When Feny,* the owner of Burnside Indonesian restaurant Wajan, was growing up in Jakarta, snacks were a huge part of her diet. She’d grab a quick bite from the street food vendors and markets on her way to or from school, whether that was a parcel of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, a crunchy fried fritter, or a springy pandan cake. Even today, Feny spends her day snacking — that’s why she opened her Alberta Indonesian restaurant Pasar as something like a snack bar, serving a wide selection of single-bite treats she’d eat at the restaurant’s namesake markets she visited as a child.
“I love to snack; it’s how I grew up eating,” Feny says. “I want to munch something all the time, even when I’m not fully hungry.”
Portland has always had a penchant for small plates: the early-aughts tapas and izakaya snacks at the now-closed Toro Bravo and Biwa, respectively; the now-closed ritzy “microplate” restaurant Superbite; the fried brie sticks at Scotch Lodge and the miang som at Langbaan. But a “snack” implies something different from a small plate. The small plate is meant to be one of many, perhaps meant to be shared at a table full of diners. A snack can exist on its own, a quick little bite to enjoy with a cocktail or between meals. And, based on some new and forthcoming entrants in the Portland dining scene, 2024 is officially the year of the snack.
Garrett Benedict, the owner of Slabtown restaurant G-Love, will open his cocktail bar, the Love Shack, any day now. While his restaurant offers an extensive menu — think everything from blackened albacore to pappardelle in charred leek beurre blanc — the bar will have no formal food menu. Instead, customers will pick a selection of snacks from carts rolling through the space, including things like banh mi mini-croissants, crab dumplings, pickled onion rings, and caviar-topped brioche waffles. “Everyone loves things when they’re miniaturized,” Benedict says. “And it’s also low-commitment. It’s not like, ‘I have to get an entree and an appetizer and dessert.’ Everything is essentially canapes or passed hors d’oeuvres, passed bites.”
Unlike a typical menu of bar snacks, the Love Shack’s items are specifically designed to be single items for one person, consisting of two or three bites per dish. The model makes the experience adaptable for groups of any size; if someone wants to grab a cocktail and a snack on their own, they can, but groups can also come in and order as many of each snack as they’d like. “People always say, ‘Everything is meant to be shared,’ ‘Everything is family-style,’” Benedict says. “That’s good for groups, but sometimes you want your own thing.”
Feny’s logic was similar. When the chef opened Pasar, she very explicitly designed the menu to include several single-item snacks, so people who visit could try one of each without being bogged down with piles of fritters. But that’s not necessarily how someone needs to enjoy Pasar — Feny specifically hopes customers feel comfortable visiting for a single snack before a show across the street, the way she often grabs a treat between meals.
The restaurant opened for dinner service at the end of 2023, but her goal is to ramp up service to include grab-and-go snacks during the day — things like lemper ayam, sticky rice filled with chicken floss and wrapped in banana leaf. As such, the entrance to her restaurant includes a massive display of Indonesian packaged snacks, like crackers, chips, and candies.
Feny first got the idea to open Pasar at her other restaurant, Wajan, toward the beginning of the pandemic. The drop in dine-in business gave her more room to experiment, and she started playing around with some recipes from the markets she missed in Indonesia — things like bala-bala, a vegetable fritter with peanut sauce, or popiah, something similar to a spring roll filled with jicama, carrots, and shrimp powder. When she started to serve them at Wajan as one-off specials, the snacks were a hit. “I got a lot of positive response from customers,” she says. “I think there’s a good amount of demand.”
Many people have an emotional connection to a childhood snack — the after-school chips and dip or ants on a log, the chaat that precedes meals at family gatherings, the elephant ears or beignets eaten at fairs or carnivals. Nostalgia gives snacks a staying power, and it was a draw for people like Luna Contreras, the chef behind the Northeast Portland pop-up Chelo. Contreras has developed a reputation for her snacks — she even appeared on the Netflix reality show Snack vs. Chef. “I think it’s embedded in Mexican food to eat that way,” she says. “It’s just fun. If you go to a Mexican market, all the snacks there, it’s nostalgic. That’s what I love about it.”
That being said, Contreras’s menu only recently transitioned into focusing primarily on smaller-format snacks like gorditas and guacamole and totopos. When she moved into the Dame restaurant collective space, Luna structured her menu somewhat traditionally, including larger-format dishes like mole-drenched enchiladas and roasted branzino. However, when she moved into the smaller Lil’ Dame down the street, the menu no longer fit. “Snacks fit the space,” she says.
But transitioning to smaller items had other benefits, as well. Contreras has become a vocal figure within the trans community, and has developed a loyal following among queer people of color who love food. That’s a community that is earning significantly less than white, straight diners — queer workers of color make between 90 to 70 cents for every dollar the average worker makes, according to a Human Rights Campaign study. With the cost of ingredients where it is, Contreras was concerned that her main audience wouldn’t be able to afford eating her food. “The price of goods is too high,” she says. “I’d have to charge $35, $40 for a pork chop. But the people who come to Chelo, it’s a lot of queer folks ... It’s important to me that I have enough options under $20 for people who have supported me.”
Focusing menus on snacks, as opposed to involved entrees or prix fixe menus, allows restaurant owners and chefs to reach a wider audience, particularly now. In the third quarter of 2023, visits to sit-down restaurants dropped five percent compared to 2022, but spending at restaurants actually rose. “Ballooning bills at restaurants may have pushed us in these wildly divergent directions,” Whizy Kim wrote in a piece for Vox in 2023. “People spent more on restaurants this year even as visits fell because of the rising prices of everything from ingredients (whether it’s meat, sugar, or butter) to labor.”
Those costs aren’t unique to diners, however; restaurant owners take on those costs before diners do, and restaurant margins remain slim. According to a James Beard Foundation study, 53 percent of restaurants saw lower profits in 2023 compared to 2019, and tightening margins mean restaurant workers are making even less. “Although 47 percent of respondents reported higher check averages in 2023, rising food and labor costs indicate that already tight margins are getting tighter and profits are lower compared to 2022,” the study reads.
Feny’s snacks and desserts are listed at around $5 or less. The snacks at the Love Shack will be priced that way, as well — almost all bar snacks will clock in under $10, including a number of items in the $3 or $4 range. “It’s a lower barrier of entry,” Benedict says.
That lower barrier of entry applies to restaurant owners, too. Typically, the cost of producing a snack is lower than an entree; it requires less product, and, in certain cases, less time. And with places like Pasar and the Love Shack, the business model allows them to lower labor costs. Once Feny’s Pasar starts selling snacks out of a case, one front-of-house staff person can handle the counter; at the Love Shack, the roving carts allow a smaller number of servers to cover the broader restaurant because the service model requires less face time at each table. “You sit down, you get your splash of Champagne, and boom, the cart is next to your table,” Benedict says. “You’re immediately in the experience.”
For years, Portland’s food scene was defined by its unpretentious approachability: fine dining chefs serving sandwiches out of food carts; spam musubi or apple cider doughnuts on tasting menus. As the restaurant industry endured a pandemic, arguably unnecessary inflation, and several climate-related hardships, keeping costs low has become more challenging. Returning to the snack, then, feels like a thoroughly Portland solution — egalitarian, fun, and unfussy.
“It’s a more playful dining experience,” Benedict says. “A little bit of this, a little bite of that.”
* In Indonesia, many people do not use surnames. Feny prefers to go without hers, so we refer to her as simply Feny in this piece.