In this town, a restaurant's real power isn't in the kitchen. It's in its address.
"She's the IT real-estate person for leasing restaurants on the east side," Lauro Kitchen's chef-owner David Machado told Bite Club while pimping his new Southeast Clinton Street Indian restaurant, Vindahlo, a few week ago. "She's worked with me on my new place, and she leased most of the joints on North Mississippi and lower Clinton."
So, of course, Bite Club had a vision of Michele Reeves, a 39-year-old commercial broker for Windermere Realty, in our heads before we met her. We pictured this former aerospace industry vet as a steely-eyed property huntress with a calculator in one pocket and bouquet garni in the other.
We weren't all that far off. At lunch with the former Rockaway Beach, Ore., resident last Friday at Lorenzo's, Bite Club watched as a procession of people stopped in front of the Italian restaurant's open garage door to pay their respects to the petite brunette like she was the benevolent mob boss-ette of North Mississippi Avenue. That's the thoroughfare she's helped turn from crack alley to gentrification whipping post in less than three years by placing hip cafes and bars like Gravy and Crow Bar in its abandoned storefronts and leasing space to restaurants like Lorenzo's in the Mississippi Commons, the street's big, new retail complex.
Properly impressed, we got down to pickin' Reeves' brain about why some run-down 'hoods morph into restaurant magnets and how Bite Club can get a piece of that delicious real-estate pie.
Bite Club: Why are restaurants usually the first businesses to pop up in an emerging neighborhood?
Michele Reeves: Because they're a destination. People will drive across a bridge and go to the east side to eat at a really good restaurant. But they won't do that to find a clothing store in the middle of nowhere. So restaurants really are the first wave of development in an up-and-coming area. It's cost-prohibitive for most first-time owners to open up a restaurant in the Pearl. So these neighborhoods almost sort of attract people who want to open up a restaurant, which is already terribly expensive, because you might be able to find a landlord with a building to rent who's willing to help you out a little bit more.
So what makes a hot restaurant 'hood?
It's really not sexy. People think there is a master plan, but it's really organic. It's a magical combination of old buildings, a little bit of [residential] neighborhood and low rent. When Stumptown [Coffee Roasters] built on [Southeast] Division Street, everybody told the owners they were nuts. Like people who live past 39th Avenue on Division don't drink coffee!
Talk of reemerging 'hoods brings up the dreaded "G" word.
When people talk about gentrification, they are talking about the fact that there aren't as many minority-owned businesses in these areas as they would like to see. That's an issue that I don't have an easy answer for. Back in the 1960s, when everybody was abandoning the cities and heading out to the suburbs, there were thriving minority-owned business districts all over the country. North Portland was one of those areas. But bad urban planning decisions [like Memorial Coliseum and I-5] cut off those commercial districts, they withered and died, and then you lost a whole generation of entrepreneurs. The people I know who are willing to start their own businesses usually come from a background where somebody in their family owns a business. They see it as a possibility. Also, there is an incredible barrier to entry to open your first business. You need the resources to get a business plan, financing and experiential knowledge.
What percentage of your clients are minorities?
A very small percentage.
What is the next ugly-duckling 'hood that's going to blossom?
I think North Williams Avenue [where Pix's Cheryl Wakerhauser is building her chocolate lab]. That's a street that I take people down and say "Just wait, you're not gonna believe what's gonna happen here in the next few years." And everybody says, "Well, I drove down it and I don't really see it." And it's like, "Of course you don't see it. It hasn't happened yet."
Contact Michele Reeves at Windermere/Cronin & Caplan Realty Group Inc., 825 NE Multnomah St., Suite 120, 284-7755.
Vindahlo is set to open in mid-October in the newly renovated, Reeves-brokered Local 49 building at 2038 SE Clinton St.