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.
Last May, the trio behind Northeast's popular Grain & Gristle — chef Ben Meyer, Upright Brewing owner/head brewer Alex Ganum, and restaurant designer Marcus Hoover — quietly opened the doors to their meaty encore Old Salt Marketplace, an expansive combination of supper house, deli, butcher shop and bar that transformed NE 42nd Avenue from dining desert to dining destination.
In the midst of last week's great Portland E.coli-pocalypse, Eater sat down with Meyer and Ganum (Hoover was out buying ice) to talk backbreaking build-outs, why opening a restaurant is a lot like childbirth, ordering Thanksgiving turkeys in May, the paradox of the toilet-unclogging chef, and which of the three partners is the bossiest.
What motivated you three to open a second restaurant?
AG: We needed a bigger kitchen.
BM: We never expected Grain & Gristle to be what it is: We thought that would be a quiet little neighborhood place, the place where we could stop and have a burger and beer on the way home. We outgrew the kitchen almost immediately. And for us to be able to go completely whole animal, we needed more avenues for the meat: beef is a big carcass. We also really wanted a meat case because we make all these things that nobody else in town really makes, so we wanted to be able to sell all that.
Why did you choose the Cully neighborhood?
BM: It's our neighborhood. We were looking on 42nd before we even opened Grain & Gristle, because we both live here. There were very few things in the neighborhood that we were excited to walk to. The neighborhood is full of people our age, with kids, and all of them drive everywhere. We didn't even have a bike shop; some guys are building a bike shop right now and I'm excited not to have to drive somewhere else to fix my flat tire.
Photo courtesy Avila/EPDX
How did the build-out go?
AG: It was backbreaking.
BM: We do as much of the work as possible. We only contract out the things you have to contract out. So we cut the concrete and dig the trenches, then we pay a plumber to connect the pipe. We learned how to float concrete. How to run a scissor lift. How to take down cinder block. We did all the demo. This building had 22 rooms when we took it over, and it took eight full size dumpsters just to clear it out.
AG: It was a lot different from the Grain & Gristle buildout.
BM: With Ned Ludd, me and Jason [French] completely gutted it and remodeled it in 30 days. Grain & Gristle, the three of us did in 60 days. After we had the permits, Old Salt took us four months, and that's not even including all the demo work that was happening during permitting. It took us over a year to get the lease worked out, and on the first of the year a whole bunch of new regulations kicked in: We were halfway through permitting when that happened, so we had to add an extra grease trap in our bar. There were things where they wanted to retroactively go back and take stamps off pages and we were like, "No you can't, you already said this was okay." And they were reasonable for the most part. The inspectors were great.
AG: That's the kind of stuff you're very happy to be past and hopefully never deal with again.
BM: We dealt with some of that stuff at G&G, little things, but we'd forgotten it right after.
BM: Exactly. Actually, that happened while we were building this out: I had my first kid while we were halfway through the buildout. And like 30 seconds after my son was born, my wife was like, "That wasn't so bad," and I was like, "Are you fucking kidding me?! Seriously? Five minutes ago I thought you were breaking into pieces, and now you're like, 'Eh, that wasn't so bad.'" It was like that.
How do the three of you work together? Who's the bossiest one?
BM: Oh, that's me.
AG: Yeah, probably Ben. He talks the most, if that counts as bossiest. It's actually kind of a dream partnership, we all really see eye to eye and share a lot of values, so it's easy.
BM: The operation has gotten big now. It went from running the pub, which was pretty easy because I was in there every day, and Marcus handled the maintenance and design and equipment, and Alex took care of all the beverages, to this big machine here. We send a lot more quick messages, like, "Hey, is there any way you can handle this?" We have really different strengths but we all tackle whatever needs to be tackled.
You've got a restaurant, bar, butcher shop, deli, bakery, farmers market, and what was the now-closed Good Kueken cooking school, what are you doing with that space?
BM: It's focused on cooking classes, special events and private dinners. Sunday I'm doing a sausage-making class, Wednesday I have a beef butchery class, next Sunday is a meat cooking-class. Those are the first classes to fill up, the basic meat cookery classes. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to selling meat is that people are terrified to cook it, they don't know how to sear a steak or cook a pork chop. I spend most of my day on the case telling someone what to do with the meat.
AG: I do feel like every time I walk in here you're explaining how to cook a ribeye.
BM: Nobody wants to spend $20 on a steak and then take it home and screw it up.
Photo courtesy Avila/EPDX
Early on, a lot of people called Old Salt "ambitious" for wearing so many hats, has this model worked out or would you do things differently in hindsight?
