Opening Smallwares: A Space Odyssey – Part One
Opening a restaurant for the first time may sound romantic to the uninitiated, but it’s deceptively challenging on many levels – an adventure fraught with suspense, hope, heartbreak, occasional humor, and good old-fashioned terror. CHI/PDX/NYC kitchen veteran Johanna Ware has...
Opening a restaurant for the first time may sound romantic to the uninitiated, but it’s deceptively challenging on many levels – an adventure fraught with suspense, hope, heartbreak, occasional humor, and good old-fashioned terror. CHI/PDX/NYC kitchen veteran Johanna Ware has generously agreed to regale our readers with her journey in securing a home for her restaurant, smallwares – a story in multiple acts.
I grew up outside Chicago where the west coast was the promised land for us Midwestern teenagers looking to escape suburban bullshit. When I graduated high school, I packed up and left to attend the University of Oregon. In college, I started to build on the Julia Child-fueled groundwork my mom had taught me back home by expanding my knowledge and getting a subscription to Bon Appétit and discovering a new channel called the Food Network.
After obtaining a four-year degree that I would basically do nothing with, I went up to Portland to find a job. Luckily, I found two: during the day I was making cheesecakes in a production bakery and at night I was doing retail at Caprial and John’s Kitchen. After spending four years slacking and partying in college, I surprised myself with my work ethic and ability in a professional kitchen. I could bang out like two hundred cheesecakes in a day, and then go work 8 more hours. When my long-time boyfriend decided to move back to New York City for law school, I knew it was an opportunity to take my newly-found vocation to a new level. With a pledge to each other that we would return back to the promised land, we headed east.
When I arrived, my inquiries into culinary schools were met with long waiting lists. I needed money bad, so I had to find a restaurant that would hire someone who called sheet pans, “cookie sheets” and had no fucking clue what bruinoise meant. With a nice embellished resume, categorizing drunken dinner parties in college as catering, I got hired at Public, a brand new restaurant. With only a santoku knife in my possession (Rachel Ray had one), I entered my first professional kitchen with a green glowing hue.
It was an ideal situation for me, really. They hired two or three of every position and then cleaned house during the first few weeks of opening. I lived in panic mode, waiting to get screamed, or worse, laughed out of the kitchen (I had to be taught how to cut a spring roll on a bias). After the first few months, they pulled me into the office and gave me a 25¢ raise. That was the first of many raises at Public and I stayed there for a few years. After a few other restaurants, I landed a job at Momofuku Ssam Bar when it was still making Korean burritos. After three years in that storied empire, I finally headed back to Portland with plans to open my own restaurant.
Sleepless nights were a normal occurrence at this point in my career, usually consisting of a cycle of second guessing things like gas valve shut offs, locked doors, menu decisions, but now my sleep was displaced by number crunching, menu design, staffing, and of course, the sheer panic of failure.
I’m not naïve. I know this is a masochistic career decision that cooks make when they think they haven’t missed enough holidays and birthdays in their life. What I hadn’t realized was what was looming ahead, something I had never thought would trip me up in this frenzied process: the difficulties of obtaining a lease. Come on, I have all of the qualifications a landlord wants, first time business owner, make that restaurant owner, no substantial investors, and a whopping $100,000 in the bank. Who wouldn’t want me?
Unfortunately, I was about to find out.