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102 years later, still shucking along

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Sunday, March 01, 2009
oysterphoto.jpg The City Oyster Company opened in 1907 in Portland.

PHOTO COURTESY OF DOUG WACHSMUTH

PORTLAND Louis C. Wachsmuth opened his first oyster at age 5. Twenty-five years later, in 1907, the boy from Oysterville, Wash., moved to Portland and with business partner L. Roland Mills opened a seafood store that would prove resilient enough to survive the Great Depression, multiple recessions, both World Wars and a volatile restaurant scene.

More than 100 years ago, the front of the City Oyster Company wasn't lined with SmartMeters and hybrid cars but with live crabs, stirring wildly in open wooden crates, along with fresh oysters, lobsters and fish.

Now named Dan & Louis Oyster Bar, this downtown eatery is one of Portland's oldest family-owned-and-operated businesses. It claims to have served more oysters on the half shell than any other on the West Coast, and served them up to some famous lips: Mickey Rooney, Sebastian Cabot, Richard Boone and Jonathan Winters, to name a few.

But more importantly, how does a tiny oyster bar survive for over a century?

"Integrity," answers Doug Wachsmuth, a third-generation Wachsmuth and the bar's owner. "You know what they say, 'When the leader gets too far out in front of the troops, he's perceived as the enemy.'"

During World War II, the biggest threat to the oyster bar was the rising cost of commodities, especially butter, Wachsmuth says. And what's oyster stew without butter, anyway? Since then, even with commodities often getting cheaper,  the restaurant business hasn't gotten any easier.

"The sheer volume of restaurants has been our main competition," Wachsmuth says. "Portland has become something of a mecca for restaurants."

To remain competitive, Wachsmuth and his son, Keoni, a culinary arts graduate, have diversified the menu while still maintaining the oyster bar's nostalgic, nautical aesthetic. "It's important to do both if you want to stay relevant today," says Wachsmuth.

With the economy in the tank, there's little doubt that restaurants around Oregon will struggle. Doors will close. Tenants will vacate. But, says, Wachsmuth, "We'll still be here."        CHRIS MILLER


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