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Vietnamese Restaurant Shuts Down Over Odor Complaints

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Vietnamese Restaurant Shuts Down Over Odor Complaints
Source: Pinterest

Vietnamese Restaurant Shuts Down Over Odor Complaints

Source: Pinterest

A pho restaurant in Portland, Oregon, has temporarily closed its doors due to odor complaints by a neighbor. It raises a timely conversation about potentially discriminatory city smell codes. Portland has a smell code that restricts frequent odors from being omitted from an establishment within specific city zones. However, after these recent complaints, this code is being criticized by the public and lawmakers alike.

Complaints of Odor

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In September 2022, Eddie Dong, the owner of Pho Gabo, received his first notice that a neighbor living near his restaurant had complained of the odors emanating from the eatery. Dong was shocked by the notice, especially since he had run the restaurant in this area for five years without anyone ever complaining about odors.

Complaints Became Repeated

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These odor complaints kept coming in the years that followed. All these complaints were made by one person, a neighbor who lives several houses down from Pho Gabo. Because of these repeated complaints, the city started to threaten Dong with a fine, as they said he wasn’t doing anything to get rid of these alleged odor issues.

The Owner Tried to Fix the Issues

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After the complaints became repeated, Dong tried to fix odor issues his Vietnamese restaurant may have had. This ultimately led to the owner deep cleaning various parts of his eatery, such as the kitchen hoods and the entire exhaust system.
Dong also tried installing charcoal filters, hoping this would help lessen the smell of cooking food. However, nothing worked, and the complaints kept coming.

What Exactly Was the Odor?

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Curious about the odor that the pho restaurant was emitting that caused this neighbor to file an official complaint with the city? Well, it was just natural cooking odors.
“They complained to the city, and the city came down,” Dong explained. “They say ‘odor,’ but it’s just food, grilling meat.”

Dong Had to Cook Meat Elsewhere

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After all his cleaning, the complaints continued, which made Dong realize the odor was simply natural cooking odors that couldn’t be helped. So, he tried another solution: cooking the meat elsewhere.
He would cook his meat at his other restaurant locations and then drive to his spot in Northeast Portland to serve the food. Unfortunately, this still didn’t help, as the objections continued.

Portland’s Smell Code

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According to Portland’s current city odor code, certain zones must make sure specific odors are not produced. According to the code, “continuous, frequent, or repetitive odors may not be produced. The odor threshold is the point at which an odor may just be detected.”
This means that each individual inspector will evaluate the alleged odor and judge it based on their own sense of smell, which naturally differs from person to person.

Inspectors at Pho Gabo

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This difference in smell from separate individuals can clearly be seen in the many inspectors that visited Pho Gabo because of the neighbors’ complaints. Different inspectors visited the eatery at least 10 times in the past two years.
One of these inspectors stated that “the odors detected smell like a wok dish.” The analysis, made in October of 2023, clashes with the neighbor’s assessment that an unbearable odor is being emitted.

There Were Threats of Fines

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Thanks to the neighbor’s continued objections, Portland ultimately had to tell Dong that something had to be done. According to Pho Gabo’s owner, the city told him to pay a $4,000 fine — or close his establishment.
Dong also said he was told that if he refused to shut down his restaurant, he would have to pay another $3,600 fine. To avoid this, Dong decided to temporarily shut down Pho Gabo.

The Shut Down of Pho Gabo

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To let his customers know of this unfortunate situation, Dong posted a sign outside Pho Gabo’s door on February 3. On the sign, he explained that these odor complaints of the food they grill have led to the location being forced to temporarily close, but he listed his other two Pho Gabo locations in case people wanted to go there instead.
With that restaurant closed Dong says he’s losing about $80,000 in revenue each month. He’d like to get things running again — sooner rather than later — but he’s not sure of what to do next.

Dong Wants to Reopen

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Since the restaurant’s closing in February, Dong has reached out to the city to try to learn what to do next. “I emailed the city and asked them what the next steps are. ‘Can I open without getting fined or put in a filtration system?’” he explained. “I have no info on that, so the restaurant is just shuttered right now. It just sits there closed.”
Things may have remained that way if his community had not gotten outraged on his behalf. Thanks to the outrage, more people have become aware of what’s going on, leading Portland Commissioner Carmen Rubio to state on March 6 that she had learned about the restaurant’s closure and had ordered the Bureau of Development Services to pause investigations until a reevaluation could be done.

Lawmakers Support Dong 

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Many lawmakers in Portland — including five Vietnamese state representatives — have publicly supported Dong. They are also raising concerns that these complaints could be discriminatory, meaning the city’s odor code could be used to discriminate against certain people and target their businesses.
The lawmakers are criticizing the code and calling for change. “Policies may start with good intent, but they may have some of these unintended consequences,” Oregon State Representative Daniel Nguyen said. They also could come from a place of implicit bias and try to limit certain communities from doing business activity in certain areas, not overtly but indirectly.