first reported coronavirus case in Oregon on Friday, February 28, 2020, many business owners reinforced hand-washing protocols and urged their staff members to stay home if feeling ill (Russell, “Coronavirus Oregon”). Initially, dining was largely unaffected, even in restaurants around the Kaiser Permanente Westside Medical Center, the hospital in which the first COVID-19 patient was treated (Russell, “Coronavirus Oregon”). But overall, restaurant sales last spring were down significantly, reaching nearly a 35% decrease for some establishments (Russell, “Coronavirus Oregon”). And that was in March, a month that is supposed to be profitable for the restaurant industry. Deemed Portland Dining Month, March brings customers the opportunity to eat three-course meals from the top restaurants in the city for only $33, which typically attracts plenty of hungry Portlanders (“Portland Dining Month”).

The harsh reality is that restaurants were faced by two threats: state law impeding their ability to remain open and a lack of diners as patrons chose to stay home (Fantozzi). Many customers were simply afraid of eating in restaurants after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Nation’s Restaurant News published a study from March 17, 2020, in which a shocking 41% of Americans were afraid to eat out (Fantozzi). Another 27% were not eating out at all, while 32% reported having no fear (Fantozzi). Still, restaurants that remained open for takeout offered a sense of normalcy for their customers, something of which there has been very little recently (Fantozzi).

All the containers, plastic wrappers, that kind of stuff––we don’t want to use plastic or styrofoam,” Seki states while explaining the challenges with takeout. Now, no longer does my hand grudgingly write everything down; no longer do I feel out of place as the only one with a three-ring binder; and no longer am I anxiously tapping my left hand against the table. The stream of customers continues to flow past the booth in which I am sitting, sometimes slowing to a trickle and sometimes picking up to forceful rapids. Seki is still talking. I am listening.

The familiar bell chimes as the silhouette of a young man with a crooked baseball cap struts past the table. “Oh, hi, how are you?” calls out Seki, instantly sparking a conversation that concludes with an explanation of why this novice reporter is still scribbling in his notebook.

“Well, it was nice to see you!” says the man who, I have learned, is taking a 3:30 lunch break before heading back to work. After replying with a confident and heartfelt thank you, Seki turns back to me with a soft smile revealed by the gentle creases around his eyes. I am surprised by how many customers he knows––not only my family and that man, but also the other dozen people who have walked through during the interview. He even offers a genuine “Welcome!” and an appreciative nod to first-time customers. These friendly interactions with customers set Seki and his business apart from others, especially from large, commercialized restaurants in which such relationships with customers are not feasible. Even in the midst of a pandemic, Seki has managed to maintain these relationships. I wonder if he has always been fortunate enough to have such strong community connections, even before working in the restaurant industry. Or has he always worked in the restaurant industry?

“Oh, that’s a long story.” Seki lets out a hardy chuckle as I ask him the obvious question that had previously never occurred to me. He began his career as a mechanical engineer in his home country of Japan. However, in 1988, the headquarters of the company for which he worked needed engineers to staff their new Portland branch. A young, single man with little desire to remain in Japan, Seki was the perfect candidate for filling one of the new positions. Over a decade later, the company closed its Portland office and requested that Seki return to Japan. But, like the dozens of changes the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed on us, a lot had changed in Seki’s life after he moved to the United States. He was now married with a middle school daughter and a life invested in the city, so he chose to remain in Portland. After working at the Japanese restaurant Koji, Seki happily accepted when the former owner asked if he would like to purchase the establishment. He renovated the building, upgraded the menu, and renamed his new establishment Sho Japanese Restaurant (Seki).

Owning a restaurant is no easy feat. My family would know, since my father often receives texts from Seki about the state of the restaurant. Seki’s sociable nature means he sends updates on nearly everything––what booths are in need of repair, why the WiFi keeps shutting down, how they accidentally received twenty pounds of soy sauce instead of miso paste. One day, back when we felt comfortable eating out, we were engaging in one of our normal tableside discussions with Seki. While I was nibbling on an edamame pod, my father asked, “Looking forward to the holidays?”

“Well, yes, but once we close on Christmas Eve, we are going to spend the evening and the next day painting,” he informed us while removing his glasses to rub his eyelids. He did, in fact, end up spending that entire Christmas at the restaurant with his son, covering booths in a fresh coat of lacquer paint (Seki). 

In early March 2020, it was no surprise then that Seki, in his extreme dedication to the restaurant, spent hours adding COVID-19 precautions and safety measures. He first installed large acrylic dividers between every booth, using sturdy chains and screws to hang them from the ceiling. The faded arrows on the floor were another addition, as were touchless soap and paper towel dispensers for the restrooms and bottles of hand sanitizer at each table. And in place of the handmade, polymer clay sculptures of bento boxes fit for Barbie was a line of twenty face masks that seemed to dress the front desk like a colorful garland. Sho experienced the greatest shift, however, after they were allowed to reopen for indoor dining (Seki).

