By Megan McMorris
Walking down lively SE Stark St. these days, it’s hard to imagine that just a season ago, the empty streets looked like the scene out of a zombie movie.
Amidst all the activity Stark neighbors Vino Veritas, Beer Bunker, Threshold Brewing & Blending, Redwood and Vintage start building outdoor sanctuaries, but one empty storefront has remained shuttered, leading locals to wonder whether it would ever open at all.
Tinker Tavern at the corner of SE 80th and Stark St., had been one of the hotly anticipated Spring 2020 freshman class along SE Stark, along with Lazy Susan, Heartbreaker Cafe and Sebastiano’s (all of which opened their doors during the pandemic).
After months with no proof of life, though, neighbors couldn’t help but wonder whether Tinker Tavern would open altogether or whether they’d become the latest COVID-19 casualty before even opening their doors.
Not to worry, says owner Erik Mahan, a Prost! and Stammtisch alum.
“It was never in my thoughts to quit, I just had a few more boxes to check than I planned on,” he laughs.
“I mean, I knew it would be a plan-heavy situation, given that we’re doing a full build-out instead of a renovation, but we ended up having a few more unexpected hoops to jump through.”
Among the hurdles: a stalled permitting process due to COVID-19, as commercial property was suddenly pushed to low priority status on the construction totem pole.
“Every Monday morning, I’d call Bureau of Development Service, even though I knew that nothing could happen with my particular plan. It was more just of I’m still here, and I’m not giving up on this,” he said.
The weekly check-ins served two purposes: to give him a sense of momentum in his vision and a newfound respect for the city he lives in.
“The city of Portland has been really incredible to work with throughout this whole process,” Mahan said. “They’ve been flexible and willing to have a conversation about things and are genuinely wanting to help keep local businesses weather this storm. It’s helped us a lot.”
Once they got the green light for their plans, it was more of a lukewarm yellow light in the end.
“Even after approval, it still took about four to five weeks before I could start construction,” said Mahan, “and then, it’s a matter of finding a construction crew. A lot of the tradespeople weren’t necessarily working. We had one instance where two tradespeople felt they had been compromised, so they self-quarantined, for example,” he added.
“We appreciated the safety precautions, of course, but that’s just one example of the additional unknowns we were dealing with at this time.”
Another time delay: staggering tradespeople’s schedules so people weren’t working side-by-side.
“Now you can only do one tradesperson at a time, so the plumber comes in one day and then the next day electric, that kind of thing, So that was another obstacle which added more time,” he said.
“Everything with COVID-19 just took a little bit longer. They say that with construction every step takes longer than you expect it to, but now times it by three. It took a mindset of getting used to that being the now.”
Overall, though, the delays have come with a silver lining.
“Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to open in April like we originally planned on doing. We love a good challenge,” says bar manager Rae Franklin, an industry alum who worked with Mahan at Prost!
“Delaying like this, though, has allowed us to take a more thoughtful approach toward our opening in ways we wouldn’t have otherwise,” she added.
A plus is being able to create their space according to the new requirements, rather than having to reinvent their own wheel.
Choosing moveable tables over booths, for example, will allow them to adjust seating arrangements according to changing requirements. They’re taking the time to plan out an outdoors seating area according to the new requirements even as permits are still pending.
Perhaps the biggest bonus of having to hit the pause button, they both agree, is being able to do a deep dive into their food menu in ways they hadn’t originally anticipated.
“Originally, we hadn’t given that much emphasis on food, to be honest,” says Franklin. “It was still food that was good, don’t get me wrong, but it was more ‘bar food’ than any robust food menu per se.”
That all changed when Mahan had a conversation with his business partner about his roots in Buffalo, NY.
“When he was talking about all the foods he loved growing up I thought, ‘Well, I love those things too,’ so I started making them and gave them to him to try. He said ‘These are the best Beef on Wecks I’ve ever had in my life,’ and I’m thinking, ‘I’m not doing anything fantastic or weird; I’m just buying local Kaiser rolls and we’re putting our own salt on it and the au jus is our own, so we thought maybe we could serve this.”
Beef on Weck, a Buffalo-style roast beef sandwich served on a roll topped with kosher salt and caraway seeds, will be Tinker Tavern’s signature dish.
Mahan took advantage of his unexpected time to experiment with sausages too.
“I started thinking, you know, maybe I could make sausages, after all I learned from the best of them,” he says of his mentor Graham Chaney, executive chef at Stammtisch.
“We were trying to make it with KitchenAid and we spent six hours trying to make 12 sausages,” Mahan recalls.
“We sat down together to eat our creations, and I asked Rae, ‘Do you think this is something we can really do?’ and she said ‘I think everything is limited on the machinery, not necessarily us.’
“So I bought all the machinery for making sausage and [now] we can make 30-40 pounds of it in two hours from beginning to end, which is 90-100 sausages.”
“We’ve come so far,” laughs Franklin, “and look at all this time we wouldn’t have had to experiment if the build-out had gone smoothly. But seriously, if our build-out had been two months, it would have been a sprint for us and instead it’s been a thoughtful process.”
Their vision is simple: build a bar atmosphere you’d personally want to hang out in. Put items on the menu that you’d personally want to eat or drink. Then hire bartenders you’d personally want to hang out with.
“We hire people who look at the job more than ‘I just serve drinks and leave,’ but who really care about their job and the people they serve,” he says.
Make the menu accessible, both in taste and in price. Expect cocktails like negroni and wine on tap. Limited, but curated cocktails and beers at reasonable prices. Meatball subs. Italian sausage. Beef on Weck. Mustards and horseradish.
Mahan emphasizes that the community of Montavilla in the end will dictate where they go from here.
“All we can do is bring ourselves and our own personalities and the bar is going to grow into its own self,” says Mahan.
“It’s nature versus nurture,” adds Franklin. “We can provide the DNA, we can provide the atmosphere, the great staff, and food and drinks, but what it will become is how it lives in its own community. We look forward to seeing where that takes us.”
Tinker Tavern at SE 80th and Stark, plans to open November 2020. Visit their Instagram page for updates.