Old Habits Die Hard

Originally published in the Dec/Jan 2015 issue of Dispatch Magazine

 A reminder that most of Portland doesn’t take quickly to new food trends

“Two people would come in and sit at a table for six, drink a pot of coffee over the course of an hour, and leave without ordering food. This is was their preferred method of protest.”

Such is how Josh Bankhead, who owns and operates Hella Good Tacos in Portland with his wife Melissa, describes the war waged on them by estranged patrons, mostly senior citizens, upon their purchase of the venerable Portland institution, Steve and Renee’s Diner.

Despite Portland’s new reputation as one of the most progressive food towns in the country, many people forget that a large percentage of its population is completely unaware of or entirely indifferent to this status. When it comes to dining, they are creatures of habit that do not take kindly to having their routines interrupted, and are even less partial to being told how to eat.

This is a lesson learned the hard way by many of the city’s restaurant owners, the Bankheads’ odyssey being one of the more extreme cases. Steve and Renee’s had been in operation for over 30 years, and at the time that owner Renee Wright finally made the decision to bow out of the business, Josh had been renting her kitchen space at night to do prep for the Northern California-style taco cart he would set up downtown.

“She began dropping hints that she might want to sell the place,” Josh tells me, “and we figured that, with us already being accustomed to the kitchen space, it was a no-brainer to take it over.” Wright’s initial figure was out of their price range, so they hammered out an agreement that would allow the Bankheads to settle with Renee over time. The major stipulation was that they would agree to keep the diner sign up until a sizeable portion was paid off, and transition as gently as possible to their taco business.

Attempting to show goodwill, the Bankheads they kept the breakfast menu intact in the beginning, offering Mexican fare at lunchtime, an even kept any of the staff that wished to stay onboard.

Thinking their efforts would be appreciated; Josh immediately got rid of the “five or six microwave ovens” and upgraded the quality of staples like bacon, eggs, oatmeal, and coffee. It wasn’t long before he also realized that the prices — $3.49 for eggs, toast, and home fries for example — were outdated to the point where he was practically “paying the customers to eat there.”

If the new menu items had made the regulars nervous, the hike from $3.49 for said breakfast to $4.99 sent them into flat-out revolt. Most would walk out in a huff; others would take the time to tell Josh directly, often not in the most polite fashion, about the manner in which he was ruining their lives. Not long after, the old staff turned on them as well, stirring up dissent in the dining room on a daily basis over the fact that a second style of coffee was now offered as an option.

“Man, you should have seen the way they flipped out when I changed from bottles to a soda fountain,” Josh recalls. “It was a few steps short of torches and pitchforks.”

Throughout the initial stages, Wright made an effort to remain present to ease the transition, until the fateful night when Bankhead finally lost his composure during all-you-can-eat Turkey dinner Saturday, about two months in.

“At that point we had sacrificed well over half the old clientele anyway,” he says. “I finally realized that I needed to forget the past and start focusing on my own business.”

Though the diner sign is still up, Josh and Melissa have made considerable headway. The interior has been redecorated, a thoughtful array of beers has been added, and the tacos have garnered a considerable following. There are movie nights featuring cult classics like El Mariachi, events coordinated with local breweries, and no more turkey buffet. Still, one has to wonder what the rough waters in the beginning may have cost in the long run.

Not far up the street, Pete Sueltenfuss experienced a similar dilemma, yet not nearly as dramatic. After taking over and renovating the space formerly occupied by Quatrucci’s Market for 39 years, he opened the Otherside Delicatessen last winter, a full-service convenient store, deli, and butchery. While Quatrucci’s was known for their Maine Italian, Otherside’s offerings encompass everything from pork belly bánh mì to meatball grinders, all priced at $9 across the board.

“I knew from past experiences that there would be a bit of sticker shock, but I assumed I would be able to win the previous customers over with a higher quality of product,” Pete tells me. “Even in the beginning, during renovations, people would pop their head in and express excitement over what we were doing, and I had a good feeling that this kind of shop was what the area needed.”

After a strong initial push upon opening due to press from local food blogs and publications, Sueltenfuss realized that he was having a hard time holding on to the former Quatrucci’s regulars. He eventually learned to adapt, acknowledging that if something wasn’t visibly obvious, particularly in the deli case, people were not inclined to ask but rather simply walk out. Though he consistently offered fresh pork chops from the beginning, he barely sold any until displaying their availability on a sandwich board outside the door. Rather than listing the word gochujang on the menu, he would go with simply “chili paste,” emphasizing that the wording would make a huge impact on sales.

Still, customers routinely come through the door and, without even looking at anything about the menu or the store itself, order a “regular Italian to go.” Further complicating this is the fact that Sueltenfuss is not from Maine, and is, like everyone else not from Maine, very confused by the concept of our state sandwich (and you can’t blame them). He tells me about receiving a to-go order for an office that included a “Veggie Italian.”

“I got all excited, and wanted to make an amazing vegetarian sandwich,” Pete recalls, “I made a huge sub with fresh vegetables, including roasted Brussels sprouts and broccoli. I topped it with a perfectly fried egg — I was genuinely excited to make her this sandwich.”

The subsequent angry meltdown by the customer at the monstrosity she was presented with made things finally click for Sueltenfuss.

“I knew that I had to clarify the menu for people, but also wanted to hold my ground,” he says, “I will happily make someone a ham grinder, but I simply do not stock the prerequisite ingredients for a Maine Italian and never will. Also, I ate that veggie sandwich and it was delicious.”

Though changing the stigma attached to a longstanding business is an uphill, potentially Sisyphean battle, both Josh and Pete say that if given the opportunity to go back in time, they’d still have opted for the same space.

“It’s actually forced me to learn to adapt faster than ever before,” Pete says. “I never really gave much thought to the fact that many customers only have 30 minutes for lunch, but I had to change my whole routine immediately once I did.”

“I may have been a bit more selfish if I knew,” Josh admits. “And to any future business owners, I recommend getting a good lawyer and going through everything with a fine-toothed comb.”

Hella Good Tacos | 500 Washington Ave. | Portland | 207-775-2722

Otherside Delicatessen | 164 Veranda St. | Portland | 207-761-9650