Order Up

Jason E. Kaplan
A bowl of pho at Chris Holen’s Astoria eatery, Nekst Event

Who opens a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic? Here’s a look at three of the “good crazies” who are giving it a shot.

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“We call ourselves the ‘good crazies,’” says Chris Holen, owner of Nekst Event in Astoria, referring to the special brand of people who own and run restaurants.

It is no wonder. The restaurant business was always tumultuous — requiring long hours, backbreaking labor and a hefty amount of luck to succeed. Layer in the uncertainties of an ongoing pandemic, and opening a restaurant in 2021 feels like a bad bet.

Yet several “good crazies” are giving it a shot.

Their road will not be easy. Bars and restaurants were the economic sector most impacted by the pandemic, according to Oregon state economist Josh Lehner. Dining establishment closures increased by about 5% over the last year throughout the state. In Multnomah County, leisure and hospitality employment losses were three times higher than in Portland’s suburbs and 10 times as high as the rest of the state.

Lehner chalks this up to reduced business travel and increased telecommuting — and all those great urban amenities being transformed into disamenities when they cannot be used or enjoyed during a pandemic.

“For the short term, the future is the suburbs for sure,” says Kurt Huffman, owner of ChefsTable, a group that partners with chefs to provide risk management and business guidance. He is focusing on expanding the brands he already works with, bringing six ChefsTable restaurants to the new Mercato Grove development in Lake Oswego.

No matter where the property is, staffing remains an issue around the state and country.

One fix: raising workers’ pay.

“Many restaurants are offering a higher starting wage or hiring and retention bonuses to attract or keep employees,” says Greg Astley, director of government affairs for the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association. “The average wage for hospitality workers in Oregon has increased by over 10% in the last year to $19.49 an hour as of July.” ORLA gets wage information from the Employment Department and the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis.

And the upward trend continues. In an email to Oregon Business, Lehner says that as of mid-September, “wages are now more like 4% to 5% above trend” versus pre-pandemic times.

Money alone, however, may not solve the problem. A poll conducted by the employment search engine Joblist found that more than half of U.S. hospitality workers would not return to their old jobs, and more than one-third are not even considering reentering their industry, Bloomberg reported in July. More eye-opening, the poll found that no pay increase or incentive would change their mind.

The reasons for the exodus are many. Some workers have no child care. Others have moved on to different careers — perhaps to jobs that provide health care and other benefits.

But many servers are just exhausted. Restaurant work is already physically demanding, and workers must now deal with customers who run from confrontational to aggressive when asked to wear a mask or present a vaccine card.

“Frontline workers don’t want to be the mask or vaccine police, dealing with customers who disagree with state mandates and take it out on our employees,” says Astley.

Still, the “good crazies” are out there taking a chance during the chaos of shifting rules and uncertain outcomes. Oregon Business visited three to talk about plans, pivots and what the future may hold.

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Obon Shokudo, Portland

Humiko Hozumi and Jason Duffany

“Is that drywall in your hair?” Jason Duffany asks his wife, Humiko Hozumi, as she exits Obon Shokudo’s kitchen and walks into the dining room.

Duffany starts picking small white bits out of Hozumi’s pulled-back ponytail while ticking off outstanding to-do items, despite opening their vegan Japanese restaurant weeks earlier. There’s updating the kitchen’s fire-suppression system (a drywall-intensive job, apparently) and fixing a small leak in the basement. “Plus, I want to get more art up on these walls.”

All in a day’s work in the life of a restaurateur.

Or so Hozumi and Duffany are discovering as they transition Obon Shokudo from a food stand — which was popular at festivals and farmers markets — to a brick-and-mortar operation on Portland’s Southeast Grand Avene. It has been an eye-opening, seven-year journey for the former veterinary technician (Hozumi) and IT professional (Duffany) from San Francisco.

The couple moved to Portland in 2014, trading their day jobs for careers in the food business. At first they were not sure that business would be a restaurant. Instead, Hozumi explored food manufacturing, hoping to sell their fermented tofu misozuke paste in grocery stores. That idea was quickly abandoned.

“Getting into grocery stores is hard,” says Hozumi. “You can’t make a living that way.”

(Interestingly, their space’s former occupants — Bonnie and Israel Morales, who own the famed Russian restaurant Kachka — have enjoyed great success wholesaling their frozen dumplings to New Seasons Market since October 2020.)

