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The Portland recipe

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Articles - Nov/Dec 2012
Monday, November 05, 2012
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Making money: "We don't talk about that"

Portland restaurants are springing up everywhere. But are they making money?

A few Portland chefs/owners were forthcoming about revenues — to a degree. According to co-owner Andrew Fortgang, Little Bird grosses about $2.5 million annually and Le Pigeon about $1.5 million. In 2011 Nostrana grossed about $2.8 million, with expenses of about $2.6 million, owner Cathy Whims says. At Paley’s Place, over the past 10 years revenue has grown 30% annually, owner Vitaly Paley says.

Among local indie chefs, it’s “almost taboo” to talk about profit, says Kurt Huffman, owner of ChefStable, an investment group with a stake in restaurants such as Ox, Ping and Grüner. “Corporate restaurants are the ones that make a lot of money,” he says. “But there’s the idea that we’re artists; we don’t talk about that.”

Independent restaurants generally net 4% to 6%, although many aim for a 10% to 15% profit margin, Huffman says. His group of ChefStable restaurants nets anywhere from 3% at the poorest-performing venue — “It’s not the restaurant people think it is,” he says — to 20% at the best-performing. Compared to other cities, opening a restaurant in Portland is more of a lifestyle than financial decision, says Bruce Carey, whose five restaurants in Portland — Bluehour, 23Hoyt, Clarklewis, Saucebox, Via Tribunali — “eke out” a 10% profit margin. Most independent owners are content making less than they could if they were in Los Angeles or Chicago, he says.

“If you keep your expectations in check for what you will take home, opening your own small, chef-driven, owner-operated restaurant provides an acceptable quality of life,” Carey says. “But it ain’t no get-rich-quick scheme for anyone.”

That paradigm is leading to a more favorable real-estate climate for restaurant owners and helps explain the Portland miniboom in hotel restaurants owned by local chefs.

This past September, thousands of people from around Oregon, the country and the world descended on the Rose City for Feast Portland, an international culinary festival celebrating “Oregon bounty.” It was another feather in the cap for a metropolis Knowlton says is one of the three “most exciting food cities” in the country right now. The ranking is based on new restaurant openings, “buzz” and eagerness on the part of top chefs to visit Portland.

Echoing the assessment of many local chefs and critics, Knowlton says the food in Portland restaurants isn’t better than in other cities, and that the city suffers from a lack of high-end, avant-garde options. There is also “a bit of a cookie-cutter mentality” in the replication of dishes and atmosphere, he says.

Food criticism notwithstanding, Portland dining stands out for its “complete package,” Knowlton says, from the independent chef/owners to the spirits, coffee, beer, “cool neighborhoods” — and the bicycles. “It’s a zeitgeist. It’s the Brooklynization of America.”

Fueled by a disparate collection of regulations, urban development policies, real-estate trends and that amazing bounty, Portland restaurants have become an international sensation. All that attention will raise the bar for the cuisine, says Boyce, whose wife, baker Kim Boyce, has opened up her own shop. “People came here because of the scene, and now the scene will expand and grow because of that,” he says.

Mike Thelin, co-founder of Feast Portland, gets to the root ingredient of why Portland is a restaurant leader. “Societally, right now food is the hottest thing,” he says. “And Portland is the hottest city.” 

Linda Baker is the managing editor of Oregon Business. She can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .



 

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