The recent spate of restaurant closings has raised the alarm in some circles as diners will miss eating at some old favorites, but there is a bigger story.

The question is not so much whether there is a restaurant bubble (Dec. 1) – restaurants open and close all the time. Rather, what does it mean that our city’s economy and identity are so heavily invested in an industry that is historically volatile and dependent on low-wage jobs? (These aren’t factory closings, after all.)

Back in the day, a cook or waiter (they weren’t called “servers” then) could afford a Portland rent in a central (if rundown) apartment; nowadays, that isn’t the case. Which is why restaurants are scrambling for staff. Add to that historically low unemployment, and the squeeze is on.

The elevation of the food industry – indicated by trends like farm to table, craft cocktails and single-origin coffee – may owe more to the lousy economy that Gen Xers and older millennials faced when breaking into the job market than to the intrinsic value of the services themselves. We see the same disturbing trend with people leveraging their homes and personal cars to take on makeshift careers as innkeepers and livery drivers.

The generational maturation made those industries cool, but it is getting harder to find someone with an advanced degree willing to pour hot water slowly into a coffee filter for 15 bucks an hour.

Zack Barowitz


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