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Eateries hungry to thrive in city's competitive food scene

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Lardo chef and owner Rick Gencarelli holds a porchetta sandwich at his month-old North Williams Avenue location. He jumped into the PDX food scene four years ago with his food cart on Hawthorne. He now he has three Lardo locations and an Italian eatery, Grassa, thanks to a partnership with ChefStable.   Only in Portland do people worship bacon and eat vegetarian, depending on the day.

Only in Portland do diners shun white tablecloths and anything that gives off a “corporate” vibe.

Only in Portland can a sandwich shop and food cart live side by side, in harmony.Welcome to Foodie Town U.S.A., where chefs and entrepreneurs have been flocking en masse for the past five years or so with hopes of surviving and thriving in Portland’s quirky food culture.

“Portland is one of those places where everyone can play,” says Rick Gencarelli, owner of Lardo, a Portland food cart-turned brick-and-mortar restaurant that opened its third location in February.

“You can get into the restaurant business with a relatively small budget, get a liquor license with a little bit of money,” says Gencarelli, who worked as a chef in Manhattan, Boston, San Francisco and Vermont before landing in Portland in 2009. “You can move here and pursue a dream and that’s great. But what happens at the end is we end up with tons and tons of food carts and restaurants, so the competition is fierce, the labor market is thin.”

New restaurants open at a fever pitch in Portland, but they close nearly as often. According to Multnomah County, there are 3,198 licensed restaurants in the city, a net gain of just 15 from last year because of all the closures.

Food carts, on the other hand, have seen a meteoric rise. There are 749 licensed food carts in the city, a net loss of 10 from last year, but a net gain of 71 percent from 2009.

The Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association estimates that about 20 percent of restaurants in the state turn over each year, the same as the national rate. That means in two years, four in 10 will fail.

What does it take for a restaurant to thrive in such an ultra-competitive food scene? Does competition from other restaurants and food carts help or hinder?

Chefs and industry experts insist the competition helps drive their success — and is a self-perpetuating cycle, since talent breeds more talent.

“Portland’s full of really interesting, engaging, delicious, fun concepts,” says Kurt Huffman, owner of the Portland restaurant management group ChefStable. “There’s something exciting about this town.”

Huffman likens it to an “immigration pattern” of sorts. “Portland’s immigration trend has been talented chefs,” he says. “Like people come to certain places.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Rick Gencarelli talks with his crew at North Williams. The restaurant gets its name from the Italian Italian-style pork fatback that is cured and crusted with salt, pepper, rosemary and other spices. Gencarelli first cooked his fries in a mixture of lard and canola until opening the Hawthorne restaurant, then quit because of it was too expensive and vegans complained. He plans on reintroducing it sometime this year, with a no-lard option.

City has savvy eaters

Erin DeJesus, an editor of the popular food blog EaterPDX, has tracked the Portland food scene for the past four years.

That means writing about lots of openings and closings, and writing for a hungry audience.

“Local diners are really savvy and more informed about where they choose to eat than ever before,” she says. “They’re following the story of a restaurant from its early days, and they expect transparency as far as what kind of product chefs are putting on menus. If you’re a restaurant, being forthcoming with that story helps.”

DeJesus figures the ratio of openings to closings is around 4-to-1.

When a beloved spot closes — like Zefiro, Wildwood, Nueve Taqueria , Esparza’s or others that have shuttered in recent years — there’s usually an “outpouring of grief,” she says.

There’s an equal amount of buzz among people who didn’t like the place that closed. “People come out of the woodwork to talk about a bad experience they’d had there, or how they could see it coming.”

That was the case last week with the closing of Quartet in the South Waterfront area, after just 14 months in business. Finances, legal troubles, location, food quality, confusion about the concept and the size of the restaurant — 200 seats — were all factors.

Quartet owner Frank Taylor did not return a call for comment from the Tribune.

The closure could serve as a good lesson for any would-be entrepreneurs looking to open in Portland: Go small.

