Economic stop signs don't stand in the way of Pearl entrepreneurs

The list of shuttered downtown Portland businesses keeps getting longer (two high-end retailers, Barcelino and Georgiou, are the latest casualties). But the booming Pearl District keeps spawning new shops and restaurants.

Whether the proprietors of the latest freshet of business ventures are foolish optimists or wise visionaries won't be clear for a while. But all have one thing in common: They're bullish on Portland Ñ or at least their little corner of Portland.

And they all believe that they have the right trappings for weathering the current economic storm.

Among the newest start-ups is Andina, a Peruvian restaurant and gallery, slated to open June 15.

A year ago, Peter Platt, Andina's owner, took a look at Portland's menu and saw that sophisticated Peruvian cuisine was missing. So he began scheming to fill the void, leasing a space on Northwest Glisan Street.

Then the economy crashed.

Backing out seemed impossible. So, Platt hired a consultant to provide advice and assess his liabilities. Looking at the failure rate of high-end restaurants, they decided to break the business into three affordable elements: a formal dining room that will serve 60 to 70 people; an open kitchen, featuring seven stools for cooking classes; and a bar and lounge area, where light meals and cocktails centered on pisco, a Peruvian brandy, will be served.

Platt believes that it will be a successful mix.

Sweet beginnings

Robert Lightman is counting on the public's passion for gelato to get his business off the ground.

Next month he'll open Mio Gelato in the Brewery Blocks off West Burnside Street. The Italian sherbet, he says, is an inexpensive impulse buy, and he believes that the economic climate won't stop people from lapping up his product.

His shop will open in an area trafficked by pedestrians, book lovers, shoppers and tourists. He'll offer 20 to 24 flavors of fresh gelatos, as well as little Italian sandwiches and people-friendly hours.

'We'll open early,' Lightman says, 'and stay open just as late as makes sense.'

If the business succeeds, Lightman hopes this will be the flagship store for a franchise operation.

An Asian tiger

For years Sunny Shin ran Sungari on Southwest First Avenue downtown. She turned that restaurant over to her general manager and opened Sungari Pearl, 1105 N.W. Lovejoy St., in February.

'We'd planned to open a year ago,' Shin says, 'but there were permit and construction delays.'

While similar establishments have faltered, Sungari Pearl is rocking.

Shin believes that her success derives from a unique menu prepared by her chef, Yi Chieng Liang, who brought with him recipes for four sauces that she says 'started Sungari.'

The high discretionary income of her Pearl district clientele also is a factor, Shin concedes. But the high-intensity service she delivers keeps them coming back, she says.

'Bartenders are required to walk the dining room,' she says. 'Hostesses do the same. People know when they're being taken care of. We take it personally when someone doesn't have an enjoyable experience.'

At-home chefs

While the restaurant business overall may be dicier than usual right now, cooking schools are heating up.

'There's been a steady demand for our school,' says Barbara Dawson, owner of In Good Taste, 231 N.W. 11th Ave. Here, patrons cutting back on restaurant dining are learning to prepare designer meals at home.

Dawson, a former Intel Corp. executive, bought the business, which also sells cookware and wine, over two years ago. The school's revenues have since risen 35 percent.

'Private parties are on the upswing,' Dawson says. 'We often have huge waiting lists.'

The shop, for one thing, has become a destination for cooking school tourists who travel the world taking classes.

The new Portland Sur La Table store, 1102 N.W. Couch St., also has been doing well, beating all expectations, says Renee Behnke, president and founder of the Seattle-based chain.

'Our business is terrific,' she reports. The store here, one of 29 outlets nationwide, holds sentimental value for Behnke, a Portland native.

'Sure, Portland is having a problem,' Behnke says, 'but the school isn't. Everyone decided to stay home and cook, and they're coming to our classes to learn how.'

Behnke currently is shopping for a new location in Lake Oswego while opening nine other outlets nationwide.

Nighttime is right time

Believing that Portland needed a trendy new adult nightspot, Ron Mitchell recently opened Aura at 1022 W. Burnside St. The club, which caters to the 20- to 40-year-old set, soon attracted wrap-around-the-block crowds.

To keep the good times rolling, Mitchell is counting on the convenience of a new parking facility nearby and the projected upswing in foot traffic as the Brewery Blocks development draws nearer to completion.

Mitchell's shtick is a light scheme that bathes patrons in ever-changing, auralike hues.

His one misstep was launching in the middle of an economic downturn. His solution: Offer patrons a deal. Diners can buy simple $5 or $6 meals from the bar menu. Burger entrees run from $8 to $14 and dinner entrees from $12 to $17.

Mitchell's investment in Aura is, of course, huge.ÊSo is he anxious about business?Ê

'Always,' he says.Ê'There's always anxiety in any business on a regular basis.'

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