Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
Image of Johanna Ware courtesy Avila/EPDX
Growing up eating her mother's good old-fashioned Midwestern cooking, Smallwares chef-owner Johanna Ware could never have imagined she'd one day open a Portland restaurant touting signature dishes like chicken lollipops with Sriracha mayo and fried kale with candied bacon. Her path from suburban Chicago to Beaumont was roundabout — Ware fell hard for Oregon while an English major at the University of Oregon, then switched gears to attend culinary school in New York, where she rose rapidly through the NYC kitchen ranks at elite spots like Public, Del Posto, and Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Noodle Bar. Moving to Portland in 2009, Ware spent a few months in Clarklewis' kitchen before landing the sous chef position at Nostrana, cooking with Cathy Whims for a year and a half, as she worked towards her longtime goal of opening her own restaurant.
As Smallwares' hard-won first anniversary looms on February 15, Eater met up with Ware to talk 30-year benchmarks, steak and potato-loving naysayers, the shoulder-to-cry-on benefits of having Mom as your business partner, and backup plans (they involve a sandwich shop).
Not every cook wants to open their own place — what prompted you to do it?
I always wanted to open my own restaurant. When I was at Public, and I was like 22, I said I was going to have my own restaurant by the time I was 30. That was always my end goal, to have my own business, and then around my 30th birthday, I started to have this anxiety, I felt like it was kind of do or die — that really pushed me for some reason, turning 30. For next few months, I struggled with the decision and then I decided 'let's do it.' I was ready to do my own food. I could have stayed and trained longer, there's always so much more for you to learn — I still feel like I want to go stage at Noma at some point. But I really wanted to learn all the other aspects of running a restaurant, and now I'm like, 'Oh god, all the other aspects suck.' [Laughs] But no, I really wanted to do it all.
Beaumont isn't necessarily the first neighborhood you'd envision a restaurant like Smallwares in — what made you choose this hood?
I was just totally handed the lease, truthfully. It was a very sporadic decision. I had lost a lot of leases, and I knew it was going to be hard. Everyone kept looking at my financials and that was an immediate closed door, and then I'd be like, 'oh look at the menu' and that was even weirder — I didn't realize the sample menu looked quite strange to people. I was working with a friend (Portland restaurateur Peter Bro), and he knew the landlord, so I looked at this space and I was like, 'No, absolutely not.' It was huge, I didn't want all this, but then Peter took me out to lunch and envisioned the whole thing — we'd have the two distinctly different spaces. I basically had 48 hours to decide — the landlord didn't need to look at my business plan or anything, he said, 'I trust Peter, let me know if you want it.' It was hard to say no. I live nearby, and I knew I was basically going to live here, so I thought it might as well be a quick drive or walk home. I didn't really totally fully realize the challenge of this neighborhood, but I thought if the food's good, we'd be fine. It was definitely a hastier decision than I probably should have made, but hey, we're here.
How was the initial reception?
Difficult. It was almost disheartening, like we had changed the dynamic of the neighborhood or something. There are some amazing people in the neighborhood and really great regulars, but there were weird reactions, and moments when I felt like people wanted me to fail. I remember, we were drinking at McPeet's one night, and someone said, 'You're never going to make it here, you better put steak and potatoes on your menu.' It was crazy; I walked out crying. That was rough, because at the same time we were really slow, so it felt like maybe all these people were right. I knew that this partly had to be a destination restaurant, but I figured the neighborhood would come around. So I was like, 'Oh, this is going to be way more of struggle than I thought.'
What was opening day like, any memorable hiccups or surprises?
It seems like so long ago. I wanted to open quietly, I didn't want to stress myself out. I felt like people were like, 'Oh, another person from New York, Momofuku, David Chang,' and I didn't want that pressure, so I'd been really quiet about the details and the cuisine. We really just invited our friends, so it wasn't crazy busy, but it was insane for me. My husband was still wiring speakers right when doors opened, and then we realized we had no music, so I remember throwing my credit card at Taylor, the bartender, and saying, 'Go buy Pandora for business!' Then halfway through the night, my manager came up and said, 'Do we have any cash?' These were the things I didn't know as a cook, like, 'Oh we need a till, we need cash.' We had no money, my mom was digging through her purse because we had no change. The POS system is obviously very experimental, so that was a little hairy too. There were a lot of little things.
You've called your cooking inauthentic, weird and undefined — so how exactly did this concept come about?
It's influenced by who I studied under in New York — Brad Farmerie at Public, and David Chang. Those experiences were this huge introduction to different ingredients and spices and ethnicities and flavors. It was insane, things I'd never experienced before. And we were living in Queens, where there was so much crazy ethnic food and markets, and I fell in love with all these newfound ingredients, and I really fell in love with spice and aggressive flavors. At the end of the day, I just want my food to be crave-able. It's what I crave to eat.
