Demographics are shifting in one of the whitest cities in the country.
Nooooo, no, no, it’s not getting less white, sorry. But fascinating changes are happening among its foreign born population, and those who claim foreign ancestry, that could have big impacts on the city as numbers increase, even with percentages staying flat.
The city, more specifically, is Portland, Oregon. The impact, more specifically, is on its food scene. We wanted to know in a city already known for global culinary variety – maybe even disproportionately so – how could current demographic trends shape that further? How should it?
Using 2013-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates data and Yelp restaurant listings, we assessed the size of existing ethnic communities, leveraging Place of Birth as a proxy for first generation residents and Single Ancestry Identified for subsequent generations. We then determined the projected growth of both categories, and the current number of Portland area restaurants categorized by Yelp with the associated ethnic label.
If current projections hold, a 2020 Portland will be less Eastern European and more Middle Eastern; less Central American and more South American; less West African and more East African. Some larger entrenched communities will decline in relative size, – Vietnamese will be surpassed by Indians and Chinese – while others will continue to flourish, like the British and Ethiopian.
It all makes for a much different salad, to use the multiculturalism metaphor du jour, even if it’s still being served from a white bowl. But is Portland ready for it? Hardly. Even today there are communities whose traditional cuisines are under-represented not just relative to the size of the group, but also relative to broader appeal beyond the group that made Olive Garden and Panda Express global, rather than regional, brands. Those discrepancies are only going to intensify in the years to come.
Which brings us to how we can help.
These are the Eight Global Cuisines that Portland Should Have (or Have More of) But Doesn’t:
Yelp count: 59
In 2017, Oregon’s Asian population replaced Hispanics (Census terms) as the state’s fastest growing demographic, and the Rose City was not exempt. In 2020, the foreign born population from Asia is expected, for the first time, to surpass the foreign born population from anywhere in the Americas – a category including all North, Central, South American and Caribbean groups. Along with the Chinese, this growth is driven extensively by the Indian population: no group will add more members to the city between 2016 and 2020 (over 8k). However, the size of the community isn’t the only reason some may be surprised to see just 59 Indian restaurants listed in the Portland metro area: the cuisine is widely popular across the country, and would seem to have particular appeal to Portlanders in at least one way.
Yelp count: 8
The Philippines trail only India in fastest growth rate and largest projected net growth among the foreign-born population of Portland. By 2020, Portlanders either born in the Philippines or claiming Filipino descent will represent the eighth largest ethnic group from a single country in the city and, unlike all but two of those, will still be growing. With just eight Filipino restaurants, the group easily takes the cake for fewest restaurants relative to ethnic community size – about one for every 1,100 Filipinos, compared to one Vietnamese restaurant per 120 people of Vietnamese origin or descent. What else do you need to qualify for a Jollibee, the Bay-Area-based franchise which already has a PNW location in the Seattle suburbs? Yung kanin, chicken adobo!
Yelp count: 3
Brazilians are a small but fast-growing population in Portland. As the growth of the Central American demographic stalls and becomes outpaced by South Americans, the lion’s share of blame goes to brasileiros, who are projected to effectively double in size between 2016 and 2020. Brazilian food in America also benefits from a somewhat broader steakhouse appeal that could reel in some of the less adventurous. Selfishly, though, we’re hoping it’s feijoada that tastes like someone’s grandma made it, served with craft caipirinhas.
Yelp count: 56 if we’re extremely generous
No disrespect intended: we were as surprised as anyone to find that these observably distinct food cultures are typically marketed together. But however you combine them, foods from what the census would call “West Asia” – Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, among others – have exploded to broad popularity, from high end “Mediterranean” restaurants, to what we at Rum & Biscuits frequently observe is the de facto catered corporate lunch (something for everyone, supposedly). This soaring mass appeal in Portland’s case is supplemented by 3% annual growth in the population claiming Arab ancestry, and 4% increase in the foreign-born West Asian population, bolstered by huge gains among the Turkish population. Yet a mere 56 restaurants fall into the wide West Asian category umbrella offered by Yelp (add “Middle Eastern,” “Mediterranean” and “Afghani” to the above). If all the culinary drivers are trending up, we’d suggest restaurant number should as well.
Malaysian (Southeast Asian)
Yelp count: 1 (Malaysian), 6 (Cambodian)
Between 2016 and 2020, the nations of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Malaysia are expected to add five thousand more residents to Portland’s foreign born population – roughly the equivalent of the city’s entire 2016 Ethiopia and Eritrean communities (both native- and foreign-born). While hardly short on the widely-known Thai or Asian Fusion fronts, the city’s purist artisans could no doubt do justice to (and profit from) a Malay reply to chef Andy Richter’s Pok Pok – your go-to, partially-covered patio for authentic char kway teow and session IPAs in a plastic chair.
