It’s a fact: Opening a new restaurant in Portland is becoming harder and harder these days. Never mind that many think the market is already saturated, now perspective Portland restaurateurs must deal with skyrocketing rent prices.
For this reason, it should be no surprise that many of the new, high-profile Portland openings are coming in as well-financed out-of-state projects. The others represent new openings from Chefs who have already established themselves with prior successful openings.
How High Can They Go? If you are looking for a home in Portland, you are well aware of how expensive the market has become, in what is a relatively short period of time. The same holds true for commercial spaces. Right now, you can expect a reasonably close-in, desirable location to go for around $25 to $35 per square foot. Look back to 2012 and that figure would have been around $18 to $24.
Add to the fact that landlords are in no rush to help equip or outfit their space for the intrepid restaurateur and the pinch becomes obvious. Many have the money to get their doors open, but struggle mightily when it comes to getting through the slow growth process.
All of this comes at a time when competition is getting a lot fiercer. Take a look at Multnomah County records and the explosion sticks out like a giant crater. In 2005, there were a little over 2,900 restaurants and food carts in the county. A decade later and that number has exploded to over 4,100. Of course, this number has grown proportionally with the number of people moving to the city, but it also means that available spaces are now harder to come by – and considerably more expensive.
You may recall St. Jack, which we profiled last year. Owner Aaron Barnett opened his popular French bistro for around $65,000 almost nine years ago. Although he was able to open La Moule late last year with a lower budget, when asked if he could open a restaurant like St. Jack in today’s environment and his answer is unambiguous. “I definitely don’t think we could,” he recently stated.
And while many see the rising costs of ownership and space leasing as the primary pain points, executive chefs and owners are pointing to new problem spots on the horizon. With both the impending $14.75 an hour minimum wage and new federal overtime requirements set to go into effect, restaurants could experience employment shortages on everything from bussers to line cooks.
A Shortage of Talent Ask any new Portland restaurateur and they will tell you that filling vacancies isn’t coming easy. These days, a vacant line cook job might fetch only a few qualified applicants, and even then only one out of every four applicants will actually show up for the interview.
People like Ryan Day, of Podnah’s Pit and La Taq, attribute this mainly to “the sheer number of jobs out there.” As the economy improves, openings for positions with better pay, more tips, and more consistent hours are drawing potential workers to places like the front of the house.
Finally, the myths perpetuated by shows on the Food Network and stars-in-their-eyes stories told by young celebrity chefs are starting to wear off. Driven by the belief that being a chef is a glamorous – rather than the reality of a sweaty, demanding, long-hours – job, many flocked to the profession. As the perception begins to match the reality, new owners are finding it more difficult to fill vacant positions.
When they finally do find the right person, it’s likely they may have never worked a line before. These are the people who have been taught by television. They know how to make the food, how to put recipes together, but know little about the real skills required to operate effectively in the hustle-and-bustle of a busy kitchen.
The Low-Cost Answer So what’s the result? Simply put, there’s a reason why Portland is rapidly becoming the food cart capital of the world. From pop-ups to carts and other low-cost openings, established and experienced entrepreneurs are choosing to go the low-dollar way when contemplating their next contribution to the Portland food scene.
Take Mae as an example, chef Maya Lovelace’s new Southern feast run that operates out of the back of the old Salt Marketplace on the Northeast side. Although her ticketed meals sell out within minutes, ask her if she is ready to open a brick-and-mortar and she’ll respond with a chuckle and a shake of her head. As she puts it, “pop-ups are the wave of the future.”
And considering she only spent around $10,000 to bring Mae to market, who can blame her for biding her time before deciding whether or not she wants to branch out? As new openings try to surf the hype, some wonder whether or not the Portland restaurant scene has entered a bubble.
With no letup in sight for the number of people moving into the Portland Metro area, there won’t be any shortage of people setting up for their next dream opening. Whether they will be successful or are riding the crest of a bubble that’s about to burst remains to be seen.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a published author, poet and longtime journalist who has been covering politics, entertainment, culture and travel for over twelve years. He currently works from his home in the Pacific Northwest profiling restaurants, reviewing local plays and reporting on regional, national and international travel.