By June 2020, Sho and other restaurants throughout the Portland area were given the go-ahead, granted they adhered to Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s strict safety guidelines. “You remember the tables––they used to be side-by-side, so you could see [other] customers,” Seki remarks as the memories of sitting in booths with my family near the back windows and enjoying bright orange sunsets fill my mind. It turns out being able to see clearly other customers’ salmon donburi is not a good thing during a pandemic, so while the restaurant used to sport seventeen separate tables, they had to scale back in order to maintain proper distance. “Now we can [only use] one, three, five,” Seki continues to count aloud, “seven, nine,” and eventually lands on ten tables. Maintaining six feet of distance while dining required a significant decrease in the number of tables, so Seki had to remove the incompatible ones and reorganize the entire dining room. Luckily, there was also expanded outdoor seating, although setting up that arrangement required just as much work. To supplement the three picnic tables on the elevated patio that provided occupancy for no more than ten people, in the summer of 2020, Seki constructed an expanded outdoor eating area in his parking lot. Wooden fencing stabilized by many four-by-fours grounded in concrete slabs formed a rectangle encapsulating five or six parking spots, in which eighteen customers could dine while maintaining appropriate distance. Due to the winter wetness and spring showers, a congregation of homeless people would threaten to set up camp outside the restaurant if he set up a waterproof tent, so Seki elected simply to deconstruct the extended eating area in the fall. These many COVID-19 upgrades were not for nothing, however, as indoor and outdoor dining accounted for 30% of their total revenue at the time (Seki).

Outdoor seating at Sho was popular last summer. Photograph from Sho Japanese Restaurant website

We convinced the city to shut down the street in front of us so we could put tents out there,” Smith responds to my question about major changes to his business. So by June 1, 2020, Mason had an outdoor eating area with a fifty-person capacity, allowing the business more easily to serve food on-premises again. Although the situation was looking up throughout the summer, there was another shutdown from November 2020 until Valentine’s Day in February 2021, during which Mason again focused on takeout. Luckily, Smith and his team felt ready for nearly every possible restriction or shutdown. They were so confident in their operations, in fact, that they even began returning some of their profit to the community. Smith acknowledges that they would have days “where a certain percentage of sales go to help nonprofits and things like that––just giving back” (Smith).

At one point, Smith’s landscaping business was flourishing so successfully that it led him to move to Atlanta. “I loved it, but I missed the West Coast,” he remarks, “so I came back.” His smile––one that makes his broad face seem to stretch beyond his graying sideburns, silver huggie earring, and off-kilter baseball cap––reveals his true love for his hometown. Even though the retirement plan did not work out as expected, since he is now working more than ever before, he struggles to articulate a least favorite part of the job. Interacting with and pleasing customers are surely among the highlights of his work, which comes as no surprise, considering the many wedding rehearsals, anniversaries, and parties hosted in the restaurant before the pandemic. Despite the challenges of being at the restaurant almost every day to prepare for four long evenings of meal service per week and working twelve-hour shifts, Smith still feels immense satisfaction and gratitude towards the community for the support they have offered throughout the past year. “My biggest thing about the pandemic was not to make a profit. My biggest thing was just to be able to pay our bills and pay our employees. That was really what helped me sleep at night.” Smith, no doubt, views his employees as the core of his restaurant (Smith).

Unfortunately, many restaurant employees have struggled significantly. A mere six weeks into the pandemic, six million of them lost their jobs in the U.S., accounting for one half of the total restaurant jobs in the country (Yamazaki Stewart). However, Seki reassuringly notes that the Paycheck Protection Program (known by insiders as PPP) ensured that his employees who chose not to work or who he was unable to pay received the same paycheck from the government as they did previously from the restaurant. In addition to money from the PPP, employees received a $1,200 federal stimulus check early on, along with unemployment benefits and $600 per week from the CARES Act Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program (Yamazaki Stewart). “Our employees have been amazing,” Smith says. “We’ve had people working with us since we opened six years ago.” While Mason required significantly fewer employees once the business shifted to takeout, Smith split the shifts equally among his staff to ensure everyone who wanted to continue working was given the opportunity. Smith explains that “a couple people volunteered to go on unemployment, and then as soon as we were able to hire them back, they came right back.” He is fortunate not to have lost any staff during the pandemic, which is not the case for all restaurants. As of April 2021, the U.S. restaurant industry was down 1.5 million jobs (Yamazaki Stewart). Although that figure is a major improvement from the six million job losses in the first COVID-19 lockdown, many businesses remain unable to pay their employees as well as they could previously––on average only 30% of their income prior to the pandemic (Yamazaki Stewart). At Sho, there was a sharp decrease in the number of employees. “In March,” Seki pauses to make sure the numbers are right, “our payroll was twenty one employees,” but once the pandemic began, “five staff decided to stay home at that time.” While five fewer employees could seem minimal, those five employees made up nearly 25% of the workforce at the restaurant. Fortunately, as vaccines are becoming publicly available, even the most at-risk servers are now returning to work (Seki and Smith). 

