When I first came to investigate Portland as a place to live in 2004, the concierge at the Fifth Avenue Suites suggested three places I should eat: Jake’s, Ruth’s Chris and Mother’s Bistro. I asked what was on the other side of that Willamette River, and he said, “you don’t want to go there. You’ll just get lost. Just go to Mother’s. You’ll be happy.” So I did.
A year later, after signing the contract on our new home in Oregon, we went to Mother’s to celebrate. I told Jody, the host there, that we wanted to go to a Blazers game to feel part of our new community, but they were sold out. He promptly dropped off a slip of paper with a number on it. “Call that number and tell them I sent you.” We saw the Blazers that night.
That kind of hospitality comes from the top. Lisa Schroeder was in her thirties working at Weight Watchers in marketing when she got sick of selling people stuff they didn’t need. She loved cooking and it hit her that no one was creating and serving the comfort food that was a tribute to mothers of all persuasions. She enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America with a hundred bucks in her pocket and a dream. While at the CIA, Lisa worked thankless hours at places like Le Cirque and LeSpinasse while squeezing in time with her daughter, making the drive from Hyde Park to Manhattan like an exhausted ping pong ball. She made less money than she needed to pay the rent, but all along she had her eye fully focused on opening up her dream one day: Mother’s Bistro.
After a disappointing relationship in which her boyfriend tried to dissuade her from becoming a chef because she might gain weight, she met the guy who she’s happy to still call her boyfriend, Rob. He was in Portland, which provided as good a geographic destination for this Mother’s thing as any. Lisa moved to the Rose City and took a job at Besaw’s. She became really, really good at breakfast, which guided her at the turn of the century to the Mother’s we know and love, setting the tone for a generation of new, exciting breakfast spots—and restaurants–in Portland. Many restaurants—some great—have opened since then. It’s easy to get caught up in the “new.” But for most people, mothers aren’t about the new. Our mothers bring us comfort, familiarity and if we’re lucky, the food we long for the most. And so there ya go. Aptly named. And operated. Now, let’s get to it.
Let’s talk about your mother.
(Huge laugh. Think Phyllis Diller.) My mother. Oh that! What’s the question?
What just came into your mind when I said that?
First of all, my mother was an AMAZING cook. She had a restaurant before I was born. She had a place called The Little Spot in Philadelphia and was a single mother in the 50’s when nobody was doing that. She was raising two daughters, taking care of her sick mother, AND running a restaurant. When she met my father she sold the restaurant and then went to work with him in his beauty salon. All growing up my mother cooked dinner and she made amazing meals because she was the chef at her own restaurant. She would do fancy French dinner parties with plumes and Coquille St. Jacques, but I wasn’t allowed in the dining room when all her friends were there. I had to eavesdrop from afar. She’d kick me out of the kitchen. So although she was a great cook I never got a chance to learn by her side. I was always in her way.
I kind of raised myself and was very independent at a young age. So I think what I do with Mother’s is to give the nurturing that I never got. I try to take care of as many people as possible through food. It’s kind of ironic that I wasn’t well mothered, but I have a restaurant called Mother’s. If I had the world’s greatest mother this is what it would be.
You’re a mother. Are you that ideal?
I’m now a grandmother. I have a daughter in her thirties and four grandchildren. They live a mile and a half away from me. I try to make up for some of the things that weren’t done for me so I bought a house so they have a roof over their heads and they are in a good school district. They call me Momma Li.
What are your food memories from Philadelphia?
Every Friday night we would walk around the corner from my father’s beauty salon to an Italian place called Jimmy’s Milan. I grew up there. When I opened Mamma Mia’s (which I later sold), every item on that menu was from Jimmy’s Milan. I opened that restaurant because I couldn’t get Chicken Parmesan to save my life, and I did that for six years, but I’m a control freak. I care about everything and I care about quality. I wasn’t looking to build an empire which would allow me to be away from everything. My point is TO BE at my places. So it was too crazy and I want a life so I sold it. This is crazy enough!
Crazy… if you don’t mind my saying, you have a little reputation for that.
Not everyone can work at Mother’s. This is not a restaurant for the faint-hearted. It’s not a restaurant for lazy people. To work for me you have to own your shit. If you make a mistake all you have to do is say you made one and you’re sorry, and we’re done. We move on. But if you give excuses, we don’t have time for that. Let’s LEARN from our mistakes and move on. People who work for me have to move fast, be efficient and say what that have to say in five words or less because too much is happening here.
I haven’t counted my money in the 14 years I’ve been in business. I never look at how much I’ve sold in a day except in Sundays because it’s always like, “What did we do!? Oh my god! How many people did we feed!” But it’s not about that. I just feel bad keeping people waiting–I feel bad making people wait an extra minute. So we’re all zooming and zooming because I know people are waiting an hour in line outside to eat. It makes me feel bad.
It’s got to be hard.
Yes. Some people have said, “oh she’s a bitch.” Let me address that. I’ve learned a lot from being in business for 14 years. Besides owning the business itself, I’ve been in therapy for 8 years trying to make myself better, because I want to be a good employer and I know I’m a good human being and I want that to translate into managing people.
