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Tick-tock Brand PDX

Clock is winding down on Rose City's 15 minutes of fame


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Lewis & Clark professor Bryan Sebok (center) works with student Alexander Schwartz on a documentary titled 'Cartlandia,' that looks at Portland's food cart phenomenon. Sebok arrived from Austin and found a film community in Portland full of people he already knew.At a Buffalo, N.Y., chefs’ competition last month, T-shirts were spotted that read, “Look out Portland, you’re about to be demoted.”

A website for an Idaho arts organization touts this summer’s music festival with the headline, “Move over, Portland.”

Minneapolis writer Marlys Harris recently headlined her column in the MinnPost, “Getting over our Portland envy.”

Portlanders can debate whether this city is all that unique from now until the cows — or in our case, chickens — come home. But what’s obvious is that the rest of the country has come to believe something very different is happening here, and a lot of cities want to be like us.

Enough already. We didn’t ask for all this attention. Or did we?

Lisa Donoughe says she can draw a pretty straight line between work she and others did about a decade ago and, for instance, the GQ article by noted food critic Alan Richman four months ago that proclaimed Portland as the country’s “all-around champion in the category of food and drink.”

In fact, media strategist Donoughe, who runs Watershed, a food and drink consulting company, says Portland’s national media hyper-presence started with a quiet but very intentional public relations effort to brand Portland food and wine industries to national newspapers and magazines. Once Portland’s distinctive brand became known through gourmet and travel magazines, the small-scale, quirky, artisan works of other Portland creatives, from bike makers to indie musicians and filmmakers, also were associated with that brand.

The recession convinced young creatives across the country that they’d rather follow an entrepreneurial lifestyle than climb the corporate ladder. And “there we were with the brand,” Donoughe says, who adds that technology provided the missing piece that turned Brand Portland into a national phenomenon.

“It was this perfect storm,” Donoughe says. “Fifteen years ago this could never have happened. Without social media you wouldn’t have this resonance that things blow up.”

Putting Portland on the radar

Donoughe moved to Portland in 1999 after quitting her job at a public relations firm in New York City. The weird/quirky Portland culture — “big ideas married with small budgets that break through the clutter” — was firmly in place here, but mostly unknown east of Boise. Telling that story to New York editors desperate for new stories just took a little effort, which included free plane tickets to freelancers who wrote for national publications and a little hand-holding once they arrived.

Regina Schrambling was deputy dining editor at The New York Times when Donoughe showed up with Wildwood chef Cory Schreiber and four other chefs for a “five chef dinner” in 1999 at Eleven Madison Park, one of New York City’s high-priced, high-profile restaurants. The crew brought in all Oregon products, from seafood to hazelnuts, and displayed a sustainable, local approach to food and drink that took the invited New York writers and editors by storm.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT -  Media strategist Lisa Donoughe of Watershed, a food and drink consulting company, has used her connections in New York City to bring attention to Portland's food and wine scene.Schrambling recalls the meal as a revelation. Chefs working directly with small local farms and wineries that could provide everything they needed hadn’t yet caught on in New York.

“It was spectacular and it was all local products,” she says. “It was a real showcase.”

Schrambling, now author of website gastropoda.com, says Portland’s ascendance on the national food stage wouldn’t have happened without all the public relations work.

“I don’t think a lot of things are organic,” she says. “Our thinking is being skewed one way or another. Marketing is always involved.”

Schrambling was recently a judge at the Iron Chef-style competition in Buffalo, where she spotted the “Look out Portland, you’re about to be demoted” T-shirts. Toronto food writer Ivy Knight coined the phrase, and Buffalo adopted it.

Tables start to turn

Knight respects Portland. Really, she does. She says Portland led the country into thinking fine dining didn’t have to mean large-scale and expensive.

“It made the whole restaurant and dining scene more accessible and within reach. It took it off its pedestal and made it easy,” she says.

And now? “Everybody’s pushing back saying we can be the next Portland,” she reports.

Hence the T-shirts in Buffalo. But from where Knight sits, Portland’s national reputation has far exceeded food and drink.

“It’s everything. You’ve got (filmmaker) Miranda July, you’ve got ‘Portlandia.’ What Seattle was to rock in the ‘90s, you guys have for popular culture right now,” she says.

Estacada chicken farmer Pete Porath isn’t certain he’s part of popular culture, but he’s enjoying his place in Portland’s 15 minutes. Just a few weeks ago his wife’s Portland doctor relayed word that she wanted to meet him, all because The New York Times wrote a story about how he helps find retirement homes for old backyard chickens who no longer lay eggs.