Ben: Old Salt got misportrayed in some of the early write-ups, where they talked about it like it was an Ocean thing. People see all these different arms like they are independent, but it's basically one giant mechanism. We have one dedicated meat cutter and he cuts all the meat for the entire company. We get in two beef a week and three pigs and he breaks all those down, and that feeds Grain & Gristle's menu, the supperhouse, and the deli. So it's basically one giant restaurant with different menus running in different spaces, and then there's Anja [Spence] with the [adjoining Miss Zumstein] bakery. We knew what 42nd Avenue needed was a reason for people to come here, so we wanted to make sure that from 7a.m. to midnight there was a reason to be on the street, and that's why the bakery ended up where it is. I won't lie, it's a monster machine and it takes all we can do to keep up with it, because there's always something happening, like today, with the water thing.
What was opening day like?
AG: It was nice, a lot of friends showed up and it was just a sweet moment.
BM: This was the first time we did a real soft opening. We did friends and family one night, quietly opened the doors the next night, and then had the actual "tell everybody we're open" night. Whereas with Grain & Gristle, Eater and Thrillist both had people waiting to pounce the first day so we just got beat up.
How did you develop Old Salt's menu? How has the menu evolved since you opened?
BM: We knew we had the best beef and pork in the Northwest so the meat was a given. We weren't going to have to do anything too crazy, especially with a hearth, so what [chef] Tim [Wastell] and I talked about right off the bat was that the vegetables would drive the menu. And Tim cooks the same way everybody in the company does: If you have the best product, the less you do to it, the less chance you have of fucking it up. Tim's doing an amazing job, not only building and maintaining the menu, but learning new things we can do with the hearth. It's a wide-open tool and we're always finding new ways to use it.
What have been some of your most enduringly popular dishes?
BM: The cheddar grits, head cheese croquettes, and biscuits. The eponymous biscuits. And Ben's biscuits are NOT my biscuits, those are Ben Schade's, one of the sous chefs. When we first opened we had Georgia's biscuits, which were my great grandmother's, but they were too laborious, so Ben made his and they were delicious and really resilient so we kept them around.
AG: Drinkwise, the Bitter Mess, it's not always on but that's the one people always ask about. The Night Ride, which started out at G&G but came up here and got popular, and the Brown Derby.
Photo courtesy Avila/EPDX
Seeing as this is a true neighborhood restaurant, any interesting regulars?
BM: Gary the Foodie. Gary's in here a lot and we love him. He stops in to talk maybe five days a week and eats here on one menu or another, or picks up stuff to take home most of those days. I see him in the morning when I'm coming in on my bike, he's walking one direction, and then around the time we're opening the shop he's walking the other direction back, almost every single day. And a shout out to the Cabezon folks, a lot of the cooks come in after service and eat late night. The meat shop has a ton of quirky regulars, folks that don't want to go to their grocery store, they have special meat needs and wants. There's a family that lives nearby, and the wife used to come in three days a week and buy headcheese, liverwurst, braunschweiger, and all the organ meats we had around. Then her husband mostly started coming in, and he loves the beef neck roast, then he'll buy his wife a pound of braunschweiger. So there's the neck roast guy.
What have some of your biggest challenges been in this first year?
BM: The constant shuffling of proteins. Most of my job is figuring out what menu the different proteins are going to go to, because every time somebody wants to add a braise to their menu, I have to steal that from somebody else. And figuring out what to make and how much and making sure we don't run out, because I'm ordering cows a month out and pigs three weeks out. I just ordered our Thanksgiving turkeys. It's fucking May, and I had to figure out how many turkeys we need for November.
Also, mechanical infrastructure. Having both restaurants means you've got twice or three times as many water heaters or HVAC units to go out. People don't realize the deeper you get in, the less you're actually doing the thing people think you're doing. I barely get to cook anymore. I grind and mix sausage and cut meat and work the counter and do special events, but those are the only menus I really get to build anymore. I unplug toilets. I fix HVAC units or whatever else. I call around and find ice for Marcus to get on days like this.
You just rolled out weekend brunch last weekend, any other exciting future plans?
BM: The farmers' market will be big, that starts June 5th. Last year we had our own market, and we also had the Cully market on Sundays, but they decided that they wanted to join together. I just got the layout and there are 30-something stalls and four major events throughout the summer. It's very exciting.
AG: Having the back space now, we're really excited about doing classes, we've got a whole set posted on our website right now. And we have a couple fun dinners in June: On the 9th we're doing a beer pairing dinner, I'll focus on tart, funky vintage barrel aged beers from the brewery. We have a Father's Day dinner with Firestone Walker, we're featuring a bunch of their beers, and the owner will be in town for that.
And finally, does it feel like it's been a year?
BM: Yes, yes it does. I have my kid now, he was born during the buildout, and now I see him running around here screaming. There have been so many things, one after another, as this place develops.
AG: It's been a busy year. And I think we're all growing up at the same time.
BM: Yeah, both my partners are getting married this summer.
AG: Sometimes you feel overwhelmed but then at the end of the day when you have all the good stuff going on in your personal life, life is really wonderful. It's hard to get stressed out.
· Old Salt Marketplace [Official site]
· All Previous Old Salt Coverage [Eater PDX]