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One Year In: What We’ve Gained

Portland’s newest culinary entrepreneurs talk about what it took to start a business in a truly tumultuous year

A chef in a yellow beanie and white KN95 mask works from behind the chef’s pass in the kitchen at Toki
Chef Peter Cho is pictured among a rail of takeout order slips at downtown restaurant Toki.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

Despite all the challenges of opening a business during the coronavirus pandemic — the uncertainty, the financial risk, the health risk — business owners found ways to bring something new to the restaurant market in Portland. Some of them didn’t have time or money for a true brick-and-mortar restaurant space; instead, they started pop-ups in empty bars, created takeout-only restaurants in commissary kitchens, sold meals on Instagram. They pushed forward and chose to enter a bleak market and were rewarded for it: Instagram pop-up Jerry’s Pizza found a home within a Southeast Portland dive bar. Gado Gado’s pandemic pop-up, Oma’s Takeaway, moved into a former Pok Pok space.

The Portland restaurant world’s resilience, that it continued to grow and change despite everything, is the green seedling growing from within the sidewalk cracks: a feat of perseverance. We spoke with some of the people who chose to open businesses within the last year about how they did it and why. This is what they told us:

A woman with brown hair and glasses smiles from behind a bar Molly J. Smith / EPDX
A woman in a mask pours the contents of a cocktail shaker into a can Molly J. Smith / EPDX
A woman operates a canning machine wearing glasses and a mask. Molly J. Smith / EPDX

KaCee Solis-Robertson cans her cocktails herself so she can sell them to go, a necessity during the pandemic.

What were things like for you one year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic?

“I was just trying to make tavern-style pizza for [my fiance] and I. That’s the truth. I was trying to have a hobby where I could make pizza when we wanted it, and we can’t find the pizza in Portland that we grew up eating. … We’re making pizza but it’s more than that. It’s an experience, in a way, it’s nostalgia for Midwesterners, it’s a new experience for Portlanders and people from other parts of the U.S.”
Jerry Benedetto, owner, Jerry’s Pizza

“I had a lot of free time [in March 2020], so I was making videos on how to boost your immune system, I was doing research, I was trying to get creative and share that info with my friends and family. I was just juicing just to juice; it wasn’t something that I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to start a business today.’ It just gradually happened. … Because I was juicing so much for other people, I figured I might as well get my own bottles, get my own labels, get creative with it and see what happens. And here we are, a year later.”
Cydnie Smith-McCarthy, owner, Drink Mamey

Last March, we realized we weren’t going to do pop-ups, we already had one scheduled, and we were wondering if we were even going to be able to do the farmers market over the summer.”
—Nick Sherbo, co-owner, Rangoon Bistro

“Just before COVID hit I had been talking to [Freeland Spirits owner] Jill about cocktail consulting and building a brand, and she was super on board. Last March I met with Elizabeth Pettigrew with Sardine Head and was going to do my first pop-up for Little Hands/Stiff Drinks. … I just didn’t realize that COVID was going to happen, and then [my husband] Allen was out riding his bicycle and got hit by a car. He was unable to use either of his hands for almost two months, so I became his full-time caretaker. Little Hands kind of went to the back burner.”
KaCee Solis-Robertson, owner, Little Hands Stiff Drinks

Right at the beginning, things were great. Business was good [at Han Oak], and we were buying a house. We were getting ready to take this next chapter in our lives, finally have a little more space for the kids. ... We were looking at taking over that space on the other side of the wall, where Pocha was going to be. It was going to be fast casual, this sort of addition to Han Oak to our restaurant group. Our family of restaurants.”
—Peter Cho, owner, Toki and Han Oak (Pocha did not open)

A woman in a grey shirt and blue jeans stands in front of a wall of plants. The words “drink ya juice” are mounted among the plants.
Cydnie Smith-McCarthy at Drink Mamey in October 2020
Molly J. Smith Photography

What’s it like to open a business in the middle of a global pandemic?

