BY JENNIFER MARGULIS
While 300,000 tourists a year flock to Ashland to enjoy Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s nine-month season (“Stay four days, see four plays” is a town motto), indulge in European-style boutique shopping with no sales tax, and bask in Southern Oregon’s good weather and outdoor recreation, no one visits Ashland specifically for the food. Indeed, the turnover in the restaurant business in Ashland, according to Beasy McMillan, a self-described food anthropologist who has started 20 restaurants in the area since 1980, is even higher than the national average. With research indicating that more than one in four restaurants fail or change ownership within the first year, and that 60% of restaurants fail within five years, the odds that a restaurant will succeed in Ashland just aren’t that good.
But every visitor who comes to this city of fewer than 20,000 year-round residents — as well as all the locals who live here — has to eat, and a half dozen new restaurants have opened within the past year or so, with two more coming soon. Among the new arrivals: NW Raw, a raw juice and salad bar on Ashland’s main street; Stonetop Pizza, a late-night pizza and milkshake delivery-only joint, and Oberon’s Tavern, a noisy, whimsical tavern on the Ashland Plaza, where customers sit on bar stools shaped like mushrooms and are served fanciful brews and pub grub by waiters dressed in Renaissance costumes.
“Having a successful restaurant in Ashland takes knowing what draws the culinary traveler to Ashland, along with what invites the Ashland resident to dine with you,” says Katharine Flanagan, director of the Ashland Visitors & Convention Bureau.
Indeed, Ashland’s new businesses face unique regional challenges. Restaurateurs must appeal to year-round residents, which includes more than 6,500 college students at Southern Oregon University, and they must offer food at a price point that locals can afford, or generate enough revenue during the prime tourist season (April through August) to weather the leaner winter months.
Elisa Boulton, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and is co-owner of the Lunch Show, which opened the first week of April, has found that knowing your niche is really important. Boulton and her husband originally opened a butcher shop, but the business required tremendous overhead, including five full-time employees to process the meat, and they quickly started losing money. At the same time, Boulton & Son’s high-concept organic lunch options (house-cured ham with local pears served on homemade sourdough; house-cured chorizo and white bean soup with kale grown in the Applegate) were so popular they always sold out. So Boulton and her landlord decided to invest in a $34,000 remodel to concentrate on the lunch crowd. “You really have to appeal to the locals and have things that people who are in the area like,” Boulton says. “If you do that, tourists will definitely find you because tourists find everything.”
Melissa McMillan and Chandra Corwin, co-owners of Sammich, a Chicago-style sandwich shop that smokes its own pastrami (which takes six days), agree. McMillan is a blustery food enthusiast who has decorated her noisy, crowded eatery with Chicago Bulls paraphernalia and who forbids ketchup on Italian beef (“I’ll be kicked out of Chicago!”). Sammich, which has only been open for 10 months, is in a difficult-to-find location a mile away from downtown, where another restaurant (The Hot Spot) failed. Business has really taken off, and it’s elbow room only one rainy Thursday afternoon.
“We’ve tripled our pastrami sales from the day we opened,” McMillan says, adding that the key to a successful restaurant in Ashland is to work hard, connect with your customers, and offer local, free-range, and seasonal ingredients at a reasonable price. “We’re doing Old World food with no shortcuts. Most people who live here come from a big city. We are reminding them of home.”
“There is an art to serving the duality of audiences, including 300,000 visitors and 20,000 residents, along with mastering the seasonality and bringing it to life with access to fresh local produce, paired with the amazing wines and brews. A majority of restaurants in Ashland are unique as they are independently owned and serve a highly educated clientele that requires a sophisticated standard to meet.” Katharine Flanagan
“You only have four or five months here of restaurant business; the rest is hanging on by your fingernails. Confucius says a man who loves his job never works another day in his life. So if you love what you do, there’s a pretty good chance it will be successful. If you’re just doing it for an investment, there are easier ways to make a living.” Beasy McMillan
“There’s a lot of very talented food-making that goes on in this town. To compete with that is very difficult. One of the things we do is offer something others don’t — food and drinks that people haven’t tried before, like rabbit pie and braggot.” Jordan Mackay, Owner, Oberon’s Tavern