Odor Complaints Closed This Vietnamese Restaurant. Now, Portland Is Changing Its Rules. – Eater Portland

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When Pho Gabo closed its Fremont location at the end of February, a sign on the door told customers the indefinite shuttering was due to “the city’s and the neighborhood’s complaints about the smell of the food that we grill and the foods that we serve customers.” Plenty of people, including organizations like the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association and the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), were up in arms over what smacked of racial or xenophobic bias, given Pho Gabo’s proximity to other restaurants who were not cited with odor complaints.

To address these concerns, Portland City Commissioner Carmen Rubio announced on March 27 that the city will review and update its odor complaint policy. This comes after Rubio called for a pause in enforcement of the odor code earlier in the month; it’s still unclear when changes will go into effect. “After my staff met with the impacted business owner, it became clear that the City’s regulation and enforcement of odor issues is outdated and needs a more fair, practical, and equitable approach,” Rubio said in the March 27 press release. “My goal is to see the code changes happen as soon as possible.”

Rubio’s staff will start by investigating the regulation and how other governments handle odor complaints. From there, Rubio will work with the Bureau of Development Services to go over the most recent odor-related complaints and how they were addressed. After that research and investigation period, staff will propose revised regulations “that consider the appropriate application to food establishments and

consider the costs and impacts of compliance on business owners,” in the words of the press release.

As Willamette Week first reported, an anonymous neighbor had been filing city odor-related zoning code complaints about Pho Gabo since September 2022, five years after the restaurant opened. City inspectors visited the restaurant a dozen times since then, and despite preventative measures, the restaurant racked up city fines related to the zoning code violations. As it’s currently written, the zoning code says an odor violation occurs when “an odor may just be detected.”

In a public statement responding to the restaurant’s closure, APANO said that the current zoning code “disproportionately impacts the BIPOC-owned businesses that bring vibrancy and cultural diversity to our neighborhoods.”

Justin Lindley, a city planner in the Property Compliance Division, Zoning who handles odor cases, told Eater Portland it’s a “very small fraction” of the work he does. When he gets an odor complaint, he references the zoning to see if the complaint matches the code, working through an investigation of the location and surrounding area before even going to the site. He’ll walk the area, check the wind and its direction, then try to determine if theodor in question is coming from the site.

Significantly, Lindley says that as the code is currently written, he does not make a determination as to the quality of the reported smell; if he detects it, it goes in the report. He says he loves food, and he loves the smell of all kinds of things that make him hungry, but he tries to simply focus on whether he detects a smell at all, regardless of what it is. “It’s difficult for restaurants,” Lindley says. “The only way I differentiate a smell is to try and locate which restaurant the smell is coming from.”

And as the work stands, he is only reporting if he smelled an odor repeatedly, rather than just once or twice.

To be sure, it’s fairly rare for neighbors to call in each other’s bad smells in the Rose City. Portland only received 28 odor complaints in the last five years, according to city records obtained by OPB. Many filed complaints were related to nail salons, cannabis dispensaries, and auto shops. Lindley points out factories and crematoriums fall under the non-residential code as it stands, too. That said, Lindley points out these commercial fines can be steep, climbing into the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. “That’s a last ditch effort,” Lindley says. “We work with properties as long as we can to avoid that.”

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