                    light drizzle has just begun. It creates a tapping on the corrugated metal roof of the restaurant and makes the sharp green lettering of the Round Table Pizza sign across the street fade away into the misty atmosphere. The light looks different than it did when I arrived at Sho, perhaps due to the large clouds hovering overhead. I briefly question my strange fascination with the clouds, while Seki looks into the distance, clearly thinking about what to mention next. What he says catches me off guard: “We need people, but we cannot find people.” That’s right. Despite being in the middle of a global pandemic and the return of nearly all of Sho’s staff, Seki is intent on hiring but is struggling to find anyone. And it’s not just his business that is struggling; “everybody says it’s hard to find people” (Seki).

“One of the challenges we are faced with right now, which is a direct result of the pandemic, is hiring,” explains Smith, whose business is in a similar position to that of Sho. “We’re not finding anyone wanting to come in to work.” I am stunned to hear that he describes the unemployment problem almost exactly as Seki did in my interview with him two weeks earlier. Perhaps the issue stems from fear of the virus itself. Restaurateur Vinod Trivedi of Sai Restaurant in London offers the idea that his employees were afraid to work or felt pressured not to work. “A few of my employees had refused to work because they had to take public transport,” explains Trivedi (“COVID-19 Eating Business”). “They were scared of the negative publicity from the Government” (“COVID-19 Eating Business”). This negative publicity to which Trivedi refers was the assumption that public transportation systems in London accelerated the spread of COVID-19, but this theory has been proven false by swabs from different locations within the Tube and bus systems that all tested negative for coronavirus (“Tests Negative”). While this example is specific to London, the fear of becoming infected with COVID-19 is very real across the world and has undoubtedly contributed to the decline in available restaurant employees (Smith).

Restaurants are having a difficult time hiring these days. Photograph by Joe Raedle / The Counter / GettyUnemployed workers defect and debate their next moves, leaving restaurant  owners to contend with a labor shortage

Although the decrease in people looking for employment can be credited to safety concerns, Seki and Smith both speculate that there is another cause: governmental pay. “The government pays so well,” starts Seki. “Some people get money––more than what they used to make working.” Only a few weeks prior to the interview, Seki posted online a job offering for kitchen workers. Normally, five to ten people would respond; he has not yet received a response. And to make the situation more difficult for small restaurants such as Sho and Mason, larger chain restaurants in the area are offering $2,000 incentives for new hires, money that small businesses just do not have lying around (Seki).

Hiring is not the only ongoing issue. Both restaurant owners suggest that business has yet to rebound to where it was prior to the pandemic. Seki explains that the restaurant is now operating at 25% capacity, allowing twenty-five occupants within the restaurant at any given time. On the weekends, there are ten employees at the restaurant, leaving room for fifteen customers. However, on the Saturday afternoon that I visit Sho for my interview, there are only seven customers––I can tell from the scuffed, plastic tally counter resting on the front desk. The absence of customers is deceptive, though. The surprising amount of background chatter would lead anyone to believe that business is strong, and that assumption is not far off. While the dining room is largely empty, the noise is perhaps explained by the sheer number of hungry customers entering to receive their takeout orders. Throughout my entire visit, I hear the sizzling of noodles and the slicing of fish, followed by the rustling of plastic bags and the singing of the little bell. Although business seems to be in tough shape at first glance, the truth that Seki confirms is that they are no longer concerned about their profit at the moment. He might even go as far as to say that they are doing fine (Seki).

Not only is business decent, but they are also reaching out to customers like never before. “I don’t like social media,” prefaces Seki, “but our Facebook and our Instagram… [serve to] preview something new––weekly specials, monthly specials to send to customers.” Since the pandemic began, Seki has missed interacting with his customers most of all. Now that the restaurant is open again, he has begun the restorative process of reforming lost connections with his patrons. Towards the end of the interview, he mentions casually, “I want to do, kind of, an employee-owned type of business.” While his job is extremely rewarding, he recognizes that he cannot continue working seven days a week forever. Besides, his staff are young and have bright futures. Clearly, major changes are in store for Sho at some point, but if the past year has taught Seki anything, it is that “no plan goes straight forever” (Seki). He chuckles. So do I. Then I notice the familiar mask smile––the wrinkles by the eyes, the perking of the eyebrows––and he adds, “It will be ok. I’m sure.”

