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August 18, 2009 Portlandbiz

Does Portland have more restaurants per capita than San Francisco?

For years, the claim that Portland has the highest or second highest number of restaurants per capita behind San Francisco has been passed around like so many chain letters -- so many times, in fact, that no one really knows where it came from let alone its veracity.

National magazines like Outside and Budget Travel have published the claim without attribution. Even the city has published the claim on its website: "It is rumored Portland has more restaurants per capita than any other city other than San Francisco."

"The issue of Portland being the city with the first, second or third highest number of restaurants per capita crops up all the time," says Dick Grotton, president of the Maine Restaurant Association. "We see it show up from time to time in magazines. They sort of pick it out of the air. No one can attribute it."

At the risk of deflating what would otherwise be a great claim to fame, Mainebiz decided to try to get to the bottom of the claim and answer the question: Fact or fiction?

First thing we did was try to isolate the data to confirm or deny the claim. This was harder than expected. The National Restaurant Association doesn't track the highest per capita number of restaurants in U.S. cities, but Annika Stevenson, director of marketing for the NRA, crunched some government stats and reported that San Francisco, Seattle and Boston are the most restaurant-dense cities in the country, and that Portland isn't even in the top 30.

Turns out, the population data the trade group used was for metropolitan statistical areas rather than the cities themselves. So, for instance, it uses the area population for San Francisco, San Mateo and Redwood City in its calculations, rather than just San Francisco. Back to the drawing board.

Barbara Whitten, CEO of the Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Portland, says the claim has been around since she joined the visitors' bureau 23 years ago. "Where it came from I really don't know. I sort of inherited that when doing public relations for the bureau," she says.

After digging around in her memory, Whitten believes the claim came out of PR material generated when the National League of Cities held its convention in Portland in the late 1980s. Though, she doesn't completely trust her memory. "If I was to take a stab in the dark about where I heard that quote, it was affiliated in some way with that convention," she says.

Whitten says the claim has changed over the years. The original claim was that there's more money spent per capita in Portland than any place besides New York City and San Francisco.

For the record, Whitten says she doesn't repeat the accolade herself, but says she gets asked about it at least once a year.

One of the earliest references to the claim comes from a Maine restaurant guide published in 1991. "These days, the City Fathers are fond of noting that Portland has more restaurants than any other town in the country, barring San Francisco," wrote Cynthia Hacinli in the introduction to the Portland chapter of her 1991 book, Down Eats: The Essential Maine Restaurant Guide. The fact that Hacinli fails to mention "per capita" aside, she seems to suggest the claim originated in City Hall.

The Portland City Clerk's office has 536 registered food service establishments with food preparation, according to Alexandra Murphy, assistant city clerk. Assuming a Portland population of 63,000, we come up with one restaurant for every 118 people. Pretty good! With that kind of figure, Portland even tops San Francisco. Using 2008 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau that peg San Francisco's population at 808,976, and conservative estimates that place the number of restaurants on its peninsula between 2,600 and 3,500, we come up with one restaurant for every 231 to 311 people.

That math seems to support the claim that Portland has more restaurants per capita than San Francisco. It's still muddied, though. Those eatery licenses in the Portland City Hall include every school, nursing home and office cafeteria in the city, along with any other location that prepares and serves food.

So where does that leave us on the fact or fiction scale? Somewhere in the middle, leaning toward fact, but not enough to meet Mainebiz's high standards of reporting. But for PR purposes, it's just fine.

"It's not a bad rumor to have and I think in addition to having a quantity issue out there, make sure you follow up with the quality issue. Not only do we have lots of choices and ethnic variety, we have some of the best food in the northeast." said Grotton.

Well, that's a fact.

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