On Wednesday, the temperature in the tight kitchen at Blotto, a pizza restaurant in Seattle, reached 108 degrees. Like many restaurants in the city, Blotto does not have air conditioning. Facing due west, it gets hours of the summer-afternoon sunlight.
The pizzeria’s owners, Jordan Koplowitz and Caleb Hoffmann, work in the kitchen, easily the hottest area of the small shop. To cope, they are drinking plenty of water and draping themselves in cold, wet towels.
“We try to finish off making pizzas as early as possible so we can turn the ovens off, and we can get our employees and us out of the restaurant to go down and chill by the water,” Koplowitz said.
Blotto is just one of hundreds of restaurants trying to ride out a weeklong heat wave that has engulfed the Pacific Northwest, bringing record-breaking, triple-digit temperatures to a region where air conditioning is not the norm. But extreme heat, driven by human-caused climate change, is looking like a new fact of life for an industry that relies on a hot oven in the kitchen and comfortable customers in the dining room.
On more and more days, outdoor dining is out of the question, cooling costs soar and temperatures for kitchen workers approach the unbearable.
This week’s high temperatures — expected to last through the weekend and peak at about 110 degrees in parts of eastern Oregon and Washington — are reminiscent of the heat dome that settled over the region last summer, leading to the heat-related deaths of hundreds of people in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
Blotto opened its doors a little over a year ago, right before the start of the heat dome. The heat forced the restaurant to shut down for one day and to temporarily change its menu. To stay open this summer, the owners are trying to shorten serving hours as much as possible, and encouraging customers to order takeout.
“Everyone has been very game for just toughing it out and taking care of ourselves,” Hoffmann said.
But working at all during the heat wave is out of the question for Erica Montgomery, the owner and chef at Erica’s Soul Food, a food truck in Portland, Oregon. During last year’s heat wave, she shut down the truck after losing all of her food when the local power grid failed. This year, she is not taking any chances. Her truck has been closed this week, and any food she prepares for catering is stored in an air-conditioned kitchen space.
“If it is 95 degrees outside, it is going to be 10 to 15 degrees hotter than that inside the truck, at least,” she said. In Washington, just 53% of households use some form of air conditioning, and that number is 76% in Oregon, according to a 2022 report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
But even though Kirsten Weiler McGarvey, a 33-year-old student in Portland, has no air conditioning in her small apartment, she isn’t seeking out the cool dining rooms of restaurants, “since COVID-19 is still a thing.”
Last year, when the temperature in Portland reached 116, she noted that going out to eat was not even an option because many restaurants closed.
“Portland as a city is not equipped for the heat at all,” she said. “I think a lot of people in other parts of the country do really have the benefit of air conditioning being a normal thing. They don’t necessarily understand how crippling it can actually be. Last year, stuff was melting. Window blinds were melting. Roads were splitting.”
Nostrana, an Italian restaurant in Portland, had to close its doors completely during last year’s heat wave.
This year, the restaurant has so far closed only its outdoor dining. Cathy Whims, the chef and an owner, said no outdoor seating was allowed Tuesday, and “almost nobody chose to sit outside” Wednesday. She expected to close the patio on Friday and Saturday nights, too.
Whims said it is a tough call to cancel outdoor dining, as it means losing reservations for the many people who are still not comfortable eating indoors because of the recent COVID surge. During heat waves like this, Whims estimates that business drops by 30% to 40%, during what is normally the busiest time of year for Portland restaurants.
She added that energy costs also spike during periods of high heat, and that places with air conditioning “don’t have the kind of power to manage this kind of heat.”
Operating a restaurant over the past few years has been one pivot after another, Whims said. “All of these decisions are just unfortunately so in the moment, in the same way that COVID decisions were and are.”
Double Mountain Brewery, about an hour’s drive east of Portland on the Columbia River in Hood River, Oregon, serves pizza with its beers — but only if temperatures cooperate. The impact of this week’s heat wave has been relatively minor for customers at Double Mountain, where air conditioning and cold beer are able to keep them cool, said Matt Swihart, the owner and brewmaster.
The kitchen is taking the brunt of the heat, he said. The pizza ovens’ exhaust hoods, which help direct smoke out of the building, also bring in hot air from outside. After having to close during last summer’s deadly heat wave, Swihart now shuts off the pizza ovens when the kitchen reaches 100 degrees, as it did Wednesday and Thursday. When that happens, the brewery switches to a sandwich-only menu.
“That has preserved the peace with our staff,” he said. “The pandemic stress and changes restaurants all around the nation faced were particularly hard on the service industry, and we just don’t have any room to push at all. We err on the side of keeping our staff happy and as comfortable as possible, and give them accommodations.” On days when Double Mountain can serve only sandwiches, Swihart estimates the business loses 30% to 40% of daily revenue. Its electrical costs have risen 25% during these hot spells, he said, and the refrigeration and HVAC systems are “really working overtime right now.”
During last year’s heat, monthly energy costs jumped by thousands of dollars. Looking forward, Swihart said he is planting more trees along the outside dining area to create more shade, and installing an additional $20,000 cooling unit.
But at Blotto, the Seattle pizza restaurant, Hoffmann and Koplowitz don’t plan on adapting the restaurant for future heat waves. Since it has no air conditioning, the high temperatures mean slightly higher costs for refrigeration, but nothing that will break the bank, they said. “It impacts us two days out of the year,” Koplowitz said. “It’s hard to put money or time into solving a problem that barely exists.”
“It definitely does make me thankful for the fact that this is something that we deal with about once a year — obviously with increasing frequency, duration and severity, which is scary,” Hoffmann added. “But all in all we do have it pretty easy up here in Seattle for most of the rest of the year.”
Swihart is less sanguine.
“The climate is indeed getting warmer every year,” he said. “I just hope these events aren’t increasing, but my scientific brain tells me that they are going to get worse.”