“I can’t imagine Portland having a successful restaurant of that size and ambition,” says Huffman of ChefStable. “I think Portlanders embrace intimacy. They don’t want a big, mongo place. It feels corporate. It feels impersonal. Tons of restaurateurs believe that.”

Sharing trumps competition

If Quartet was apparently doomed in Portland, what is the formula for success?

Huffman has an idea. He’s worked in restaurants all his life, and since starting ChefStable in 2010 has opened 15 restaurants in Portland and one in Seattle. Another is set to open this month, an urban wine bar called Cooper’s Hall in Southeast Portland.

That spot will join the ranks of Huffman’s other shiny new ventures, including Lardo’s three locations (Hawthorne, downtown and North Williams), St. Jack (Northwest 23rd), Ox (Northeast Portland), Oven and Shaker (the Pearl), Foster Burger, Gruner (downtown) and Kask (downtown), among others.

Perhaps turning the definition of “competition” on its head, Huffman has a unique, decidedly Portland idea: sharing.

Specifically, he co-locates a pair or even trio of restaurants in one leased space.

For example at 31st and Division, Roe shares space with Block + Tackle.

The Lardo on North Williams shares space with Frice Bakery and Phillipe’s Bread. Phillipe’s began making all of Lardo’s bread just last month, and is working on developing a gluten-free bread for a special sandwich.

The space-sharing didn’t happen by design, but necessity, Huffman says. In summer 2012, Huffman closed Corazon, the urban taqueria that been open for just three months at 12th and Washington. Huffman attributes the demise to many factors, namely size.

“I don’t think I’ll ever do another 180-seat restaurant in Portland,” he says. Then, “the thought was, ‘How do we create something that’s much more Portland here while dealing with the fact that there’s only one kitchen?’ “

Huffman says he was inspired by Melrose Market in Seattle, where the restaurant Sitka & Spruce shares a roof and other infrastructure with a host of artisans including a meat shop, cheese shop, flower shop, bar and wine shop, and home decor shop, among other spaces.

He envisioned the large Corazon space as perfect for not just one restaurant but three: the downtown Lardo, Gencarelli’s casual Italian restaurant, Grassa, and Huffman’s Racion, a modern Spanish tapas bar. “All we needed to build was two walls,” Huffman says.

Not all of the ChefStable restaurants share space. But in exchange for shared ownership with Huffman, the Huffman’s seven-person team launches the startup (permits, licensing, design) as well as provides a management service to pay bills, hire employees, negotiate deals for purchases, and make sure everything is in compliance.

“The tricky part was how to put in the infrastructure, leverage size, not do it in a corporate way, and do it in a way that respects the chefs’ vision,” Huffman says.

The concept kicked off four years ago as Huffman began working with Andy Ricker, four years into Pok Pok’s run on Southeast Division. It was just as Pok Pok was expanding from a grill shack to a full restaurant in 2009 — two years before Ricker won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northwest, and three years before he published his Pok Pok cookbook and opened Pok Pok in New York.

Huffman, who was just finishing business school at he University of California at Berkeley, recalls flying to Portland each month to meet with Ricker and advise him on everything from costs to labor management that can either make or break a restaurant expansion.

“How much should you pay for a dinner napkin? Credit card processor? A dishwasher rental? Who knows? It’s not like someone’s going to come out and tell you,” Huffman says.

With so many ChefStable projects now on the scene, Huffman says he’s been inundated with queries from established chefs, restaurateurs and food cart owners from across the country looking for assistance.

But Huffman says he won’t take on any new projects any time soon. He’ll be focusing on the transition from a brand-creating venture to a management company.

“We have to make sure our restaurants have the means to compete with all the new people,” he says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Ryan McConaughey pours a beer to regulars at Holmans. Portland sees a constant rise and fall of restaurants, but those in the industry say the competition makes them all better.

Some have staying power

Outside of the ChefStable mini-empire, some Portland restaurants have thrived for decades. Those legends have similar accounts of what it takes to succeed.