Things are looking up at Mason, too. Their takeout system is down to a science, with staggered pickup schedules so that only two customers are waiting for their order at the same time. They can now seat twenty people within the restaurant. And their number of customers per night is approaching that of 2019, thanks in no small part to the outdoor dining area. “It’s getting to the point where we’re selling out most nights,” Smith says to my surprise. “That’s good and bad because I hate telling people no!” Indeed, Mason is lucky to be seeing plenty of customers these days, and Smith hopes this type of turnout will continue. Once the pandemic is behind us, Smith plans to open another restaurant with a different menu, while maintaining the highest-quality dining experience at the original Mason (Smith). These aspirations and a general positive attitude seem to be responsible for keeping businesses like Mason afloat. Moreover, the key to the success of Mason might just be Smith’s remarkable ability to remain flexible. “If this last year has taught me anything,” he says with a resolute yet contemplative tone, “it’s to be on my toes and be on guard for anything thrown at you and make it work.” I am impressed. It would have been easy enough just to throw in the towel. Converting a sit-down restaurant entirely into a takeout service––is there anything in Mason’s future that could be more difficult than that? Smith surely hopes not, but if something does come his way, I am confident that the business is in good hands.

While not yet completely in the clear, many restaurants are beginning to have hope for the future. Photograph from NurPhoto / Delish / Getty

or many restaurants across the country, however, the statistics remain frightening. Seki has heard that 76% of businesses in downtown Portland have closed due to the pandemic or the recent protests, and Smith personally knows three or four restaurants there that have shut down there (Seki and Smith). An April 2020 poll found that 25% of U.S. restaurants predicted that they could not survive more than one month of being closed (Lalley). What’s more, the National Restaurant Association determined that 17% of restaurants within the country had closed by December of last year (Breen). While the State of Oregon released a COVID-19 relief package for restaurants, studies show that irreparable damage has already fallen upon the industry (Prewitt).

Take a minute to imagine what life was like before the pandemic. Imagine your favorite places to visit in town––your favorite store, your favorite museum, your favorite theater, or maybe just your best friend’s house. And now picture your favorite restaurant in Oregon. Is it still in business? I hope so, but if it has shuttered, then it is just one of the 1,185 restaurants in the state that closed permanently in 2020 or the two hundred additional ones that have already shut down this year (Jackson-Glidden).

ho and Mason have had their fair share of difficulties this past year, from the stress of angry customers demanding their takeout meals as bitterly as the irate mother at Sho insisted her children eat their chicken, to the handful of people refusing to coöperate with mask mandates while on premises. What’s more, the sushi bar at Sho remains closed, and Mason has borne witness to the crumbling of its Sherwood community with the closing of many nearby businesses. But despite these challenges, both restaurants are fine––healthy, in fact. Smith posits, “We’re all going through this, and we will all be better for it if we support each other coming out of it. So that’s it.” As simple as this philosophy might be, it is just what we all need. After all, it comes from a successful restaurant owner, and if I’ve learned anything about restaurant owners, it is that they are not afraid to dive head-first into problems and solve their way out.

Nico, that one. Can you see that?” Seki waves over my shoulder, so I look to my left and see the large vestibule at the entrance to the restaurant, lined with wooden shelves containing bottles of sake and sticks of dried bamboo in ornate vases that gently shimmer in the light from the cluster of spotlights above. I am confused about what is so special about the poster for Sho’s new mocktails. “My wife wrote it.” Oh, I see: it turns out he had actually pointed at the tall vertical canvas that is hanging on the wall near the door. Atop the pearly base layer of paint are many brushstrokes made from deep black ink. What looks like a signature signed in muted red paint adorns the left corner of the canvas. The piece is in Japanese.

These black brushstrokes near Sho’s front door form Japanese script “ichigo ichie”, which has a special meaning. Photograph from World Orgs

I am confused, though. We had just been discussing the recent announcement that Governor Brown may close indoor dining again as the COVID-19 cases in the state are skyrocketing, a prospect that unsettled Seki minutes ago. But what does this all have to do with the Japanese characters to which he has drawn my attention? “That means: In life, we are lucky,” he clarifies. “For example, I’m lucky to see you.” I smile. “So that means we have to be appreciative.” Now it all makes sense. Seki recognizes how difficult the last year has been, but rather than complaining and giving up, he remains thankful for where he was at the beginning of the pandemic, where he is now, and where he hopes to go in the future. The lucky Japanese word on the wall says it all. “In the restaurant business, we think about that word, you know?” His restaurant is thriving, he and his family are well, and his community is strong. During such a tough time, it is worth stepping back, taking a deep breath, and appreciating our lives.

We are lucky.

Nico Johnson is a writer in 11th grade at Oregon Episcopal School. When not writing, he enjoys acting, cooking, filmmaking, learning languages (Spanish and Italian), producing music, and spending time with family and friends.

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