In early June, Team Ron was a restaurant group attached to John Gorham’s powerhouse restaurant group Toro Bravo Inc. While Toro Bravo managed the popular Spanish restaurant of the same name and the various “Tasty” brand restaurants, Team Ron was behind the other concepts — popular mezze spot Mediterranean Exploration Company, its more casual sibling concept Shalom Y’all, and burger brand Bless Your Heart Burgers. But when Gorham stepped down from the company in June amid controversy regarding threatening Facebook posts, three Team Ron members bought out the company, relaunching it as Sesame Collective.
This week, the group opens its first new restaurant since it divested from the Gorhams. Starting on Thursday, August 13, Yalla in Multnomah Village will start serving Eastern Mediterranean cuisine like roasted cabbage salad, hummus with burnt beef ends, beetroot and tomato salad, and smoked lamb ribs with date molasses. At Yalla and the other Sesame Collective restaurants, co-owners Kasey Mills, Jamal Hassan, and Laura Amans say they are working to build a healthier, safer culture from the ground up.
As the restaurant’s executive chef, Mills will offer a menu with a familiar style to his other restaurants like MEC’s, with small plates for sharing and larger entrees, but with a focus on ingredients from the areas around the Black Sea. Around half of the dishes at Yalla will be vegetarian, with an emphasis on hearty vegetables like beets, radishes, eggplant, and cabbage, as well as potato dumplings. It’s not all meat-free, however; the restaurant will also sport a smoker for dishes like the lamb ribs, and diners will find chicken wings glazed with pomegranate molasses and adjika, a spicy Georgian sauce, as well as Hungarian spiced chicken confit. Along with a cocktail list that uses ingredients like beets and salted watermelon, Yalla will serve a wine list with bottles from the Mediterranean and Eastern European countries less represented in the local wine market.
Yalla was in development before the pandemic and the Toro Bravo split — Mills originally planned on pulling inspiration from trips to Israel as well as previous business partner partner Ron Avni’s Israeli background. Hassan tells Eater that the restaurant would be drawing more inspiration from the areas around the Black Sea, as well as being inclusive of the whole region of the Eastern Mediterranean.
That subtle shift speaks to a broader change within the restaurant group. While Shalom Y’all will maintain its name and its signature dishes, Hassan explains that it will no longer bear the description “Israeli street food.” “With the formation of our new ownership group, we no longer have a partner who is Israeli, so identifying as an Israeli restaurant didn’t feel right to us,” Hassan says. “We’re not actively changing everything about it or running away from it, but we want to shift more to what the food is about and less about the nationality of it.”
The formation of Sesame Collective comes at a time where issues of equity and harassment are the topics of a citywide conversation, and its splitting off from Toro Bravo Inc was a direct response to the revelations that Toro’s founder, John Gorham, had harassed a local woman using transphobic slurs and threats. Both Hassan and Amans say that the shut-down and reopening has given them an opportunity to address issues of inequity and mistreatment in the industry. “When the shut-down happened we were forced to look at the building blocks of the restaurant industry,” Hassan says. “When rebuilding it, at the front of our mind was, ‘How do we do it the right way?’ It starts with honestly really listening to our people.”
That listening includes weekly open forums with employees able to share their feelings, and an increased presence of executive staff in the restaurants to support workers. “One of the big subtle shifts is empowering the teams to know that we have their backs 100-percent,” says Amans. “[We have] zero tolerance for harassment or poor behavior; it doesn’t just apply to our teams, but what kind of behavior we expect from our guests.”
The focus on safety also applies to the way service will work during the pandemic. Yalla will open with somewhere between 40 and 50 outdoor dining seats and an emphasis on safety “...while still preserving the experience of being in a restaurant and having a staff provide service,” says Hassan. Diners are expected to wear a mask while interacting with servers, and each table will have an adjacent service cart, where servers will present drinks and dishes; the carts will also have a bin for diners to dispose of their dirty plates in to avoid as much contact as possible. Service will start with dine-in only but will eventually include takeout and delivery options.
Take a look inside Sesame Collective’s first restaurant as a new restaurant group below:
- Yalla [Official]
- Mediterranean Exploration Company [Official]
- Shalom Y’all [Official]
- Bless Your Heart Burgers [Official]
- John Gorham Steps Away From Restaurant Empire After Threatening Social Media Posts Surface [EPDX]
- A Jewish-Israeli Restaurant from a Big Portland Name Will Open in Multnomah Village [EPDX]