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Diners didn't want their meals smoked

Correction: The Ashland Emergency Food Bank served 700 households in August. This story has been corrected to reflect that number.

During this summer’s wildfire smoke siege, the base of potential diners for Ashland's Greenleaf Restaurant was “halved,” cutting sales by roughly a hefty 50 percent and making their creekside dining a place customers didn’t want to go.

“It turned summer into something like you’d see in September or October,” says Manager Charlie Bass. “No one was out.”

Neil Clooney, owner of Smithfield’s restaurant, normally a spot for joyous summer imbibing and dancing outside, reports, “We lost the patio for five weeks. We have a short outside dining window and to lose it kinda sucks. We were down 10.8 percent in August.”

Looking into the future, Clooney notes, “I think it’s going to impact people’s travel plans. They’re not going to want to come to the Rogue Valley because of the risk of smoke, but it will be desirable for locals to be here. The lodging industry has suffered horrendously, close to 25 percent down.

“I’m not going to change anything. You can’t. This smoke has happened three times in the last five years. You have to staff accordingly. I can’t imagine next summer being as bad as this one. May and June were busy and people are now planning trips in September and October.

Clooney didn’t lay anyone off and didn’t hear stories about lack of money for basic needs among employees.

On the scale of optimistic versus pessimistic, Clooney says he is “realistic,” which means he believes the state as a whole has had enough of fire and smoke and the industry will find ways to reduce the fire danger and its accompanying smoke.

Elijah Katkin, owner of Brickroom on the Plaza, says the restaurant shut down its usually busy outside tables if smoke pushed the air quality past moderate.

The decline in business was “noticeable, but not an apocalypse and we’re fortunate to have a good local following,” said Katkin. “We heard a lot of raw feelings of displeasure, local chatter about staff feeling depressed, but a much bigger bummer was people talking about leaving the valley if this is the new normal.”

Louie’s of Ashland, a tavern with a Plaza entrance and considerable seating by the creek on Guanajuato Way, also closed its outside area numerous times. Those tables normally bring in more than half of Louie’s summer business, says Tom DuBois, husband of owner Melissa Jensen, but there was a silver lining as well.

“The main thing is we learned how amazing the people of Ashland are,” he says. “We were blown away by the amount of support we got through those challenging times. We saw more diners come more often. It was very emotional we were so happy and grateful to see them and we gave them extra care. Absolutely we’ll be here next summer and definitely in real good shape.”

At Dana Campbell Vineyards, just across the freeway from Ashland, owner Pat Flannery says business in the tasting room was down 10 percent in July and August — “not significant but definitely felt when people coming into Ashland started to decline. We still kept open every day, 1 to 6 o’clock, and we get a lot of folks from Ashland, Talent and Medford.”

One time, Flannery notes, some tourists sat in the tasting room, which looks out over Ashland. He had to show them a photo on the wall, with a view of town and they remarked, “So that’s what it’s supposed to look like!”

Brian Deels, owner of Unicorn Gifts & Toys on East Main Street says their going-out-of-business sale has nothing to do with smoke. After three decades as a fixture in town, they were already planning to close (they have a lease till the end of 2019), but she adds that the smoke “definitely changed the traffic pattern. People didn’t show up a lot. Actually, our sales are up over last year. Other business owners say it was absolutely awful.”

A key statistic comes from the Ashland Emergency Food Bank, which provides 18 percent of its three-day food boxes to transients and homeless — and the rest to the so-called “working poor.” In August, for the first time in its 40-year history, the food bank served more than 700 households.

George Kramer, president of the AEFB board, said the increased demand was linked at least in part to workers in the restaurant industry, who are directly impacted by the reduction of diners and tippers.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Daily Tidings file photoMartha Browning and Peter Fetterman of Los Angeles make their way through downtown Ashland in July wearing face masks due the poor air quality.