“If COVID didn’t happen, I’d still be at my old office every day. I wouldn’t have had a chance to make pizzas at home in my spare time. That’s where the whole ‘everything happens for a reason’ comes from — obviously COVID is not a good thing, but because of it, [Jerry’s Pizza] came about. Maybe it would have happened regardless, but I’ll never know that.”
—Jerry Benedetto, owner, Jerry’s Pizza

“We took a risk by opening in the middle of everything that was going on, and I think that people were so focused on their health and well-being that they were starting to do more research on what’s good for their bodies and for the environment and just wellness in general. I think that’s given us a sort of head start with people really wanting to continue to support us and also do better for themselves.”
Cydnie Smith-McCarthy, owner, Drink Mamey

The farmers market was way, way busier for us, despite the pandemic, despite our sliding-scale pricing. That was a big shock, really. When we moved to doing takeout, it seemed like a natural move, since there was no indoor dining happening anyway.”
—Nick Sherbo, co-owner, Rangoon Bistro

“A year ago, I legitimately thought I’d still be at Freeland. I guess when COVID hit… by May, I realized we’re not going back to that any time. So then it was, how do I get to build Little Hands where I’m not a consultant anymore, because people are losing their bars left and right. ... How do I build it into what I want it to be, and what does that look like?”
KaCee Solis-Robertson, owner, Little Hands Stiff Drinks

It was sort of nice to be able to use the time and space we had at Han Oak to kind of fine-tune what would eventually be the menu. When we reopened [Han Oak] in August, it was really with the idea of honing in on this menu, doing takeaway. That whole time we were open in mid-August until we took our winter break, it was in anticipation of the new restaurant. We didn’t have those pre-opening; we were able to kind of be running on cylinders.”
—Peter Cho, owner, Han Oak and Toki

Jerry Benedetto of Jerry’s Pizza — a man with a black handlebar moustache, a Chicago Bears letterman’s jacket, and a baseball cap — stands outside the Bear Paw Inn.
Jerry Benedetto stands outside of SW bar Bear Paw Inn, where he’ll soon be selling his Chicago tavern-style pizza. Benedetto found almost instant fame on Instagram in the pandemic, with wait times soaring to over a year and a half for a pie.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

What’s been challenging along the way, or what surprised you?

“I’m an African-American woman living in a predominantly white city. There’s not a lot of funding available, and if there is funding available, it’s hard to get access to those funds to help my business flourish. We had to come up with a ton of creative ways to fund the things that maybe another majority white-owned business would have had access to.”
Cydnie Smith-McCarthy, owner, Drink Mamey

“I was making pizzas every day; trying them, tweaking them to my liking, asking everyone for feedback when they got a pizza. But even my first couple pizzas, everybody was like, ‘This is incredible.’ And for me, I had imposter syndrome; I have no experience, so I’m not a baker or a chef or a pizza maker. … But I kept making pizzas, people started getting wind, and it just got out of control. Right now, if you were to reach out to me on Instagram, and I just continued to do it in my house, well, it’s over a year and a half wait. No one should wait that long.”
Jerry Benedetto, owner, Jerry’s Pizza

“How much, in the service industry, the people you meet become very close to you. You see them every day, you get to know their families, and that was something that we lost. I used to work at Bar Casa Vale and I got a text from an old coworker and she was like, ‘Hey, I have some stuff for you and Allen [after his accident].’ I got a knock on my door and there was food for days, bottles of liquor, flowers, notes, candies, from everybody I’d worked with there. I just started crying.”
KaCee Solis-Robertson, owner, Little Hands Stiff Drinks

The challenge is managing a whole online store. I didn’t want to hire someone to do that, so I’m managing a lot of the website development, online ordering system myself. It’s funny, in college I studied web development and stuff like that, so it’s funny to be doing that now. It takes so much time to add a new item on the menu so that it works across these two platforms that we use.”
—Peter Cho, owner, Toki and Han Oak

A woman with braids, a mask, and a denim apron brings two paper bags to a small white table in the door of Toki. A bottle of hand sanitizer sits on the table.
Emma Richardson brings a takeout order to the pickup window at new downtown restaurant Toki. Chef Peter Cho and partner Sun Young Park, owners of popular Korean restaurant Han Oak, opened the new venture in the old Tasty n Alder space in January 2021.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX
Paper encircles a colorful seaweed wrap filled with carrots, beets, rice, and pickles.
Emma Richardson wraps a Gimbap Supreme at new downtown restaurant Toki.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

Is there anything about the pandemic that contributed to the success of your business?

