There’s no business like the restaurant business. Just ask ChefStable’s Kurt Huffman. In the last 12 months, the maverick restaurateur has backed two bona-fide hot spots (Ox and Lardo), two of fall’s most anticipated newcomers (Trigger and Roe), and two of the year’s biggest losers: the three-month-old Corazon, and now, the three-month-old Market.
The downtown restaurant shuttered abruptly on Saturday. The closure follows mixed reviews, complaints of “leaking water” in the plastic-and-glass-enclosed outdoor dining space, and what Huffman calls “a disagreement” with landlord-investor John Russell.
Market gambled on a makeover of the former Carafe Bistro space across from Keller Auditorium on SW Market Street. Unlike bustling neighborhood restaurants surrounded by shops and strolling diners, this is Portland’s restaurant black hole, drawing mostly on theater crowds.
ChefStable received what Huffman calls a sweetheart deal: five years free rent and no build-out costs at a time when downtown is experiencing a boom period and attracting top local chefs. For his part, Russell invested $200,000 in remodeling costs and owned final say on Market’s culinary direction. The prominent developer and owner of the 200 Market Building says he gave Huffman his top priority for Market: a “business-person’s lunch,” catering to the office building’s clientele.
But Huffman says Market’s “casually sophisticated” lunch menu failed to generate enough business to support waiters and table service. Far from the destination lunch spot he hoped to create, Market’s lunch crowd “came fast and furious,” he says. “Everyone was gone in 40 minutes.” Huffman proposed minimizing costs with counter service, but Russell says he vetoed the idea, given the informal Rivers Edge Cafe nearby.
Evenings brought different problems. ChefStable prides itself on finding and supporting creative cooks, and Huffman banked on unknown chef Troy Furuta, who he calls “a real talent.” But beyond happy-hour followers and the pre- and post-Keller flash mobs, Market sat mostly empty. The “Continental” food lacked a compelling point of view—it didn’t offer the Alpine high of ChefStable’s Gruner, or the Lyon love of Huffman’s St. Jack. Restaurants, of course, take time to mature and blossom. But Huffman was not optimistic for the future. As fall dumped rain on Portland, customers, he says, did not want sit in the wet, drafty, 32-seat outdoor space, which comprised nearly half of his seats. In a recent post here on Eat Beat, we took note of “a tented outdoor seating area leaking rain.”
Russell says he does not agree with Huffman’s concerns or the need to invest in changes at this time. “Please remember we spent something like $150,000 to double the size of the bar,” he says. “I think it’s gorgeous, and it’s been well-received.”
In the five years since the $100,000 glass canopy was installed, Russell tells Eat Beat he never heard any complaints of leakage. “Kurt seems to be grasping at straws to preserve his reputation as a successful restaurant operator,” says Russell. “It’s always been a year-round seating area since we created Carafe years ago. It’s closed off with clear plastic in October to preserve a comfortable temperature and opened in May, with radiant heaters overhead during the winter months. It’s always been my own favorite place to eat at all times of the year.”
Huffman says he has been transparent about the numbers from day one: “I never imagined that John wouldn’t support us with necessary changes. Market was losing money. Lunch had a cap. The model was not viable at night, not with half of the dining room sitting in a rain puddle. People don’t want to sit out there. I didn’t have the support (or the resources) or make the necessary changes. All I saw in my future was conflict, struggle, and loss.”
Is there a lesson in this? Perhaps just a reminder. “The restaurant business is fraught with peril,” says Huffman. “So much is luck and happenstance. You have to embrace that. Every project we’ve done so far has been high-risk. If you’re not prepared to fail, you’ll never try.”