Café Nell crushes COVID
The pandemic has been a full-service plague on Portland restaurants, but at least one local restaurant has made the most of the circumstances.
Café Nell at 1987 NW Kearney St. has expanded its seating capacity and footprint, turning a former parking lot into wall-to-wall tenting while also taking advantage of relaxed COVID-related rules to build covered dining platforms in the street.
Neighbors estimate that the restaurant, which has an indoor seating capacity of 49, now has more than 100 outdoor seats. Propane heaters provide each table with warmth, backed up by an industrial-grade natural gas furnace. In tandem, they keep patrons, in the words of reviewers, “super-toasty” and warm enough to remove one’s cashmere sweater.
The furnace also emits noise, which particularly troubles the family whose home abuts Café Nell on two sides.
“In addition, there is a separate Bluetooth speaker inside the outdoor lounge,” said Renee Mercado, who lives with her husband and three children directly north of the restaurant. “This speaker plays a separate soundtrack and is turned up so that when all 70-plus diners are talking, they can still hear the music. This speaker reverberates between the buildings and into our bedrooms.
“It’s putting the neighbors through absolute hell and bedlam,” she told the NW Examiner.
Some neighbors have pointed stereos outward to blare their own music in retaliation. Bedlam indeed.
Scarlett Wise, whose home is hemmed in on two sides by the restaurant, said, “We … live through pure hell. Music, high-powered machines and crowds of people 12 to 14 hours per day, seven days per week.
“I took my daughters to stay with family for the weekend and dreaded returning home. My ears are ringing, and I am not able to focus when I am in the house.
“My daughter has a learning disability and is suffering from headaches, and her ears are also ringing. She is having a terrible time focusing on her schoolwork under these conditions.
“We have moved out of our bedrooms and are bunking on the other side of the house. We pray for 11 p.m. to arrive each day so we can get some rest,” Wise said.
Calls to Café Nell owner Vanessa Preston have been “completely ignored,” she said. “I have called the city crying my eyes out on two separate occasions. Nothing has been corrected.”
Preston did not respond to offers to comment on this story.
Mercado has also been complaining, beginning last June. By January, she became so frustrated with inaction that she blasted about a dozen city officials with a three-page accounting of grievances City Hall could no longer ignore.
Mercado was pleased to get a thorough response in late January from Jill Grenda, supervising planner with the Portland Bureau of Development Services.
Grenda’s four-page email noted several things amiss. Because Cafe Nell is on a residentially zoned parcel, it is only allowed to continue operating there if it does not expand or intensify its activity. The business rents a parking lot behind the property, and this space is now fully covered by a tent and lean-tos.
“Expanding the restaurant use into that parking lot would not be allowed without an approved Nonconforming Situation Review,” Grenda wrote. No such permission has been sought.
Mercado registered an official zoning violation complaint in late January.
Complaints to Portland Fire & Rescue that the gas-powered heater is a fire hazard and emits carbon dioxide got nowhere.
“These types of heaters are allowed and often used to heat tents for special events and construction sites when temporary heat is needed,” wrote Assistant Fire Marshal Nate Takara.
The noise complaints went to the Noise Control Office, which is part of the Office of Community & Civic Life.
Noise Control Officer Paul van Orden inspected the site and measured 70 decibels from the gas-powered heater, well over the 55 decibel limit in residential zones. He met with Preston, who agreed to install a temporary sound barrier by the machine.
“This will reduce the sound significantly,” van Orden wrote in a letter to Neville Mercado, Renee’s husband.
“I had a discussion with the operators of the business about my expectations for these small (Bluetooth) speakers being kept in compliance with the city code,” he continued. “This includes the need to be sensitive to not leave the units on past 10 p.m. I cannot legally ask them to remove these speakers, but they are removing the closest one to your neighbor at my suggestion.”
Van Orden promised to follow up to see “there will be no significant noise” requiring enforcement during the pandemic.
That word again. The Healthy Businesses program was unfurled by the Portland Bureau of Transportation to give businesses and restaurants in particular a means to stay open despite limits on indoor dining. The program has encouraged restaurants to put seating in parking lanes by waiving normal fees and by expediting the permitting process.
Tents and canopies are allowed, and in practice almost any type of structure seems to pass muster. Original requirements that outdoor shelters be open on three sides have given way to many largely enclosed spaces.
The temporary Healthy Businesses program was to expire last November, but it was extended through March 31. The Mercados worry that the elaborate outdoor operation will become permanent.
How much accommodation to business is appropriate in these times?
“Especially during this COVID time,” wrote Civic Life manager Michael Montoya, “we are attempting to find the least-worst solutions to control unwanted noise while enabling our businesses to remain open.”
Van Orden wrote of providing “leeway … in the pandemic period.”
“I am very concerned about the point you made that the city always tries to help businesses come into compliance,” Renee Mercado wrote. “I think that is a compassionate goal in most cases, but in this one, it comes at a great expense to many tax-paying residents that border this venue, to only benefit one financially.”
In addition to 70 seats in the former parking lot, tables on the street and sidewalk can seat 38, she calculates.
“While most restaurants are at 25 percent of seating capacity from a year ago, this restaurant has more than doubled their seating capacity, and this is at the expense of the neighboring residential properties,” she said.
“We are also all committed to Café Nell continuing its operation,” her husband added, although “the cost and impact to our neighborhood is immense.”
Wise sees no hardship for Café Nell. There are far more customers at the restaurant now than before the pandemic, and prices have gone up, she said.
Steak frites went from $24 before COVID to $32 now, and grilled salmon from $29 to $38, for instance.
Unmentioned was a forgivable $183,280 loan to Café Nell in April, and two later ones of $150,000 and $10,000 under the federal Payroll Protection Program to keep 20 employees on the job.
“COVID has been a windfall for this place,” Wise said.
Late last month, she notified neighbors of intent to seek a waiver of noise limits “to stay a part of your community and continue outdoor operations through the winter with additional heating equipment.”