April 2011

So, You Wanna Open a Restaurant in Portland…

by Michele Reeves on April 13, 2011

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Portland, Oregon is a foodie mecca these days, luring chefs and inspiring restaurateurs with our unbeatable access to an incredible array of locally grown produce and meat. (And when I say “local,” I mean practically a stone’s throw from the city.)

If you count yourself among the intrepid souls who want to make their culinary mark in Stumptown, then read on because this is what you need to know…

We keep senior hours. Portland is a tough town if you plan on completing two full turns a night for a sit-down restaurant, because everyone in this city wants to eat between 6:30 pm and 7:00 pm. That’s it. Not before. Not after. And we don’t do late night en masse. 8:45 pm is late night here. Really late. (Tony Ten01 closes January 2011.)

There are five people with money to burn in Bridge City. We just don’t have the wage base to support a lot of high-end restaurants…so we don’t. They come, and, unfortunately, they go. If your entree items are all consistently over $25, you are going to have a tough time making it. Successful restaurants that do well in good times and bad usually are perceived to be a good value (large portions, for instance) or carry a perception of value (tapas, for instance, something you could order a few wee bites of and leave with a small check. You never do, but you could…). (Lucier lasted approximately seven months).

We’re a one horse city. I mean that affectionately, and love everything that it implies. Unfortunately, for restaurateurs, that means our people to restaurant ratio is low. So, unless you sell massive amounts of really cheap food along with a low-margin item that you produce yourself (beer, for instance), don’t even think about opening a restaurant much bigger than about 1,500 SF. If you do, I can guarantee (okay, almost guarantee) that you won’t fill it and you won’t make it. (12,000 SF Todai closes in January 2011).

Don’t recreate the Taj Mahal. Many a great restaurant has been felled by ambitious buildouts in this town. For all of the previously-mentioned reasons, you have to keep your establishment nimble. Tenant improvements should be simple and cheap and square footage (and therefore requisite staffing) minimized as much as possible so that you have manageable overhead expenses. If you don’t, you will be treading water and losing money until you close. The smartest operators are very savvy about finding spots with landlords willing to do a lot of tenant improvement work, taking over existing restaurant space, or buying a failing restaurant that they can rebrand. (Fenouil Falls in April 2011).

The food press/blogs have their favorites! They adore their native sons here — not necessarily homegrown talent, but people who have worked their way up through the ranks in well regarded local establishments. Like all cities, there are incredibly mediocre restaurants that get great press, and there are gems that get no lovin’. Just remember, if you are a hotshot chef from another city, don’t expect to ride into Portland and be greeted with fanfare. (Kin Restaurant Review).

Location, location, location. Portland has a ton of retail options, which is great…and not so great. We have neighborhood commercial, downtown, and dense mid-rise and high-rise districts. And, within these, are a million micro markets with very powerful and distinct identities. On top of all of that, we are loathe to leave the little quadrant of the city we call home (N/NE, SE, SW, and NW). You can be a great eatery, but if you are mismatched with your neighborhood, you are going to have to work harder, much harder, to lure people in your doors. (Belly says Bon Voyage in April 2011).

UPDATE: Kin has closed its doors. The Portland Mercury said it better than I could:

In a perfect world, the culinary community would have been proud enough of chef Kevin Shikami’s assertive yet delicate flavors and superior technique to support his admittedly shitty location and relatively high price points. The restaurant is beautiful, cozy, and serves great food. It’s a damn shame when that’s not enough.