Opening Smallwares: The Learning Curve Steepens – Part 2
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.
At the initial meeting with my real estate broker, I was reminded of the influx of new restaurants in Portland that had aided in creating a saturated commercial real estate market. Good property had become a hot commodity.
The first place I looked at was new construction. Meeting with the developer was the first time I had to present my business plan to someone and truthfully, mine felt kind of a like a glorified book report. Even though I had worked my ass off on it, being in a kitchen for nine years seemed to have lead to a decline in my ability to sound intelligent through the written word. The only thing I felt secure about was my sample menu, but it didn’t matter because my budget was an immediate roadblock.
The developer educated me on System Development Charges or SDC’s. These are fees from the city of Portland -$2000 for each new drain that you have to put into a space that is proposed as a new use. With a kitchen, bar, and bathroom, I was looking at $14,000 at least – money that I didn’t have. Now that new development was out, I had to search out every other possibility, and along the way I faced many more closed doors.
My next step, pursuing restaurants that were closing, led me to my first love: the stand alone building nestled in an established neighborhood. It had two floors, and a private back patio.
I fell hard and fast, and eventually it broke my heart.
It had been your typical monotonous “insert tom yum soup here” Thai restaurant, and the owners were trying to sell their business. My broker and I started all the necessary moves to obtain the lease.
It turned out that most of the inventory listed in their business sale was really owned by the landlord and, on top of that, the landlord decided she wanted to sell the building. All those factors meant that there was a small pocket of time that would allow us to sign a lease before the building was sold – a lease that the new owner would have to honor.
The restaurant would need some work to make the space useable, which meant I needed contract bids so I could make sure everything fit into my budget. Obtaining this lease required speed and no one was begging me to take this space, so I was on my knees to get those bids quickly. I realized that I needed to hire some sort of architect, designer, or project manager, and fast.
Feeling lost after one of my desperate web searches, i.e. “Portland Oregon designer architect restaurant cost”, I remembered a conversation with a stranger that ended up leading me to Peter Bro. He was excited about the project and we immediately started to get the bids. Unfortunately getting bids takes time that I was worried we didn’t have.
With each day, seemingly a new roadblock, my frustration built. I broke up with this place so many times, but we kept finding ways to move forward again. The Thai people finally abandoned the space, leaving a trail of deserted rotting food I would continue to find in failed restaurant spaces.
Their business had very little value, so we hadn’t pursued buying it. When our contractor bids finally came together and we were ready to sign the lease, communication on the landlord’s side all but died.
As days passed with no word from the landlord, panic ensued. I knew that this secret, this fucking ridiculous gem that I’d found, would be discovered. I was convinced that Portland chefs had a secret lease trading organization that I was definitely not privy to and someone was going to take this place right out from under me.
And someone did.
A big name was now on the table, the landlord was wooed, and I was shit out of luck.
I figured that I might as well go out fighting, so I asked the landlord if she would meet with me, and I begged her to reconsider a low budget rookie.
At our meeting, I heard the same scorned landlord story I would come across over and over again, involving failed restaurants and being understandably tired of it. It didn’t matter that I had been there first. She explained that she had passed on a project a few years before that ended up being a successful Portland restaurant in another location – a “gold star”, as she described them. When it got down to choosing between the two of us, she wanted to go with the safe bet, she wanted to be assured she had a “gold star”.
As break ups sometimes end with an ego driven, semi-regrettable last word, I told her I was that gold star, and one day she would read about me and know she had passed on another chance at success.
Now I just had to find someone who truly believed that was true.
Did you catch Part 1? Read up on what you missed here
* Photo credits to the lovely and talented Kristy Charrion