“She didn’t know if I understood how big a deal it was to be in The New York Times,” Porath says. “I went down there and she said, ‘This is so incredible.’ ”

Porath knows that he’s not the only chicken farmer in the country providing sanctuary for elderly fowl. But he’s the one The New York Times featured, and he figures that’s because he fits that national stereotype of Portland quirky.

“We’re the flavor of the month,” Porath says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Estacada chicken farmer Pete Porath and his efforts to place old chickens in retirement homes were featured in The New York Times.And in true Portland entrepreneurial spirit, Porath and photographer wife Tanisha are looking to capitalize by making a calendar of retired chickens playing shuffleboard and vacationing. Porath, an economics teacher as well as a farmer, says anyone who doesn’t think money is part of the Portlandia story is missing a big part of the picture.

“We’ve just done a better job of marketing our freaks, and I’ll include myself in that,” he says.

Megan Conway, vice president of communications and public relations for Travel Portland, the city’s marketing organization, says 10 years ago she and her team would arrive in New York on a marketing trip and editors would ask for an overview of Portland. About six years ago the editors began asking “what’s something that hasn’t been discovered yet,” she says.

Two years ago, Travel Portland pitched Portland’s Central Eastside on a trip to New York. Sure enough a recent issue of travel magazine Via featured Portland’s eastside and in October The New York Times did a story headlined “A Culture Moves East in Portland, Ore.”

Conway says the national media attention is also due to a reverse effect of Portland attracting young creatives willing to work cheap. “There are a lot of freelancers who live in Portland and are writing for larger media outlets,” she says.

Local social trends researcher and brand strategist Jody Turner says in the long run, Portland’s media attention is not all that significant.

“I think we’re amused by it, but if we get attached to it that’s going to alter how we approach how we live here, which is so quirkily authentic,” Turner says.

Lewis & Clark media studies professor Bryan Sebok has his students making a documentary called Cartlandia, about diversity in Portland’s food cart scene, not to be confused with Blacklandia, a book about the trials of being black in Portland by Lewis & Clark sociologist Monica Miller.

Too much of a good thing

Sure, “Portlandia” is just a TV show, Sebok says. But sometimes life does start imitating art, even after the art has disappeared from the airwaves. And there’s something to be said for building on an established brand name.

“It says something about what we’re up to,” Sebok says of the name choice. “We’re playing with the mythical nature of local identity.”

Media strategist Donoughe says minute 15 may be approaching. In fact, she says Brand Portland may be stifling some of the small scale innovation it once championed. Ten years ago, according to Donoughe, editors around the country “didn’t understand what Brand Portland meant.”

“Now there’s one idea of what Brand Portland is, and if you’re outside that core brand, if you don’t have tattoos and you’re not a small restaurant and aren’t part of that particular elem ent in food and beverage, it’s not easy to convey how you are part of Portland,” she says.

Donoughe notes that the April issue of Travel & Leisure magazine has Portland rated as “overhyped” — even more so than kale, but not as far gone as cupcakes. She says she was in Philadelphia three years ago and was shocked by the proliferation of unique distilleries, creative small restaurants and craft breweries. “I thought, they’re doing everything Portland is doing but I never read about Philadelphia,” she says.

She says that’s because Portland established the brand “and the TV show” before other cities.

“We’re probably three to five years away from not being the media darling we have been,” Donoughe says. “It’s not a problem. We have enough economic drivers and a constant influx of people with creative ideas.”

Brooks Gilley, owner of 52 Limited, isn’t so sure. In April, 52 Limited, a sort of supply house of young creatives in Portland’s Central Eastside, is hosting a debate exploring, “Where is Portland in its 15 minutes of fame?”

Gilley, who grew up in St. Louis and has lived on both coasts, says he’s starting to see mid-level creatives “grudgingly moving” out of Portland. Sure, he says, Portland appears to be able to attract an endless supply of young creatives. But more of those who have established Portland as creative and quirky are approaching their mid-30s.

“What about companies looking for brilliant creative services? Do they consider us one of the top spots on their lists?” Gilley says. “That’s what we have to cultivate. And I don’t think we’re doing a great job of that.”

Joe Biel, owner of Microcosm Publishing not far from Gilley’s office, says those mid-level creatives chased out by Portland’s lack of next step jobs were just the ones that needed to go. He says Brand Portland is fueled by creatives so dedicated to their passion they will always be willing to compromise on everything else.

“The recession sort of weeded out the people that weren’t willing to make those compromises and convinced me this is permanent,” says the 35-year-old Biel.