So they pivoted. Leaning on Hozumi’s heritage and tapping into Portland’s large vegan community, the pair cooked upmeatless versions of Japanese homestyle comfort food. After a rough start, the novel concept took off, leading to opening a space in the Morrison Market in February 2020.

By mid-March the food hall had closed, so the pair pivoted to a delivery model. Business was not gangbusters — just a few orders a day — but enough to cover food costs and modest rent at their Gresham commissary kitchen space. When the Morrison Market eventually reopened, it was without Obon Shokudo.

“We didn’t know it would be a performance venue,” says Duffany, complaining that his customers would have to pay a $5 cover charge to enter the market during shows.

Instead, the couple signed a five-year lease for a 2,000-square-foot space formerly occupied by Kachka/Kachinka. Despite opening their restaurant during a pandemic, Duffany and Hozumi do not seem fazed by the difficulties plaguing other restaurants. The pair claims to have easily filled 11 full- and part-time positions by advertising on Instagram.

“There was a time when no one wanted to work, but I think that is over,” says Hozumi. If dining rooms must close again, the couple plans to convert kitchen workers into delivery staff. As vegans, they’re not concerned with rising meat prices, and with six local farms growing their vegetables, the couple is certain they will not face produce shortages.

As a final back-up plan, Duffany says he can convert the restaurant’s basement — also 2,000 square feet — into a rentable commissary kitchen while Hozumi sells her fermented goods to other chefs.

“That doesn’t have the packaging requirements of selling in a grocery,” she explains.

But for now, the restaurant is profitable, according to Duffany. A mid-August visit saw a few customers pop in for an early dinner, but their long, narrow dining room would feel uncomfortably close if full even at restricted capacity.

In fact, the size and shape of that dining room played a large role in the Morales’ decision not to renew their lease.

“What made our original space and Kachinka more magical is what makes the space completely unusable [during COVID-19],” Israel Morales said in an interview with Eater.

By the time their five-year lease is up, Hozumi and Duffany hope to have grown Obon Shokudo into a decently sized empire that runs by itself. And then…retire.

“I love working,” says Duffany. “But it would be nice to not.”

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Nekst Event, Astoria

Chris and Jennifer Holen

On Memorial Day 2020, chef Chris Holen had an epiphany at a backyard barbecue.

His casual-chic, full-service restaurant and bar, Baked Alaska, had been closed for months due to pandemic restrictions and his many catering jobs had been put on hold.

While he was enjoying beer and lawn games with friends and family, it became clear to him.

“This is what people do on holidays,” he thought. “They spend time with friends and family.”

After two decades of owning and operating restaurants in Astoria, he and his wife, Jennifer, shuttered Baked Alaska. They gave up 100-hour workweeks, managing a staff of 25 to 30 and endless catering jobs. The decision was not easy, particularly as the couple just invested in their third remodel and agreed to leave all the fixtures, furniture and equipment behind as a concession to their landlord. Still, the move made sense.

“We looked at every way we could operate Baked Alaska with reduced seating, but nothing penciled out,” says Jennifer. After the family spent a few weeks relaxing in Hawaii, where Chris worked as a chef and teacher, the couple and their 14-year-old daughter, Ana, came home to Astoria and Chris started developing his next idea.

He already had a location. Nekst Event served as Baked Alaska’s auxiliary kitchen and private event space. Sited just a block from their old restaurant, this smaller venue holds a few tables, a large kitchen and an enormous riverfront deck big enough for six tables with plenty of breathing room to spare. Chris was not sure what his new concept would be, but he had a few criteria: limited hours, limited menu and limited effort — all with the goal of prioritizing family time.

After experimenting with different global street foods, he landed on his menu by chance.

“I had some beef left over from a catering gig, so I thought I’d make some pho,” he explains. His daughter filmed him cooking, posted it on Instagram and the 10-bowl batch quickly sold out.

After selling out 20 bowls the next day, Holen found his niche. He began making and serving three kinds of pho: beef, chicken and tofu. He also used the same three proteins to fill banh mi sandwiches.

“No one else is offering this,” he says. That seems baffling, as the well-crafted, mildly spicy bowl of soup and noodles is a perfect warmer on a cool, coastal afternoon.

