By Nina Silberstein
The idea of opening a café where polite and civil political debate was allowed came to mind after President Reagan’s landslide reelection in 1984.
A group of friends felt they were all living in a bubble as far as politics was concerned and someone said they needed a bipartisan café that was not just for Democrats and Republicans, but a place where all political perspectives could be voiced and stated respectfully.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term bipartisan, “involves the agreement or cooperation of two political parties that usually oppose each other’s policies.” In other words, bipartisanship is about finding common ground through compromise.
Peter Emerson, one of the owners of Bipartisan Café, had the name stuck in his head, and in 2004 after working 10 years at Starbucks, he decided to take his stock options and make the café a reality.
“We briefly considered [calling it] Pete’s Partisan Café,” he says, “but the 2004 election had just ended and we felt that ‘partisan’ would be a turnoff.” The name, Bipartisan Café, stuck and the café opened June 13, 2005.
The most popular and best-selling item on the Bipartisan Café menu is pie. From fruit pies like cherry, blueberry or marionberry to something smooth and delicious like banana cream or key lime, Bipartisan Café boasts the best homemade pies in Portland.
There’s even a 100 percent, totally satisfying vegan pie and gluten-free options. An assortment of pies is available by the slice daily and whole pies are baked fresh every day and can be purchased in the store. Keep in mind that email orders are not accepted.
Bipartisan Café is adding and removing menu items as sales dictate. Weekly offerings have included spanakopita, a stuffed croissant French toast sandwich, brownies and raspberry bars, to name a few choices. Soup and chili will return in the fall with daily changes.
In addition, beverages are available, including locally sourced options from Coava Coffee Roasters and Spirit Teas.
Emerson, who was born in Minnesota and moved to Portland at 19 years of age in 1980, created and opened the café with Hobie Bender, who was born in California and moved to Jacksonville, OR in 1966 around the age of 6.
He started on the floor, but now does the finances, bakes, coordinates repairs, hires, prices items and determines the menu.
Hobie is involved in human resources and manages the bakery/bakers. The two are lifelong restaurant-bar-coffeeshop workers and both of their children have worked in the café since they were 14. They are currently being transitioned into ownership and management roles.
If you’ve ever visited the Bipartisan Café, you’ve probably noticed the abundance of artwork adorning the walls. “The artwork attempts to illustrate the history of the United States,”
Emerson explains: “It flows chronologically from a representation of Native Americans on the front east wall through the founding fathers. In the center of the east wall is a section on the Civil War, including the leaders of the confederacy,” he says.
The next section leads up through Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. On the back wall the theme is assassinations, which include all four presidents who have been assassinated (Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy), the assassins and other notable people such as Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and Harvey Milk.
Emerson says they have an illustration of all the US presidents except the current one. “Expect that one not to be flattering,” he adds.
The café artwork depicts several significant events and leaders such as the Suffragettes, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and César Chavez, along with the Emancipation Proclamation and internment of Japanese Americans.
“This is my passion,” he says. “Most of it I collected on eBay. All of it was framed by KB Custom Frames here in Montavilla. I regret that I don’t have more space for display.”
“COVID-19 is devastating,” Emerson continued. “We’re doing OK, but not nearly at the levels as before.”
The café has taken this opportunity to revamp their menu and make it more flexible, and institute online ordering and payments.
“We have transitioned to more of a take-out model and intend to stay there until this all blows over. After that, we will probably reassess how to move forward.”
Bipartisan Café has been collaborating with nearby businesses and are working on a bar menu for local bars that allow outside food. In the past they have televised every primary, debate, convention and election night, and all inaugurations except the last one. There are no virtual events planned.
“Every day is a reinvention,” Emerson says. “I feel good about where we are at and hope to be here to fully hand off the café to our children if they want it.”
7901 SE Stark St.
Photo by Bipartisan Café