The winter sun sank behind Haystack Rock on a Friday in January, turning the horizon a brilliant gold. A crowd of people swarmed in the deep purple shadow, their voices hushed by crashing waves as they took selfies at the rock and dug small fires into the sand.
January is supposed to be the slow season on the north Oregon coast, but this year – despite, or perhaps because of, the ongoing pandemic – Cannon Beach is still bustling with activity.
Locals said the coastal town has been busier than usual this winter, populated primarily by regional tourists seeking a brief escape to the ocean. That’s been a boon for some local businesses in Cannon Beach, but for many the crowds haven’t translated into dollars.
Jim Paino, executive director of the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce, confirmed that this winter has been busier than normal, with hotels and vacation rentals filling up as people visit the Oregon coast during what the chamber hopefully advertises as “the magic season.”
“We are getting more people coming to our community to escape and get out of their day-to-day routine,” Paino said. However, “I wouldn’t quite call it normal tourism.”
There’s a general attitude that while travel is safe, going inside businesses still feels too risky for many people, he said. And while some businesses have found ways to survive – a florist who now works from home, a clothing store that moved online – restaurants are still struggling to get by.
Unlike attraction-centric coastal towns like Newport or Seaside, Cannon Beach is above all else a restaurant town, where high-priced seafood and wine commingle with craft breweries and fried fish, all in the shadow of the iconic Haystack Rock.
It’s that high-class tourism that Holly Lorincz-MacGregor and her husband, Chip MacGregor, hoped to tap with their twin businesses, MacGregor’s Whiskey Bar in Manzanita and their offshoot bar and restaurant in Cannon Beach, which opened in 2019, and in June expanded into a neighboring space that was previously occupied by Morris’ Fireside Restaurant.
Oregon’s recent approval of cocktails to-go has been a relief for the whiskey bar, Lorincz-MacGregor said, but the new rule is just the latest twist in what has otherwise been an extraordinarily frustrating year, when even basic planning has been impossible.
Forget knowing what seasons will bring business, she said, their challenge has been knowing what days of the week will be successful.
“There has been consistently no consistency,” Lorincz-MacGregor said. “We’re always trying to gauge what it is that a tourist community like this wants, if there’s even going to be any tourists here, and how best to go about it so we’re not losing money.”
The efforts at MacGregor’s have come in fits and starts. Breakfast used to be their most popular meal, but it just didn’t translate to takeout. They tried lunch service next, but it didn’t catch on either. Now, they’re giving dinner a try, with basic pub food and the new to-go cocktails.
It’s almost been enough to pay the bills, Lorincz-MacGregor said, but the necessary adaptations have come with a cost, not just to her bank account but to her heart as well.
“We opened it with the intent that it would be a high-end whisky bar,” she said. Now, MacGregor’s is serving up fried fish and burgers just to get by, “which kills my soul, because it’s not the vision for my restaurant and my bar that I have.”
The biggest challenge for restaurants in Cannon Beach this winter has been the lack of indoor seating — or rather, the lack of consistency in what’s been allowed.
Restaurant regulations in Oregon are determined by the COVID-19 risk level for each county, updated with new data every two weeks. This winter, Clatsop County has bounced between “high” and “extreme” risk, straddling the line between indoor dining being allowed at smaller levels, or prohibited entirely. On Jan. 26, the state announced the county would remain at “extreme risk” through at least Feb. 12.
That’s meant two-week stretches of limited indoor dining and two-week stretches of outdoor dining or takeout only – a maddening dance for restaurant managers. Those who only have indoor dining areas are forced to rely on a shaky takeout model to get by, while restaurants with outdoor seating have seen waits of up to two or three hours to get a table.
The Driftwood Restaurant & Lounge, a staple in downtown Cannon Beach, has long been known for its patio seating, which has expanded around the corner during the pandemic. When indoor dining has been closed this winter, people have waited for hours just to get a seat outside.