“It’s how you’re able to translate your ideas through the people that work for you; how to make this idea so focused and understandable, so people will crave whatever it is you’re serving them and they’ll want to come back,” says Vitaly Paley, who opened Paley’s Place in 1995 and Imperial and Portland Penny Diner in 2012. “People come to restaurants because they want that one thing they remember, and it’s so good. Consistency is important — probably the biggest challenge.”

The food landscape has changed dramatically in 20 years, he says: “I applaud it; competition is healthy. ... Consumers are more savvy. We just need more of those consumers.”

Paley says he opened his two downtown spots to provide competition to the food carts. He thinks he has the edge in price point and food quality, not to mention ambience: “It rains nine months out of the year. Who wants to stay in line waiting for a sandwich while it’s raining buckets out?”

Fellow James Beard Award-winner Cory Schreiber, founder of the 20-year-old Portland institution Wildwood, left six years ago and couldn’t discuss reasons for its closure last month, except to say that there were lease issues.

At Wildwood, he says, the key was to focus on consistency and never get complacent: “We constantly had to be tweaking and adapting. I never let anybody put up awards or medals.”

It doesn’t take a James Beard Award to have staying power in Portland. There are hundreds of beloved establishments in Portland regarded for their consistency as well.

Holman’s Bar and Grill, a neighborhood burger joint on Southeast 28th Avenue and Burnside Street, has been around since 1933. Owner Judy Craine took over in 1976, and has watched the neighborhood grow from three places to eat to about 30. She has also seen many close.

“They underprice their product because they don’t understand the implications of overhead,” Craine says. “That’s my competition for a very short period of time, and my customers go there and say ‘These prices are great.’ Well they are, and that’s why they don’t last.”

Craine chalks up her success to her loyal customers, her solid kitchen crew and the fact that she owns her building, thus avoiding the lease issues that often lead to a restaurant’s downfall.

There’s one more thing that keeps Holman’s customers happy: a shtick.

Just after taking ownership, Craine recalls how she ran into Gracie Strom — of Depoe Bay’s Sea Hag fame — and Strom gave her a piece of advice: “She said get yourself a shtick, and stick to it.”

So Holman’s installed an old dart board “free meal wheel.” Customers spin it when they’re done eating, and if the two red arrows match up, their meal is free.

Portland restaurants can feature all the farm fresh, locally grown, seasonal and artfully inspired food they want. But everyone loves a free meal.

City on map as culinary destination

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Berlin Burger is a favorite at Holmans Bar & Grill, a Southeast Portland neighborhood spot established in 1933 and under the same ownership since 1976. Customers want quality and consistency, owner Judy Craine and other restaurateurs say.  It used to be that national travel articles mentioned “great dining” in Portland.

Not so anymore, says Megan Conway, a spokeswoman for Travel Portland.

Now, she says, the stories are about the specific chefs, restaurants and nuances of a chef’s flavors, ingredients and and vision.

“It’s really woven into every travel article now,” she says. "When people think about things from Portland, it's food and beer and wine, right after tax-free shopping."

The abundance of restaurants, food carts, farmers markets, and food- and drink tours all combine for a gastronomic orgy of sorts. The go-to name is culinary tourism, and it's becoming a cash cow for the local economy.

Here’s how Portland has ranked in a few recent publications:

• CNN Travel, August 2013: Top 10, "Top summer food destinations"

• Jetsetter.com, June 2013: No. 3 out of seven, "America’s Best Food Truck Cities"

• The Huffington Post: January 2013: No. 15 out of 15, "Best Restaurant Cities: 15 U.S. Metro Areas With The Most Eateries Per Capita"

• CNN Travel, March 2012: No. 3 out of 10, "World’s 10 Best Cities for Foodies"

• Food & Wine, November 2011: No. 17 out of 26, "World's Best Cities for Street Food"

• Travel & Leisure, September 2011: No. 6 out of 37, "America's Best Cities for Foodies"

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