Window Shopping

While we were in Belize my sister loaned me her copy of the magazine Fast Company and consequently introduced me to one of NYC’s most innovative restaurateurs, Danny Meyer. Born in St. Louis, Meyer moved to NYC with big dreams and in October 1985, at the ripe age of twenty-seven, opened Union Square Café. At the time he was warned by both family and friends that his concept would never work, the menu alone was “too eclectic.” Over twenty years later, that restaurant has become the namesake for a highly esteemed management organization known as the Union Square Hospitality Group. The USHG includes eleven unique dining establishments throughout the city, certifiably a restaurant empire and Mr. Meyer reigns as this empire’s King. Inspired by the magazine article, I recently picked up a copy of Setting the Table, a restaurateur’s autobiography in which Meyer narrates his experiences working in the NYC restaurant industry. Among the many pearls of wisdom Meyer offers throughout his book, in reference to real estate he maintains that ‘context, context, context’ trumps the outdated mantra ‘location, location, location.’ In other words, a great location is of no consequence when the framework of a restaurant isn’t right.

So in the beginning, Evan and I began to think about Our Context. We wanted to know everything we possibly could about our restaurant. We had to ask questions like, what do we Taste like? Answer: Local farmer’s markets. And, what do we Smell like? Answer: Melting cheeses on crusty artisan bread, a perfectly extracted espresso shot, cinnamon & sugar dusted on fresh baked pastries. What do we Sound like? Friends chatting, co-workers gossiping, laptops buzzing, families recounting, foodies munching, commuters slurping, a community rising. What do we Feel like? A breath of fresh air, an overstuffed sofa, a home cooked meal, the perfect fit.

Many of these questions were easy to answer. Quite simply, we set out to create a space we would want to eat in, a place we would later coin as our “Spot.” A place of productivity and assembly, a gallery of art and music, a place where the seating is inviting, a place where the food is inventive and indulgent without being so fancy that you can't scurry back to the office to scarf down your lunch, a place where the staff is genuine and fulfilled, where the menu options are endless, a place that emanates warmth, security, possibility, and delectability. That is our context.

But other questions still remain; questions that do not rely on a context, but a location. There are spaces and gaps in my mind regarding the physicality of our space. Are our floors made of concrete that we will perfectly stain ourselves one sunny afternoon; or are they old hardwoods that we’ll learn to map and navigate across, seeking out the squeaks new and old? Does our neighborhood have a community garden full of fruits and vegetables we will incorporate into the menu; or is the neighborhood full of bustling citizens, busy shopping and working while simultaneously seeking a nourishing refuge? Does our space have large expansive windows up front, perfect for counter-seating and people watching; or exaggerated skylights perfect for catching the resonance of Portland’s rain? At this point in the journey we realize we are not at the beginning anymore. It has become abundantly clear that our context is ready for a location.

If context is the beginning of the journey then location shall be our middle. In my dreams I take an ad out in the paper:

Smart, fresh, hospitable Context seeks ideal Location for relaxation, hearty meals, creative endeavors, intelligent conversation, and convenience. Serious inquiries ONLY.

I only wish it were this easy. This is what I’m thinking as Evan and I are roll around different neighborhoods throughout the city window shopping. As we cruise through the Pearl, and across the Broadway Bridge into NE Portland I begin to sing our new mantra, ‘context, context, context,’ and I wonder if any of these locations will be the perfect match to our framework. This one? Too small. That one? Too expensive. This one? Not enough natural light. That one? Too residential. This one? Maybe. That one? Getting closer…

Part of me is dying to ask Evan, “Are you sure we just can’t get a realtor?” And then the other part of me knows I want to be there to feel It, the visceral reaction I’m confident I will have when we find the Spot. Unfortunately I’ve had the It feeling plenty of times only to have my prospect brutally trampled upon when we learn of the price per square foot, or when we hear the space “has just been leased to someone else.” A frustrating process, but nonetheless an irrefutably necessary one. Given our disenchantment my father recently suggested we look for a mobile food cart instead. A place where we could make our own hours, seek out new parts of the city, continue traveling at our leisure, and of course the obvious: be less likely to fall upon the path of failure. I know this suggestion was made out of love and concern but I also I know without consideration that Green & Green does not belong in a food cart. At least not this Green & Green.

The risk of failure is of course something that plagues many minds around us, understandably of course. I cannot even recall the countless number of times I’ve been reminded of the statistic that 80% of restaurants fail in their first year. Trust us, we know. We have worked long enough in this industry to see the hopes and dreams of friends and loved ones titter on the edge plenty of times, their fates dependent upon minuscule details, or cost inflation, a change in ownership, or a lousy review. And although all don’t make it I passionately ascertain that the effort alone made it worth it. That is, the drive and love that became an obsession that caused the attempt in the first place is a noble one, one that should be admired given its established risk; one that can be explained as simply as, “because I need to at least try.”

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