Bar King was chef Shaun King’s dream restaurant, one where large groups would gather around for live fire cooking and imbibe drinks made by his bartender wife Jamie, while business partner Katherine Benvenuti churned out miso walnut sticky buns and matcha gateau Basques at the Bakery at Bar King next door. The Kings moved from Las Vegas, where Shaun had been executive chef at the Vegas outpost of Momofuku, to Portland to make their dream restaurant happen. It was a concept that many in town found new and exciting, including our critic Karen Brooks, who named the restaurant and bakery one of PoMo's best of 2020. But after the restaurant opened in early March, Bar King only operated for six days as originally intended—and after multiple closings, reopenings, and pivots in an attempt to survive, the restaurant has announced it will permanently close on January 2 due to financial troubles as a result of the pandemic.
After Bar King’s initial shutdown in March, the restaurant didn’t reopen until August, when it secured a PPP loan. But due to the public’s hesitancy to dine indoors, plus the fact that Bar King was too new to have an established customer base, the restaurant never got the numbers of guests it needed to continue indoor dining with its original concept. So Bar King pivoted to a ramen concept. Ramen service ended in November, when the restaurant announced it would be “hibernating” in an attempt to survive the winter. King planned to serve smoked meats once a week, while business at the bakery would continue as usual.
Days later, in mid-November, came the statewide freeze on indoor and outdoor dining, which meant that the restaurant saw no returns on the approximately $15,000 it had invested in patio seating, plexiglass barriers, and an upgraded ventilation system. King and Benvenuti estimated that business at the bakery dropped up to 50% after the freeze. And though Bar King is backed by Kurt Huffman’s ChefStable restaurant group, which would normally be able to buoy a single struggling restaurant in the group, all of the twenty or so ChefStable restaurants are struggling, Huffman says—which means the group can’t save Bar King. All these factors, plus monthly rent of $10,000 and no PPP loans or state or federal aid in sight, spelled closure for the restaurant.
“When you open a new restaurant, you're saddled with a lot of expenses. We have loans to pay off, rent we need to pay. The dwindling sales and lack of hope right now for PPP that would be anything substantial made us realize that chances of us coming back from this, and getting through it over all of the debt, was just probably not going to be there,” Benvenuti says. “And then to reopen a restaurant, three, four times, that's a lot of capital.”
The closure also means that all the remaining staff at Bar King will be laid off, searching for work in a hard-hit industry at a time when jobs can be particularly hard to find. “It is truly devastating to see people that have stood beside me for so long just have no no idea what they would do next. And you can't help them find another place for them to work, because nobody's hiring,” Benvenuti says.
“The unfortunate reality of it is that Bar King was just dealt such a miserable hand,” Benvenuti added. “And you can only play your cards so many times, so many different ways. Shaun and I both think we really tried our best, and to go after it again is just, unfortunately, totally impossible.”
Benvenuti will still be making her sweet and savory Berliner-style donuts at Fills, the shop she opened in October with chef Leather Storrs. But the Kings aren't sure if they'll be sticking around Portland. “I’d love to stay in the area, but ...I might have to leave, move to a different market,” King says. Other markets like New York and Los Angeles have more wealth, he says, while in Las Vegas, new hotels and restaurants are constantly being built, even in 2020. And Huffman predicts King might not be the only big name chef leaving town as a result of the pandemic.
“We've been a city that has attracted talent like Shaun for the last fifteen years, and that has been the reason for Portland's emergence as a food city,” Huffman says. “Think about Vitaly Paley...Aaron Barnett...Andy Ricker, they all came here. [I’m concerned] that we'll lose that ability to attract people like him. And my worry is that this is the start of a brain drain, and that would be a catastrophe for our city. I really hope that doesn't happen. Because if we lose people like Shaun—that's a real loss.”