Yelp count: 11 (British or Irish)
The UK is one of just three nations whose emigrants and descendants in Portland number over 100k. Of the three, the Kingdom’s is the only group benefiting from fresh meat – with new Brits still arriving from across the pond at increasing rates. And so beyond your dimly-lit, sticky-floored pub notwithstanding, we may be in a classic “grow-the-category play”: Portland is just begging for a great British food scene…provided people think there’s such a thing as great British food. That’s a battle already well underway though, and one easily picked up. But even for the less convinced, the numbers could also justify more options from around the commonwealth, from Australian, whose presence is also expanding, to the aforementioned Indian.
Yelp count: 15 (Caribbean), 14 (Cuban), 3 (Haitian)
Portland’s Caribbean cuisine, like the region itself, is anything but a monolith. And that makes it hard to predict. Grenadians are leaving, Barbadians are coming; among native-born Portlanders, Jamaicans are disappearing and Trinis are burgeoning; among new immigrants, the trend is reversed. One trend seems to hold, however: Hispaniola is here to stay. Cubans and Haitians currently make up 69% of the foreign born Caribbean population of Portland. That number is expected to increase to 92% by 2020. Numbers of PDXers identifying as having Haitian ancestry are also increasing, and Caribbeans collectively will outnumber Ethiopians and Eritreans, even with the stellar growth numbers expected among the latter. Subjectively, Cuban food was so good on the East Coast, so rare on the West, and so bitterly missed by us here at Rum & Biscuits that it’s hardly a surprise that some Portlanders are already catching on to a good thing. Our advice in this case: don’t walk toward mafongo, Portland. Run.
Yelp count: 11
Ah, the bread and butter of PDX. Or is it the injera and wat? However, you spread it, Ethiopian cuisine, like Vietnamese, has something of a special reputation among the global cuisines of Portland. And thanks in part to food trends promoting plant- and lentil-heavy diets, alternative grains, and, hey, bangin’ coffee, Ethiopian food is a hot and growing food culture in America. But from the restaurant numbers in Portland you wouldn’t know it. Between 2016 and 2020, only four countries (all Asian) will see a greater increase in their numbers as a percentage of Portland’s overall foreign born population. When coupled with their Eritrean neighbors, Ethiopians will more than double in size between 2016 and 2020. And you know what, we want some doro tibs, too, so frankly eleven restaurants aint going to cut it!
This is just what we observe looking at global cuisines relative to their affiliated host communities, but it’s hardly the whole story. To lazily use another Bloomin’ Brands chain, Outback Steakhouse doesn’t have 900 locations because “OMG, look at all these Australians!” It’s got some pretty broad appeal, and this is the third dimension introduced at the outset of the article. If Portland’s Icelandic community exploded to thirty thousand people, would the people petition for a fermented shark shop? Diplomatically, let’s just say not if those people were Anthony Bourdain. Suffice to say, we appreciate the tipping point between indigenous support vs. steak-and-potatoes ubiquity. Which is why we pulled together below.
As our points on the grid elevate higher, the ethnic population associated with the cuisine is increasing in size; points further right on the spectrum have arguably more broad appeal – that is, be sought out by non-group members outside (this is key) of big, diverse cities.
Where to draw the line is subjective, but projected growth offered the tie breaker. Upward trajectories in groups like East Africans and Caribbean gave them the nod in our list, even while their foods may be less familiar to suburban America. The city’s Russian population, facing similar exclusivity, had a much more significant population, but with numbers in decline may not be the most solid investment for the next John Gorham project. Only the Brits occupied a sweet spot of such a high population, such minimal decline, and better-than-terrible cross-cultural appeal that they earned our love even with dipping numbers.
Regardless of the data, our main hope is the one that we’re also most confident in: that Portland keep adding restaurants, regardless. When the Rum & Biscuits blog was in town over the holidays, every new hot restaurant to try was Spanish (including the hottest). They even played U.S. host for 2017’s World Tapas Day. There are just a few hundred people of Spanish descent in Portland, but that doesn’t matter because after enough time on the East Coast we were begging for croquetas and jamon iberico back when Spaniards in PDX were probably more of a statistical error than anything. The same goes for Jamaican. Same goes for Cuban.
Portland has been and continues to be special because of its unique test market status – yes, we know they hate that label but we LOVE IT. Market size be damned, if Portland builds it we will come. Just please build it delicious. We know you will.