I’ll give an example of how I’ve evolved. When I first opened up, I didn’t know I could tell anybody “wait a minute.” So, there I am, there’s hundreds of things happening in a restaurant every minute… this one’s coming to me with a question, that one’s coming to me with a question, and I’m thinking I have to answer every question right then and there. What happens is you short circuit at a certain point because you can’t possibly answer it all. In therapy, I finally learned, I can say, “can we talk about that later?” Because in the restaurant business there’s triage and then there’s long-term. So when somebody’s asking me about their vacation in February but Rome is burning right here, how much space do I get to be a human being by putting that conversation off? How do you do that many things in one minute? I dare someone to try!
What else did you learn from therapy or experience?
I’ve learned that because I care about my people it’s hard to fire them. I had one person that was written up nine times. I’m like “God he’s making me crazy,” and I realized that I can fire people and it’s better for them, it’s better for me, and it’s better for the whole organism. If someone makes me want to pull my hair out, I realize now, it’s probably not a good fit, so let’s just cut our losses and end it sooner. In the past I would keep people way longer than I should have because I felt bad, so I got a reputation of being a bitch because I kept people who couldn’t do their job. So I was being nice on one hand, but on the other hand there’s nothing nice about torturing someone who can’t do their job. If you can’t do your job then you can’t work for me. No hard feelings. You can’t run a successful business and be too soft.
Could there be a Mother’s without you?
Of course I think about that. I’m 55 years old. I can’t do this forever, so I do think of an exit strategy. For a long time I thought my daughter would take over the business. And then we decided we’re better off being mother and daughter and not business partners.
There are three ways it could go. One, one of my grandchildren will rise—the one who has inherited the restaurant gene–will be ready to take it on when I’m ready to let it go. Or, one of my employees might want to take it over and I’d find a way for them because the people who are here are truly amazing people. I know you hear that, but it really is honest. They’re passionate, they’re hard workers, they’re driven, and they’ve all drank the Mothers kool-aid. They believe in it like I do. I will have one of my staff members sending me a picture of a cute baby eating oatmeal on my day off. I’m not even working, but they know that it matters to me and it matters to them. Or maybe there will be another Lisa Schroeder down the road who knocks on my door and says, “Here you go! Here’s a few million.” and I’ll take it.
Right now I’m not going anywhere. And it does reflect me, but it’s about the love. It’s about whatever we can to do show the love for our guests. Whether it’s open the heavy door when they come in, or when we see someone struggling with a stroller, say goodbye when they leave.
What do you do to relax?
I love to garden, and I made sure that my home is a haven. On my day off, I’m happy to just be at home and if it’s a sunny day, I can do nothing. I need to charge my batteries. I really try to do very little on my time off, other than spending it with the grand kids.
Do you turn the phone off?
I admit I go to Burning Man every year and for a solid week I turn my phone off.
And the restaurant runs smoothly?
I have to just let it go so I can be great when I am here. I can’t be here every minute. If I don’t recharge then I’ve got nothing.
What’s your idea of a perfect morning?
The New York Times, a toasted bagel with cream cheese, and a pot of French press coffee.
Perfect doesn’t mean trying to avoid something.
Well, if it’s going to perfect, then it’s a bagel, cream cheese and sable. That’s smoked black cod, tomato and onion on a toasted sesame bagel, hollowed out, French press coffee and The New York Times.
Do you have a chef you like the most?
I really love Philippe Boulot. He’s the chef at the MAC now, and used to be at The Heathman. He’s just an honest, stand-up kind of guy. We can talk about our experiences and share the war stories and there’s no competition. I wish there was more of that. You know, I come from New York, and it just seemed to me that there was a whole lot more camaraderie among chefs than I experience in Portland. There are a lot of cliques with the chefs here in Portland, and they’ll buoy each other up, but it’s not a whole community. In New York I felt much more community than I feel here.
I would not expect that answer. I thought Portland was all about the community.
I’m really not a competitive person. I don’t have to be better than anybody. I just want to do what I do really well and hopefully the results will be good. I’m not trying to beat anybody at anything. We all rise with the tide. I think it’s great for Portland that there are all these great restaurants and I think we really benefit from all the great press, and I would love to be friends with all the chefs in town and hang out and shoot the shit and talk about our travails and come up with solutions. There are certain chefs that try to make that happen, like Gregory Gourdet at Departure. He has parties and he really tries to be a catalyst of community and I appreciate that.
He’s from New York.
Exactly! And where did he go to school? The CIA. And there’s John Gorham and Jason French is a great guy but we don’t hang out much. One time Kenny Giambalvo when he was at BlueHour did a chefs’ night where he invited all the local people and man, if twenty people came it was a lot. And I thought, wow, he’s making a gesture to get us all together, and this is the turnout? What a wonderful opportunity for us to get together, but it didn’t work out. I would like to see more community amongst ALL the chefs. I wish we all had more chef friends because those are the people who keep the hours where we can hang out. Normal people don’t keep those hours.