This is the Gatekeepers, in which Eater meets the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite hard-to-get tables.
While ¿Por Que No? might not be your standard table-service style eatery, both locations are slammin' — which calls for a Gatekeeper to wrangle the long lines of margarita swillers and taco eaters. At the Mississippi location that task goes to Katy Abby, who has been on staff since 2010 and says this has been one of the craziest, busiest summers in her history with the company. Abby moved from Seattle back to Portland five years ago (her family had lived in PDX until she was about seven years old): "We were coming down on our weekends, and we just decided that all the things we liked about Seattle were even better in Portland," Abby says. "And all the things we didn't like about Seattle were better here too." A long-time bartender, Abby was excited to become a part of a the tight-knit food community here. And a funny fact, her first job was "in a Mexican restaurant — not like this one in any way."
Eater caught up with Abby to talk about the busiest year yet at the ¿Por Que No? locations, dealing with long lines of hungry guests, managing margarita madness, and the possibility of a third location in the future.
When is the busiest time here?
It's always a little bit insane. But the weekends are super busy, on Saturday's there's a line out the door before we open for brunch and then it just doesn't stop. It just doesn't stop. So I think maybe a better question is "when are we not busy here?"
And that was our next question... when is the best time to come in?
I think people are always pleasantly surprised when the come in around three or four o'clock, even five o'clock, so the beginning of happy hour. By six we are usually jamming again. We expanded this year, with more back seating and the upstairs is now a prep kitchen. We have a ton more space, so we are able to do a lot more business. This year is our busiest year ever, and we are in our busiest month of our busiest year ever, so things are kind of like "whoa." So at this point not everyday has that nice little lull, but most do.
What is your priority when dealing with the long lines?
Mostly we try to get people through that line as quickly as we can, while maintaining a positive experience within the restaurant. We have really high turn over — people come in and they eat and are generally very quick. There is space for people who do want to hang out a little longer and they are obviously welcome to do that. I've never really seen another place like it, where it's a mix of counter service and table service. And for a counter service restaurant I think we offer a unique high level of service: We bring food to the table; we check in with people; they're always people walking around making sure that everyone's happy; and if something is not right — like they didn't know what they ordered or if it was a mistake on our end — we'll fix it right away.
And how do you make waiting more bearable for guests?
As they're waiting in line, people can have drinks, and with this remodel we have been able to open a second register so when we have enough open tables and when the kitchen is still putting out food a good pace, we'll start taking people up at the second register. The line moves more quickly and our liquor permit says that when you cross the threshold of the front door into the restaurant, you can have a drink in your hand. And so we work really, really hard to show that we are a least offering people a beverage while they wait in line. It's something that we are constantly striving to do, because they've been waiting in line for who knows how long at that point: Maybe they've only been waiting five minutes, but maybe 20 minutes. And to be able to have a margarita or even just a juice or a soda while you're waiting makes a huge difference. It's like, I'll wait an hour for brunch as long as I can have coffee.
¿Por Que No? asks that you wait to grab a table until you've ordered, do people ever get antsy and try to jump the line?
People do sort of get stressed out, more so when it's hot, and we just try and be as sweet as we can to everybody. People respond so much better if you clearly explain the situation: Obviously if someone is pregnant, or old, or has a broken leg or something, I'm not going to kick them off of a table, and because most people do follow that rule, there's space for that kind of flexibility. But basically, we'll just go up to them and explain, "Hey, we just ask that you wait until you get your number before you take a seat. The people in head of you in line will have their food out first and it's the same courtesy for the people that are waiting behind you." Every once in a while people are overly worried that they aren't going to find a seat, but this place is magic, it always seems to work out.
Photo courtesy Facebook
Tell us a little bit about the decor here
This comes from Bryan [Steelman]'s wife, and one of her friends. They are the masterminds behind the decor. She is a gifted antique hunter, has an eye for things, and a personal collection that is just amazing. It's very eclectic and mix-matched. And I think that's part of what makes standing in-line more bearable for people. There is just so much to look at. I still notice things that I've never seen before.
What's the most popular item on the menu?
The most popular drink is, hands down, the traditional margarita. We've probably done about 300 to 400 margaritas on our busiest day. And I know that Hawthorne does more than that, probably in the ballpark of two-thirds more. Since we're this busy, it's been a challenge to have drinks that take a long time to craft, so we make our margaritas from fresh juice every day, but they're in large batches. They are super consistent, so it's always the same drink. We've had specials like an avocado margarita or a rosemary-infused mezcal, we have an agua fresca margarita which is the juices of the day added into the traditional, so that one changes every day. My favorite is when we have the passion fruit-serrano margarita; it's spicy and sweet.
Have you had celebrity clientele here?
Yeah, we have. Michael Cera was in not that long ago. We get a lot of musicians that sometimes aren't as recognizable facially, unless you know. So sometimes people are like, "Oh, that's the guy from; or, that's Colin Meloy, or somebody." A few years ago Chloe Sevigny was in here. People are always like, "What did she order?" She ordered a chorizo taco and everybody thought it was funny. [Laughs] Recently, the stars from Grimm were in here, and it's funny because when celebrities come in, sometimes you don't know if you recognize them from being regulars here, or if you recognize them from somewhere they work that you frequent, or if you recognize them from TV. I don't have time to watch enough TV.
Do you have a lot of regulars here?
We have the best regulars in the world. We have some people that come in everyday. It's amazing, and that's one of the things I love about this place. It's like seeing a friend. You know they're drink, and you probably know they're food order, and they know your name, and they ask about your kid or whatever, and it's so great.
Both ¿Por Que No? locations are doing so well, has there been talk of opening a third?
Right now, we are just focusing on kicking ass at both restaurants, and it's plenty, but the future is open. I think that if Bryan ever did decide to open another ¿Por Que No?, it would be full of people. But it's hard, this place is so unique and there is so much heart in it, to expand it and maintain that same level, I think it's challenging to think about opening more. It feels like a close-knit little family, and the atmosphere conveys that. We've had people approach us who own franchises and say, "We want to see you in every college town across the country." And while I'm sure there's a certain appeal in that, you would lose so much of [what makes it special].
What's the most important Gatekeeper tool?
You have to have a really friendly attitude towards people, make them feel respected and not talked down to in any way. I also think that you have to work really hard. Everyone here, works so hard to feed this many people, keep them happy, and provide this magical experience to everyone. You have to be working all the time. And it's really fun, because we're all doing it, and you just need to be in this flow all together. But also, you have to have this sense of urgency, know when to get into a conversation with people, and know when you have to just smile and excuse yourself. It's so fast paced, but I think we maintain a nice connection with our customers.
· Por Que No [Official site]
· All Previous Gatekeepers Coverage [Eater PDX]