BY LINDA BAKER
Give Zupan’s some credit.
Sure, the Vancouver-based chain is expensive. The owners were also a bit late to the locavore, organic, grass-fed game.
But Zupan’s deserves plaudits for moving into the Belmont district in 1995, when the inner Southeast neighborhood was known more for drug houses and social services than its current mix of coffee bars and hipsters. As the Belmont Dairy’s retail anchor, Zupan’s helped lay the groundwork for a widely accepted theory of urban development: that a food emporium can revitalize once languishing neighborhoods.
Back in 2005, pastry shop Pix Patisserie opened on North Williams Avenue, then a collection of mostly empty storefronts. That location closed last week, but as the Oregonian reported, owner Cheryl Wakerhouser leaves behind a thriving neighborhood of restaurants, shops, and cafes. She also has the satisfaction of knowing that Pix helped build the neighborhood.
In OB’s May issue, I reported on Ristretto Roasters' new outpost in the yet-to-be-developed NW Industrial District, “Those are the neighborhoods we want to be in — where people don’t have things,” said owner Din Johnson.
The history of Portland’s thriving neighborhood centers often unfolds as the history of pioneering food and drink purveyors who took a gamble on a location often perceived as undesirable. And yet, not all local grocers and food/drink vendors hew to the less is-eventually-more philosophy. Thus a student of New Seasons’ development patterns might argue that the local grocery chain only moves into communities that are already well on their way to becoming hotspots: Division, Hawthorne, Interstate, and now North Williams.
And despite years of hand wringing over East Portland’s food deserts, many neighborhoods East of 82nd Avenue have yet to attract a single supermarket.
Portland’s restaurant and grocery industry moves in mysterious ways. Some communities got their start on the backs of a local grocer. Others, for all their efforts, can't get a single coffee shop off the ground. And still other retail districts have have a seemingly insatiable appetite for food: i.e. downtown Portland, home to restaurants, then farmers' markets, then food carts, and now a proposed public market, to be built at the west end of the Morrison Bridge.
As the O’s David Sarasohn noted yesterday, that market might resemble the Ferry Marketplace in San Francisco, a venue "crammed with cheesemongers, bakeries and restaurants, with a blooming farmers market several times a week, jammed with both tourists and financial analysts escaping the Dow for lunch."
Just when you think certain Portland neighborhoods have reached a food saturation point, along comes a public market or a new Ruby Jewel location to prove you wrong. Just when you think certain Portland neighborhoods contain all the ingredients necessary to sustain a lone grocery store — i.e. people — along comes a developer touting the demographics, the real estate, the transportation connections as reasons why the project will never work.
Some parts of Portland are over fed. Others are still deprived. If only Zupan's would move into Lents Town Center. Now that would usher in a new era of urban food innovation.
Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.