“We’re making pizza, but it’s more than that. It’s an experience, in a way; it’s nostalgia for Midwesterners, it’s a new experience for Portlanders and people from other parts of the U.S. I’ve had people say, ‘I can’t get home to Chicago,’ because they can’t travel during this, and they want a pizza that’s like the one back home.”
Jerry Benedetto, owner, Jerry’s Pizza

“I think the wellness industry has skyrocketed. A lot of people were very health-conscious before, but more so with a virus that was very uncontrollable and scary. A lot of people didn’t know a lot of information about it. I just resorted to, ‘How can I keep my immune system up?’ and a lot of people started to follow that trend. How can I make sure that body is doing what it’s supposed to do to fight off a virus?”
Cydnie Smith-McCarthy, owner, Drink Mamey

I think that part of why our sales were better at the market this year more than last year is that people were conscientious about where they spent their money, invested in people that they wanted to see succeed. We went to a sliding scale and our ticket sales went up.”
—Nick Sherbo, co-owner, Rangoon Bistro

A blue tent covers a chunk of patio next to a sandwich board that reads “Rangoon Bistro.”
Formerly a farmers market must-have, Burmese food business Rangoon Bistro currently works as a takeout-only cafe out of a commissary kitchen in Northeast’s Gotham Building.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX
Alex Saw, a man in a backwards cap and mask, pours a strainer of noodles into a wok at Rangoon Bistro.
Chef Alex Saw in the commissary kitchen for Rangoon Bistro. The Burmese restaurant started in a farmers market, and last summer became a takeout-only cafe operating out of the Gotham Building in NE.
Molly J. Smith / EPDX

What’s next, and where do you see 2021 going for your business?

“I’m going to be in the back of a tavern making pizzas, and it’ll give me the opportunity to scale as I go. … I need to make sure that the pizzas are the same as they were in my house: the taste, the texture, everything is the way they were in my house. If I’m being honest, I’m a little nervous, but I feel like if I was able to do this in my house with nothing, it can only help having equipment that is manufactured to do this job. I will not open officially until the pizza is 110 percent dialed in.”
Jerry Benedetto, owner, Jerry’s Pizza

“We’ve had so much success over the last year with getting a shop in September, opening in October, now we’re in our fifth month of business. ... We grew out of the juicer that we bought, so we’ve already updated our equipment, which is coming this month. We’re just looking forward to pumping out more juice and serving the community more, and really making a mark on the Black community but also the wellness community. [We want to] make it intersectional and make sure that everybody is involved and taken care of and not just one demographic.”
Cydnie Smith-McCarthy, owner, Drink Mamey

“Eventually, I would like to leave WedgeHead with the cocktails I made for here. I would hope that I can start to pair with someone [so] that I can get into liquor stores, where you can buy four-packs of Little Hands. That’s a big reason why I’m partnering with Shine, so that I could have the option of ‘That drink sells really well there,’ and they’re buying cans from me, and I’m selling it here — if we see enough of it, there’s potential for a partnership and collaboration. … I’m trying to figure out, in the future, can I work with Shine, can we get multiple things together and can that push me off to have my own brand highlighting different local distilleries.”
KaCee Solis-Robertson, owner, Little Hands Stiff Drinks

We’re going to be back at the farmers market and start hunting around for a brick-and-mortar space.”
—Nick Sherbo, co-owner, Rangoon Bistro

I’m excited for the idea of our staff being vaccinated and feeling safe, inviting people back into our spaces, and feeling comfortable with that. We have to be excited to be busy, and have to be prepared if it’s not. What if we do open up, and there’s a new variant, and cases spike? It’s just a lot of the same, but being ready for it all is really important, not being surprised by anything. We’ve prepared ourselves for it.”
Peter Cho, owner, Han Oak