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|Articles - June 2010|
|Friday, May 28, 2010|
STORY BY ROBIN DOUSSARD // PHOTOS BY KATHARINE KIMBALL
It's certainly an unusual business playbook: buy only the best ingredients, don’t keep track of food costs, don’t advertise, don’t crunch numbers, don’t chase trends, ignore the competition, value relationships over profit, don’t answer the phone, worship butter. Don’t change. Anything. Ever.
This true north has been unwavering ever since pater familias Lester Highet opened the first Original Pancake House in 1953 on SW Barbur Boulevard in Portland. Lester and wife Doris begat Ron who wed Elinor and they begat Ann and Elizabeth. These four owners, along with Ann’s husband, Jon Liss, have begat 111 franchises in 27 states that gross approximately $155 million in annual revenue. It’s all built on the irresistible foundation of a big, buttery mound of grilled batter.
So you want to know the secret to the long lines of devoted customers and the steady growth of nationwide outlets, unscathed by economic meltdowns and diet fads. You want to take a look under the hood, talk about spreadsheets and market research. You are, after all, a serious business journalist, not here to review the award-winning food. Leave that to James Beard or Jane and Michael Stern. The family looks at you like you’re nuts.
“The only thing we have going for us is the quality of the food,” says president Ron Highet, who cooked for decades in the kitchen and at 77 still visits the franchises. “We’re so good it allows us to be arrogant.”
It’s fitting that the weekly corporate meeting of the four family owners and Jon, who is general counsel and corporate chef, takes place above the kitchen and while business is conducted an enormous apple pancake and a Dutch baby are delivered from below.
“Our food is not processed. No trans fats. No high fructose. It is fine, fresh ingredients. The body is happy to eat it,” Jon says as he begins to do just that. “That’s why we’ve remained strong through all the health fads. There was no dip in business during the no-carb phase. The trends never move us. When times are good they want our sugar and when times are bad they want our sugar.”
“The secret is that there is no secret,” says Elizabeth, the treasurer. “We’ve been the same since 1953.”
This family is seriously, deeply in love with their food. Poseurs need not apply.
“We’re looking for [franchisees] who are the bizarre blend of getting behind the grill and having a lot of money,” says the enviably slim 46-year-old Ann, who holds the title of secretary, while her mother is vice president.
“It’s how we do it. It’s simply the daily dedication to perfection. We’re drawn to people with that desire,” says the 55-year-old Jon, who fell in love with Ann at the restaurant years ago when they were kids. They and Elizabeth, who is 43, all have law degrees, and you wonder if this amount of sugar and butter could turn other lawyers into such nice people. “If they’re too into the numbers and not about the food, it won’t work,” adds Elizabeth. “We don’t even know what our food costs are.”
The family approves about three to five new franchises every year. It’s a $60,000 fee to get in, and the Highets get 2% of monthly gross receipts. Operators get 10 weeks of training at the Portland mothership. Jon says they are being cautious about new deals and they are not in the business of fast growth. They want high quality and strong relationships instead.
“We just plod,” says Elizabeth. “We’re slow and steady and thorough.”
As with every family business, the question of who will take over is an important one. The Highet succession plan is simple. The daughters are buying 3% of the company each year from their parents, and the older generations are counting on the youngsters (four grandchildren between ages 5 and 12) falling equally in love with the pancake trade.
“We hope they realize that what we have is so wonderful that they come into the business,” says Jon. “We just have to believe one of those children will feel that passion. It would break our hearts to sell. Our plan, if you want to call it that, is for them to take over.” A small back and forth between Jon and Ann about their young son who wants to be a rock star is quickly dropped.
It’s all very homey, but don’t let that fool you. The running of this operation is very intentional and detailed, even if that isn’t expressed in spreadsheets and corporate jazz. They know what success looks like and it’s a serious business with a holy undercurrent.
“It’s not just work,” says Ron. “It’s someone’s breakfast.”
Friday, May 15, 2015
BY KIM MOORE | RESEARCH EDITOR
The Portland Bureau of Transportation is seeking input from businesses on a $5.5 million initiative to create a network of biking, transit and pedestrian trails within Portland’s central city.
Thursday, April 09, 2015
BY JACOB PALMER | DIGITAL NEWS EDITOR
Bend has reclaimed its prerecession title as one of the fastest growing cities in the country.
Friday, May 22, 2015
BY HANNAH WALLACE
Travelers have always come to Oregon for its natural beauty. But will the increasing popularity of agritourism, European-style hiking getaways and forest resorts relax Oregon's notoriously strict land-use laws?
Monday, April 13, 2015
BY GRANT KIRBY | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
The mega-shift from technology-driven to data-driven organizations raises questions about Oregon’s workforce preparedness.
Monday, April 27, 2015
BY KIM MOORE
A conversation with Martha Richards, executive director of the James F. & Marion L. Miller Foundation.
Friday, May 22, 2015
BY LINDA BAKER | EDITOR
Roy Kaufmann always lands on his feet.
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
BY LINDA BAKER | EDITOR
More than 250 people turned out today for Oregon Business magazine’s seventh annual celebration of the 100 Best Green Companies to Work For in Oregon.
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Tonkon Torp helps seed sustainability at Gunderson.
Oregon-based Environments helps companies create inspired workspaces. “Simply put, we help companies future-proof their workspaces,” says Chris Corrado, president. Since 1988,Environments has witnessed firsthand the changing landscape of business. Native Portlander and Environments founder Corrado says, “We help our clients navigate the complex realities of the workplace today and plan for their future in a very mindful, strategic way. We think of ourselves as their partners in the process.”
One hundred years ago, the Willamette River might easily have been mistaken for a sewer. Unchecked industrial activity and decades of pollution made it unrecognizable compared to the clean river that now flows north for 187 miles from Eugene through the center of Portland.
The Oregon Entrepreneurs Network (OEN) will be presenting its third annual Entrepreneurial Summit on Friday, June 5 at Castaway in Portland, Oregon.
On June 13th Mayor Charlie Hales will attend nonprofit organization Dream Change’s inaugural Love Summit and will introduce one of its keynote speakers, Dan Wieden of Wieden+Kennedy advertising agency.
34 spots for food, 17 places to sip, and 7 sites to choose a brew beckon visitors.