It's almost unthinkable. Besaw's has been a Northwest Portland institution since opening as a logger's tavern way back in 1903. It's one of Portland's oldest restaurants, steeped in the kind of character that only comes after more than a century in business.
But the development company who owns the building has refused to renew the restaurant's lease. Besaw's, which would have celebrated its 112th anniversary this summer, will have to close its doors after dinner service Friday, May 29.
"I have been in lease negotiations for Besaw's for a long time," says owner Cana Flug. "I have tried so hard to stay in this location. It's an old building, we know it'll be developed. We capitulated to almost everything. We said, 'We can close down for a period of time while you develop it.' We would've loved to grow with the building, but that's off the table."
Flug bought Besaw's in 2005, growing the sleepy breakfast and lunch spot into a full-service dinner house and neighborhood anchor. "To be honest, we've completely outgrown the space," she says. "We have four burners. That's what people have at home. It's just cruel to those guys in the kitchen."
Although she would have embraced the chance to expand the kitchen in its current spot, the forced move means she can find a new space with more room. In fact, she's close to signing the lease on a location nearby. "We are doing everything in our power to stay in the neighborhood," she says. "This is our community. These are our people. We love our customers. We want to write another chapter and continue."
The worst part, she says, was breaking the news to her employees. "The majority of my staff has been with me for 10 years. I haven't had to hire a server for eight years. We have such a good family. I'm calling everyone in the industry I know and trying to place anybody I can."
Flug and her executive team, including executive chef Michael Uhnak, are working hard to get Besaw's settled into a new location and up and running by late summer. And though they're losing the iconic space, Flug, who has a background in architecture and design, is determined to recreate that old Besaw's charm while making the new iteration better than ever. "It will be cozy and intimate, but we'll lose all the constraints on our menu. We've been bursting at the seams for so long. We'll produce something special without losing who we are. We're going to blow it out of the water."
Meanwhile, she hopes people will stop by the old place one more time before it closes. "We have one month of business and I want people to come have one last memory in the space. I can't tell you how many wedding proposals, birthday celebrations, anniversaries and graduations we've had. People have been coming here for generations."
Update: The Portland Business Journal and Willamette Week have both spoken to landlord C.E. John, who says the company plans to find another restaurateur to re-open Besaw's in the same location, claiming the Besaw's name comes with the building.
"We fully intend to keep Besaw's as part of the redevelopment," Jeff Thompson, C.E. John co-president, tells Willamette Week. "We own the name. It's part of that building. It's part of the building and property." Thompson told the Portland Business Journal that "C.E. John feels strongly that the company has documentation supporting its contention that the Besaw's name rightfully belongs with the property."
Flug disagrees, saying the name came with the business when she bought it 10 years ago. "I feel resolute that our position is strong," she tells Eater. "There have been numerous different business owners and property owners and the two have never gone together. At the end of the day this will come out in our favor."
Currently both parties have competing federal trademark claims filed on the Besaw's name, which is a big reason why the lease negotiations fell through, Flug tells us.
Thomspon told the PBJ that the company plans to find a new restaurateur fast enough that they'll have no interruptions in service. Even more ballsy, Thompson tells WW: "We feel it's right that Besaw's stays on that property, and believe it needs to remain there, and the neighborhood will agree."
We'd really like to know what the neighborhood thinks about that.
Meanwhile, Flug says what makes Besaw's Besaw's is more than just the space. "Besaw's is not the brick and mortar. It's the love and the energy. It's a place of comfort. It's about taking care of people. It's not about a 'space.' We love this business and we love our brand and we want that to continue."