Prawn fresh rolls and the “Rather Large” chocolate chip cookie —  a popular holdover from Baked Alaska’s menu —  round out the offerings. Hours are Friday to Monday, 10 to 3 or whenever they sell out, which is often. (Editor’s note: Since this story was published in OBM’s print edition, Nekst has changed its hours and is now open Tuesday through Friday.) All the food is served in compostable takeaway boxes, removing the need for bussing tables and dishwashing. There’s also a small retail rack filled with Holen’s line of Chef Daddy seasoning salt and daughter Ana’s handmade face masks.

At first, Baked Alaska regulars balked at the downsizing, saying the couple were giving up a gold mine — but Jennifer defends the position.

“We’re no longer stressed out about money,” she says, referencing the pressures of meeting a $50,000 payroll and $14,000 rent bill every month. “We made a conscious decision to opt out.”

The pair also feel their new operation is pandemic-proof. Contactless ordering and payment are easy, thanks to a $1,000 investment in a Square point of sale device — a big change from Baked Alaska’s expensive and complicated POS system.

Even if people stop traveling, Jennifer says that eight out of 10 customers are local: “The staff at Columbia Memorial Hospital alone could sustain us.”

And the business is sized so the family of three can run it comfortably.

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Fills Donuts, Lake Oswego

Katherine Benvenuti

The email’s subject line was clear: “Lake Oswego wants donuts.”

But Katherine Benvenuti was still apprehensive.

She had just found her footing after a wild ride. In March 2020, after three and a half years in Oregon, the celebrated Los Angeles pastry chef just opened her much-anticipated bakery inside Bar King, a hot new restaurant in Portland’s inner East side.

But Bar King closed in January of this year after just nine months in business, with owners Shaun and Jamie King telling Eater they struggled to find a viable model amid shifting pandemic restrictions.

Benvenuti continued to operate out of the Bar King space, selling takeaway brunch boxes: three pastries, two coffees and a cup of seasonal fruit for $25. The offering took off in a big way.

“I brought in $2,000 one Saturday, and it was just me and one other worker who came in for two hours,” she says.

Her business partner, Kurt Huffman, owner of ChefsTable, which partners with chefs to create new restaurants, pressed her to open her own freestanding shop — but Benvenuti was unsure.

“I said, ‘No one wants a new doughnut shop now,’” she recalls. But Huffman’s urging — combined with long lines at shops like Pip’s Original Doughnuts & Chai and Voodoo Doughnut — changed her mind.

She took the plunge, opening Fills Donuts in downtown Portland in November 2020. The reviews were ecstatic and the shop was slammed. Two months later, Benvenuti received that prescient email from Huffman.

“Kurt felt that downtown businesses were about to get hit really hard and Fills would suffer,” she recalls.

But Lake Oswego, the well-to-do suburb where Huffman was building a cluster of ChefsTable restaurants, is different.

“It’s a community that is hungry for restaurants. It would be a place where I could have some stability.”

She closed her Portland shop temporarily and headed south to Lake O.

Doing business in the suburbs was easier in some ways, but Benvenuti still had challenges staffing her shop. While some have insisted that enhanced unemployment benefits encouraged people to stay home, Benvenuti has a different take on why the industry is suffering through a worker shortage.

“This industry already hires a high percentage of disenfranchised, marginalized people who are used to having their safety take a backseat,” she says. “It doesn’t surprise me that some people don’t want to come back until it’s safe.”

And coming back to work is risky for other reasons: If the restaurant closes in a week or two, workers must refile for unemployment and then wait for the money.

Eventually, Benvenuti hired a crew of seven part-time and three full-time staff. Her biggest pain point now, she says, is one many working parents share: finding adequate care for her children, who are 3 and 5 years old.

She’s built out her menu to include breakfast sandwiches and burgers, using her brioche doughnuts as buns. This extended menu translates into extended hours with Fills open from 8 to 8. The chef and a staff of four are also very busy providing the bread and pastries for three other ChefsTable restaurants.

Benvenuti definitely benefits from belonging to the ChefsTable fold. While still managing the day-to-day operations of menu development, hiring and the like, she can lean on ChefsTable for things like bookkeeping, HR compliance, lease negotiations and bargaining for lower flour prices. Huffman even took over Benvenuti’s early-morning delivery route after she was injured.

“I wouldn’t have been able to open without them,” she says.

She is also dreaming big for the future, hoping to grow her pastry line and eventually offering frozen goods in groceries. If COVID restrictions close indoor dining, she’s confident that her doughnut and sandwich menu will easily survive in a to-go world.

“I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve done,” she says. “In a city overrun with doughnuts, it’s shocking that we’re part of the game.”

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