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One Year In: Willow on Navigating PR and Learning Not to Hate Yelp

The modern, vegetable-forward chefs’ counter shares its first year in business

Chefs John Pickett (left) and Doug Weiler
Dina Avila/EPDX

Willow restaurant opened the reservations books a year ago to serve well-priced, six-course menus in a cosy, apartment-like setting at 2005 SE 11th Ave. Chefs John Pickett (Biwa, Bluehour) and Doug Weiler (Glyph, Bluehour) own the 12-seat chefs’ counter, with a dedication to personalized service and never offering the same dish. Well, almost.

“We very, very rarely repeat dishes,” Weiler says, speaking with Eater, but two plates have become fan favorites: The No. 2 Combo is a “beef tartare with all the flavors of a cheeseburger and fries,” and an often featured short-rib steak is prepared using a signature technique that mimics lengthy dry-aging in just three days.

Willow still cooks with local ingredients but has moved on from its original mission to serve Cascadian cuisine. “What makes Willow Willow is the people we hire and engaging environment we create around food,” says Weiler. “It one-hundred percent genuinely reflects John and my identities, and we personalize the experience for our customers each and every night. You really don’t get that at a restaurant very often.”

But getting anyone to pay attention to a small chefs’ counter has proved difficult. To this date, the chefs believe they have not been visited by a food critic, and they say the restaurant’s biggest challenge has been navigating the public-relations scene to “successfully connect with media.”

Willow’s short-rib steak with braised vegetables
Facebook/Willow

“Something was lost in translation when we spoke with PR and they communicated our story,” says Weiler. So Willow decided to focus on what it thought it was doing right, such as launching a weekly line-cooks night, in which line cooks can feast upon a six-course meal for just $13 a head. This became a talking point, and customers ask for the full story almost nightly, deepening the relationship between them and the restaurant.

Willow also found ways to connect with customers directly, such as responding to online reviews, when warranted. “Honestly, up until owning Willow, I hated Yelp,” says Weiler. “Now, I’ve done a complete 180. It’s not just because we have a good overall Yelp score, but I think all the hard work and focus we are dedicating to the customer has paid off.”

In one last change up, Willow has recently expanded its hours to two seatings at 6:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.

Willow

2005 SE 11th Ave, Portland, OR 97214 Visit Website

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