Eli Johnson, owner of Atlas Pizza, stands in front of the Atlas Pizza on Southeast Foster Road. Photo by Joe Yalowitz / Portland Bureau of Transportation.
By Joe Yalowitz
(Oct. 8, 2020) These days, while patrons of Atlas Pizza on Southeast Foster dine street-side on new outdoor picnic tables, Atlas owner Eli Johnson is alone in the dining room, stacking mounds of gloves, face masks, water, and dry food. Atlas Pizza and Colin Carroll, owner of the 5&Dime next door, have collected over $300,000 in goods for the Warm Springs Tribe, firefighters, victims of wildfires and others who have been suffering during the pandemic.
The new outdoor setup enables both aspects of this unlikely scene. Atlas hosts community fundraisers using the new tables on a regular basis where Portlanders can donate materials. And Johnson says that Atlas itself “wouldn’t have survived” without the ability to serve pizza outside on Foster. In the spring, when Atlas opened back up, Johnson applied for a Healthy Businesses Permit with the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). With permit in hand, he used parking spaces for a custom built stage and installed sturdy, well-spaced picnic tables able to seat dozens of customers.
UPDATE: Businesses can apply online for a Winter Healthy Businesses permit. Businesses that have a permit for the program that started in June should apply by Oct. 25, to have a permit processed by Nov. 1, for continuous operation.
Eli Johnson sits at one of Atlas Pizza's outdoor picnic tables. Photo by Joe Yalowitz / Portland Bureau of Transportation.
During the summer, Johnson enjoyed popping into Atlas to have a cold drink and check in on rising pizza dough and busy employees. As business has slowly bounced back, Atlas has been able to hire back many formerly laid-off employees. And they are now paid more per hour than before—a raise that reflects the strain of working in the service industry during a pandemic.
Johnson knows the deal because he worked in kitchens for much of his adult life. After moving to Portland in the early 90s from Ohio, he cut his teeth cooking at old Portland establishments around town. After more than a decade, Johnson saw an opportunity to rejuvenate a then-sleepy bar called Dots Café. He borrowed against his house, his girlfriend's house -- and his business partner's car -- to get a loan. When Dots took off, Johnson and his business partner John Ricci were able to open the first Atlas on Division in 2014.
Business was booming at the three Atlas locations until the pandemic hit. Concerned about public safety, Atlas shut down before Gov. Kate Brown issued a stay-at-home order and was forced to lay off dozens of employees.
Now, after receiving a couple of emergency loans and PBOT’s Healthy Businesses permit, money is flowing back in at three Atlas Pizza locations. Counting Dots Café and the 5&Dime where Johnson is an owner,
“Without those outdoor seats, we’d be closed and there wouldn’t been a penny for anyone, or jobs for the 50 people we’ve got working now,” he said.
Beyond his own employees, Johnson reflects on the whole supply chain that supports a small business. During reopening this summer, Atlas spent about $14,000 on routine maintenance of refrigerators, ovens and other equipment. In addition, reopening meant work for contractors like bookkeepers and janitors, and suppliers like farms that produce food and couriers making deliveries.
“I can’t calculate the impact that one open business has for a community.”
Photo of the outside of Atlas Pizza, displaying the new outdoor seating supported by PBOT's Healthy Businesses Program. Photo by Joe Yalowitz / Portland Bureau of Transportation.
During this past summer, the bustle inside Atlas’s kitchens has not just been caused by hungry customers. Atlas donated several hundred pies to Black Lives Matter since demonstrations began in late May. This goodwill is key to the community-centric mission of Atlas. Sitting down at the picnic tables outside Atlas, Johnsons points to several colorful murals on Foster painted through Atlas-organized events. Giving to the neighborhood is not new for Atlas; since the beginning, Johnson has put hard-earned dollars toward public schools and monthly craft nights geared towards kids.
Beyond Atlas, Johnson hopes to mentor young Portlanders. For now, like any other business owner in these trying times, he’s looking to get through the year.
The challenges are not simply financial.
“I really miss high-fiving,” Johnson says. “When this is all over, come by, and I’ll give you a big hug.”
Joe Yalowitz is a Communications & Public Involvement Intern at the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
Learn more about the City's response to the COVID-19 pandemic
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The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) is the steward of the city’s transportation system, and a community partner in shaping a livable city. We plan, build, manage, and maintain an effective and safe transportation system that provides access and mobility. Visit portland.gov/transportation