How has your approach to the menu evolved since you opened?
I feel like even through our darkest moments, our vision has stayed the same for the food and drinks. One of the greatest things about this whole process was that I didn't really know anyone in town, and now I've met so many restaurateurs and cooks and servers and food writers and at some point, they knew that we were struggling, and everybody was like, just keep your head down and keep doing what you're doing, don't change for people. There were moments where I was like, 'What can we do to make this place work?!,' but changing the vision of the food was never an option. At that point, what's the point of having a restaurant? I'd rather fail with this food. That was the best advice I got — keep doing what you're doing and it will happen.
You're open for dinner every single night, you have an adjoining bar, Barwares, where you're serving until 1a.m., you've got a kids menu, you did a happy hour, and you just recently nixed lunch — it seems like you've made a strong effort to accommodate all types of diners. Is it paying off?
I feel like I opened trying to accommodate everybody, but we've actually started to rein it in more. When my new front of the house manager, Chevonne, came on in November, we'd just been through a really financially damaging few months. It was like, how do you get all these great reviews, and then sit empty for months... I'd put a happy hour on, I was changing the lunch menu, I was doing all these desperate acts, and it wasn't until the Willamette Week, when we got (Restaurant of the Year) runner-up, and the mention in the Portland Monthly (Best Restaurants issue) came out at the same time, that it kind of changed overnight. I wanted to be that place that was always open, but I had to come to the realization that this neighborhood is not the neighborhood for that. So we've kind of reined it in... losing lunch was really hard for me, but now it feels great. I just felt so guilty not being here, I was here from nine in the morning until 3a.m. for seven months straight, I didn't take a day off. It's creatively freeing, I have so much more time in the kitchen.
Any colorful neighborhood regulars that you've come to know and love... or dread?
Well, one of my first realizations when we opened Barwares was, 'Oh, I just opened a bar, and it's open until 2a.m.' For some reason, I wasn't thinking about the neighborhood drunks who would start to come around, and there were some interesting ones. That was funny, because I had to 86 people, and I was like, 'Great, now I'm a bouncer in my own restaurant, let's take on another task.' But there are some great regulars that I love, who eat here once or twice a week, always order the new things on the menu, they came on New Years Eve, they are just amazing, they really keep the hope alive.
What have been your greatest successes & learning experiences this past year? Obviously winning the Eater Chef of the Year award back in November was the highlight, but there were probably a couple of others that came close. Sort of.
That slew in the fall, of winning the runner-up in the Willamette Week, and being mentioned in Portland Monthly, and then the Eater Chef of the Year award: What I didn't realize was how national it was. I just thought Portland people would read it, then I got all these great compliments from old Momofuku workers, and that was really crazy, the national press on that level was really cool. I still doubt myself so much, and it's so surreal to have had this much praise in the first year. I truly never expected that, so I'm not the most comfortable with it all yet, and it almost adds more pressure and makes me want to be bigger and better. It makes you put your head down and work even harder. I think every day's been a success. This is the hardest thing I've ever done, so it's like, if I can just survive, that's a success! There were times where every day, I'd sit in the shower and say, 'Okay, today's a new day,' there were those nights where we'd do like, $400 in sales. So just the restaurant, just every day that we're here feels like my greatest success, truthfully.
Your mother is your only investor. How's that working? Do you guys ever butt heads? Does she pull the Mom card?
No, not at all. This was always her dream, to open a restaurant, and she's my biggest cheerleader. She's in Chicago, so I was making a lot of these decisions by myself, and it felt really lonely at times. There was a time when it felt like every time I called her, I was a complete mess, we needed more money, everything felt so scary, and she'd be like, 'God damn it, we're going to do this, it's fine!' She's been a crazy-awesome support system. She believes in me, and she believes this is going to happen. We always joke that if it fails, fine, we'll open a sandwich shop. But we're not going to fail, we're just going to figure out what works.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
Yes and no. It's been a really long year. I always look at restaurants, and I'm like, 'Oh my God, they've been open for 10 years, how do you'stay fresh and new?' That's what I'm always thinking about. This is for the long haul. I've got one year under my belt, now let's hope the next years are bigger and better. My husband and I went away last weekend for the very first time since we opened, and we got to the cabin, and there was no cell phone reception, and I had a crazy anxiety attack and made him drive back into town. I called the restaurant like 10 times. I'm not ready to let go of this place, but I'm ready to have a better year and keep doing some fun stuff.
· Smallwares [Official site]
· All Previous Smallwares Coverage [Eater PDX]