Pandemic Pivots: Two Success Stories

By Megan McMorris

When Marko Johnson opened MuddWorks coffee roastery on NE 70th and Glisan in November 2019, his plan was to focus on wholesale roasting first, retail second.

Plans during 2020 have had a funny way of changing though.

“When the rumblings of COVID-19 started happening, it was unknown what I was going to do,” recounts Johnson. “Things were changing by the day. You can’t be business as usual anymore; you need to be flexible to survive.”

His solution: open his doors to the public in the mornings.

“For me, it’s about doing what I love, and what I love is to roast coffee,” he said. He also owns Half Pint Cafe in inner SE.

“That completion cycle of the process is particularly enjoyable, when I can sell a pound of coffee and a customer comes back and tells me they really enjoyed it, that’s probably the most fulfilling thing I can do.”

Opening up during the lock down with many neighboring businesses still closed, allowed Johnson to become a de facto “water cooler.”

As a native Portlander, and neighborhood resident himself, “One of my favorite things in the neighborhood is to get a slice of pizza and a beer at the Academy Theater,” – bonding with his Montavilla customers enhanced his day-to-day experience on a personal level in addition to helping keep his business afloat.

“For some customers, I was the only face they’d see during the day, so we’d talk about what else was going on in the neighborhood, and what we’d heard about various places opening up, that kind of thing,” he continued.

“They’d bring their dogs by and I’d get to give them cookies and hang out with them for a little bit. I like people to feel like this is my kitchen. I want to give you a drink and something to eat and I want to hear a story of what you’re up to.”

On the subject of food, part of Johnson’s pandemic pivot was to re-think his business’ food offerings. With some bakers on hold, he decided to go for it himself.

“Here I have the equipment just sitting there, and there is an element of making food in-house, very DIY Portland, that is appealing to me. So I’ve decided to experiment,” he adds.

Up next: breakfast burritos and gluten-free, vegan offerings “that people don’t even realize are gluten-free or vegan. I grew up as a Portland hippie, before Keeping Portland Weird was even a phrase,” he laughs.

Johnson credits his ability to survive and thrive on being flexible as the new reality reared its head.

“You can’t think about what you did do, you have to think about what you can do,” he says. “If you’re stodgy and set in your ways, you won’t survive.”

Meanwhile, five blocks down the street on Glisan St., another business was learning that same lesson.

White Pepper, which opened in the Spring of 2019, was just about to enter its busy season when COVID-19 hit.

“Event season was just kicking off, which is our main source of income, and 85 percent of our business is weddings,” says Deborah Wiser, general manager.

Their answer, just as with MuddWorks, was to temporarily shift their focus.

“We thought, well, we already have a Burger Thursday pop-up which the community has responded well to, so we decided to continue with that the very first week of the shelter-in-place orders, to see if it made sense to open it for longer.”

As it turned out, it did make sense. “We were slammed,” she says. Realizing this might be their ticket to surviving until Phase One opening – and retaining their employees in the process – they decided to include Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays in the Burger Thursday action.

“Our crew was happy to still have a job and we all pitched in,” Wiser says. “Managers who are normally on our sales team, for example, ended up being the ones serving the burgers. We all did what we could.”

After Multnomah County entered Phase One, White Pepper returned to their catering roots.

“Once things re-opened, sales dropped, so we decided it was a good time to say let’s get back to what we do,” she said.

In addition to weddings and special events, White Pepper has a tasting room and offers backyard catering for your home.

“It’s been a delicate dance as we navigate the new realities with events, but I’ve been proud of the crew for continuing to move forward in whatever way we can. It’s a lot of unknowns so you just have to be flexible,” Wiser adds.

Even though they have since shuttered their Burger Thursday pop-up, their appreciation for the community lives on.

“Our regulars were the highlight of our burger pop-up for sure,” Wiser says. “When we talked about closing it, our staff was sad they wouldn’t be seeing their favorite faces on a regular basis, but we still see our regulars walking by and run out to say hi. I can’t express enough how much the community helped us, it gave us purpose.”

MuddWorks photo by Megan McMorris

Pandemic Pivots: Two Success Stories

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