General manager Jordan Maier said while it’s nice to be busy, it’s frustrating that the restaurant can’t meet the demand. The five tables the restaurant added outside don’t make up for what’s been lost inside, and the smaller staff sometimes can’t keep up with the glut of takeout orders. Now he also needs to train servers on the new rules for to-go cocktails, which at least promise a helpful source of revenue.
“We’re just doing what we can, for who we can, while we’re here and able,” Maier said. “I can’t do anything about it. I’m just kind of stuck, playing the game.”
Maier said he tries to gauge how busy the week will be by calling up local hotels. More hotel guests generally mean more takeout orders, he said. Hotel occupancy has been high this winter, according to the Chamber of Commerce, and vacation rentals have been booked up as well.
For Cannon Beach Vacation Rentals, a local rental company with everything from condos to big beach houses, this winter has been yet another successful season. T.J. Buehler, a partner at the rental company, said they’ve seen mostly regional travelers staying for long weekends this month, with a few long-haul vacationers as well.
“So far through mid-January, it has been a busier winter than last year’s winter for sure, unequivocally,” Buehler said. “From the town’s perspective, certainly people are around, but their activities are limited.”
That leads to a strange kind of dissonance in the tourist town. Last weekend, the town was full of people — walking the beach, hiking at nearby parks and filling outdoor tables at restaurants – while at the same time business owners echoed a constant refrain: These times are dire.
That’s true even at restaurants that are doing relatively well. David Johnson, owner of Fultano’s Pizza in downtown Cannon Beach, said the local takeout boom has been kind to his pizza delivery business, and has helped keep their heads above water.
“I would say we’re really fortunate,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we’re quite as busy as normal, but it’s close.”
But while the volume of calls is up, Fultano’s has had a hard time hiring enough delivery drivers and maintaining the staff it needs to meet the demand, he said. That means delivery times are also up, about twice what they would be normally. Typical Friday night deliveries would take 30 to 45 minutes this time of year, Johnson said, but that’s ballooned up to 90 minutes this winter.
Like all other restaurants in Cannon Beach, Fultano’s has also relied on indoor dining in the past. When allowed, they’ve set up a few tables inside this winter, which supplement the four that can fit on their patio. People are willing to sit at those indoor tables, Johnson said, but because of the shifting restrictions, Fultano’s can’t always seat them.
“Overall, most of the customers we’ve talked to are just rooting us on,” he said. “I think for the most part people are concerned about the businesses and want to support them, and want to make sure they’re still around when things get back to normal.”
As vaccines against COVID-19 begin to roll out across Oregon, business owners in Cannon Beach see a light at the end of the tunnel. But amid an uncertain winter – with an uncertain spring and summer ahead – stress continues to run high.
At MacGregor’s, the restaurant’s survival is always in question, the answer shifting with every state restriction, each new twist in the drama of the pandemic. Indoor dining might mean another month of survival, Lorincz-MacGregor said, while another failed attempt at takeout could mean closing up for good.
“Every day is a new day, every single month we have to make that decision,” Lorincz-MacGregor said. “Every month we get [indoor dining] shut down we have to have that conversation: Is now the time?”
The problem is not just monetary, but existential for Cannon Beach, locals said. What is a small town without its local businesses, its beloved restaurants?
As the early winter sun slipped past the horizon, the patio at Driftwood was buzzing with happy customers. Dog owners exchanged stories across the fire pit. A family shared a meal at the new outdoor tables. A couple sipped wine and stared out across town.
Inside, Maier was busy running the show. The restaurant is serving fewer people, but he’s been busier than ever. Keeping up with the county’s changing risk levels means making two schedules for staff, and always planning for two very different dining experiences.
The Driftwood seems to be in good enough shape, he said, but the same can’t be said across town. As he does his best to stay afloat, he watches friends, neighbors and colleagues facing unthinkable decisions this winter.
“It breaks my heart, man, seeing solid restaurants going down,” Maier said, taking a moment to sit down and breathe. “I’m not going to let that happen here, though.”