Last January, during the Division Street boom, Chris Whaley and Jenny Nickolaus opened the doors to The American Local—both with a ton of industry experience and a passion to call a place their own. The concept: a menu of produce-driven drinking foods—think slight leanings to Izakaya-style, but with a more traditional American take. The space: their dream location, with a small, but open kitchen flowing into the bar area, and big windows with a lot of light on a corner lot. Previously Caffe Pallino, they'd been eyeing the spot for a while, never wishing for another business to fail, but jumped at the chance when it was finally available. And now they've been serving the neighborhood folk and visiting guests fresh vegetable plates, seasoned skewers, and a tasty double burger with special sauce for more than a year.
Eater caught up with the Whaley/Nickolaus team to chat about the challenges of owning your own business, the importance of regulars, climbing on tractors during construction, impromptu weddings (theirs), and the possibility of lunch hours come summer.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
CW: Yeah. (laughs)
JN: It's crazy. It does and it doesn't at the same time. Gosh, there's times where it feels like four years already, but at the same time it feels like it just flew by, and you're like, "Where has the time gone?"
CW: There's also been all these stages. The seasons here are really crazy and so defined. It's really easy to define the year because of those stages and seasons, so our business has gone up and down, and it's easier to see that in Portland.
Chris this in the eighth restaurant you've had a hand in opening, but the first that's all yours. What's the major difference being in the ownership position?
JN: Writing the checks?
CW: Yeah, I mean, to differentiate, I've always been the opening chef. And usually I've worked for people that were very financially stable. (laughs)
JN: Which we weren't. (laughs)
CW: That's not us...so that's the major difference, just the finances of it. Just the sweating everything. As just an opening chef, you get to do everything you can to be good. And money was not a big concern; eventually it is, of course, but here money was a concern right away. We had to be really smart with labor and what we bought and stuff like that. And we were both fairly experienced in those things, so it was a little easier for us, but that's probably the biggest difference.
Has the menu changed a lot since day one?
CW: Yeah, we've evolved a lot. More than anything, just seeing what people liked and what was the best for us. We have a really small kitchen. So not everything works. I've been an executive chef in the past and I'm not used to being prep cook, dishwasher, everything, you know. And I'm like the major prep guy. A lot of things have to sort of fit our system here, because there's a lot of work to be done. And there's not a lot of space. We don't even have a walk-in cooler, we store everything in a couple big reach-in coolers, which is a total nightmare. So most people would be like, "We are going to have a really small menu to accommodate that." But we didn't do that.
JN: Yeah we're like, "No, let's expand the menu!"
CW: So it's just seeing what works, and you have to sell things really quickly so they move through the cooler. What our customers want, is the biggest influence on what we do.
Is there a most popular dish?
JN: Brussels sprouts, by far.
CW: Yeah, some things are seasonal like the Brussels sprouts. It goes in spurts. There's probably like five to seven things that stay on the menu. So it's kind of hard to say which of those is the most popular.
JN: Well, also, the burger is really popular. And it's an amazing burger. You know the products that go in it are really incredible, but sometimes it gets super popular and you're, like, we just sold two dozen in one night. And then there will be weeks where you only sell a couple. We haven't quite nailed that down to a tee yet, but there are certain things that people want to come back for.
What drew you to this space in this neighborhood?
CW: We love this space. We had quite a debate about what's better—to go to a place that's super popular with a lot of stuff or to a place where there's no stuff and you're the only one? I still don't think there's an answer to that. We knew Division was happening; we knew it was going to happen even more.
JN: We had been looking at a couple of different spots that we really liked, and we'd gotten almost there, third base really, and the deals fell through for one reason or another. We loved the area—it's just a cool area—and it was really close to our house, which was a plus. We'd drive past this place and be like, "Not that we'd ever want anyone to go out of business, but if that business were ever available that would be our spot." Our broker called and said there was new listing, and it was Caffe Pallino. Chris and I just looked at each other and said, "We'll take it!" That's our spot: the open kitchen, and it's a marriage of front and back, literally. There's not that divide between front of the house and back of the house here. That's sort of how our relationship is too, so we always saw ourselves in this spot, and it literally fell into our laps.
Was is a good thing to be a part of the Division boom?
JN: It was trying, because we knew when we took over the spot there would be construction, but that really affected us a lot. There were days where we had no sidewalk, you would walk up on dirt, and there would be a tractor parked out in front. They would have the sign out that says businesses are open, but it was behind the tractor, so I climbed up on the tractor and put the sign on top of it.
CW: We run into people all the time that are like, "I don't go to Division. Because of the traffic and the construction."
JN: But it's over now! The construction is not bad, it's not worse now than anywhere else in the city. It's not a daily basis thing anymore. But the boom has been great. We're a relatively unknown entity, we don't have too much pride to take someone else's overflow. We get those guests that don't want to wait three hours at Pok Pok, and they say "We are so glad we didn't wait three hours, we'll go back to Pok Pok some other day. But we're so happy we've found you." So sort it's been that role for us, which makes us more glad than not that we went into a place that has a little bit of notoriety.
What's the clientelle like here?
CW: We probably have the best local repeat business I've ever seen. I don't know if it's Portland or if it's us, or the combination, but it's incredible.
JN: It's interesting. I'd say our real bread and butter are our neighborhood folks who are our regulars. It's incredible. They are so supportive. I mean, they give us hugs. People have my cell phone number. I think the rest of it has been filled in with a lot of industry folks. Which means a lot to us, too.
CW: We are really grateful for the regulars and the people that have supported us. We've never had such a great community feeling. It's really special.
JN: I feel like we have these regulars that have adopted us. I mean it's been a crazy year. We got married during the middle of everything last year, too. Right here, actually. We don't have our parents right next to us, so I feel like a lot of people have adopted us as their family.
Wait, you guys got married too, right in the thick of your first year?
JN: Yeah, there was no wedding planning. I was basically like, "Okay, it's been six years. We own a restaurant and a home. We have dogs together. It's time."
CW: Only in Portland, is having dogs together a cause to get married. (laughs)
JN: There was no one here, no planning. We got married in December. Our bar manager, Brett, came, and one other mutual friend of ours. We went to the farmers' market in the morning, came back, changed, had the ceremony, we changed back, and worked that Saturday night. Which was very us.
Any changes we should know about on the horizon?
JN: We are exploring the possibility of thinking about doing lunch. (laughs) We are just trying to figure it out right now. We have a pretty cool idea, and it's not going to be exactly like dinner, it's going to be a little quicker—a slight variation on our concept with a lot of similar food items and cross-over things. We tried brunch a few months in to opening, and it was not successful for a multitude of reasons. One, he and I were just too tired. At that point it was just us. It was hard to add two more shifts to our already giant schedule, so we're going to leave brunch to those that do brunch best, and focus in on a really fun lunch idea, that's easy and comfortable. We have these patio benches and people are already using them for other place's lunches, so we might as well serve them our lunch! (laughs) It's going to happen, it's just a matter of when.