Hitting The Brix…Tavern
WORDS David Bentley PHOTOGRAPHY Tim Sugden
In the heart of the Pearl, you’ll find Brix Tavern, a local staple with everything from Sunday brunch to an exciting nightlife.
Founder Mark Byrum, the mastermind behind Brix’s success, as well as six other restaurants in Portland, started as a busser at Red Lion. He is a certified sommelier and a member of both the POVA and the Oregon Restaurant Association.
“Flip Wednesdays” have become a unique Portland get together; show up to Brix with all of your friends, order as much food and drink as you can humanly consume and at the end of your meal, flip a coin to see who pays, Brix or you?
Portland Interview took a trip into the Pearl to visit Brix (1338 NW Hoyt) and speak with Byrum to get his take on what it’s like to be a restaurateur in Portland’s hot cuisine scene.
Where did it all start for you?
I think it was ‘89 at the Red Lion. A friend worked there, he bussed tables and I worked at a grocery store. I was making $2.35 an hour, and so was he but he got $10-15 a night in tips. I was just trying to get by, and this was a way better opportunity. In grocery, I had to do swing shifts and take the graveyard shift. That killed me. I started out bussing tables and slowly learned how to cook table side as a captain. I learned how to cook flambé, Steak Diane, Caesar salad, shrimps, scampi and cherries jubilee. I mastered the captain aspect of it, and then I realized I made really good money waiting tables, so I started waiting tables on a Sunday. I eventually moved on and took a job at the Battering Ram, it’s still on the river down in Eugene. I heard they were hiring but I had to start as the morning busser. From there, I finally got into serving after busting my ass for six months.
This all started in Eugene?
Yes, I’m a small-town boy out of Thurston, which is even smaller than nearby Springfield. Then I moved to Portland for better opportunities. I got a job at Trenton and was there for a couple of years until I was introduced to Paul Brenneke with Avalon. He really liked me. He thought I was young and ambitious, and I’d be a good partner for the team.
Was your interest always in food and hospitality?
I was going to pursue my career in the financial world. Then, in the last winter term at Portland State, on a ski trip and ended up pulling my shoulder. I couldn’t wait tables anymore. That’s when Paul came and said, “Why don’t you come and manage a restaurant? You ever think about doing this for a living?” I thought, well I don’t have a lot of options right now, so, yeah, I guess I will! That’s how it all really started. I knew how to wait tables and I was knowledgeable about wines, but I had never really managed.
Your employees have mentioned that you like to participate with the chefs.
So, food was really of interest to me because of cooking table-side. But I wanted to expand my knowledge. I wanted to know what a demi-glace was. What was the process behind reductions? I really wanted to know. One of the sous chefs, Billy, worked with me at night. He would talk to me about food and tasting things, making sure your sauce didn’t break and how long to sauté garlic. They really started teaching me how to cook. I would always leach on to any chef just for knowledge purposes. I love food and to cook, so I just lent myself to help with anything in the kitchen anytime I could. I would show up an hour early to jump in the kitchen and help them do prep work. If they needed pantry work, I’d actively be involved.
Is that when you decided you would like to learn all aspects of the business?
Of course, I was the manager now. That’s the whole goal right? My world as a server taught me that confidence is everything and knowledge installs confidence. For me to be a confident manager, I need to know every aspect of each restaurant. I need to know the protocol of everything from how to turn off the fire alarm, to being prepared if someone goes down on the line; do I know how to prep the salads, and sauté the salmon? You want to be able to talk in detail of everything that’s going on in the restaurant. First and foremost was education. I already knew the front of the house. It was about mastering the back of the house.
How long did it take?
It took quite a while. Even with cooking at home, and I mean, who doesn’t like to cook at home? I know there’s people that don’t, but when you do, you want to understand what you’re doing. You don’t want to throw food in the pan and hope it makes something good. You want to take time to understand.
Brix had a historically tough location in the Pearl. How did you overcome the obstacles and start to thrive?
Well, we were the 5th generation restaurant in that space, so, that doesn’t lend itself well.
You’re an entrepreneur and an artist of sorts with what you do. Were you intimidated, knowing the history of the location?
You know, I wasn’t. That was probably one of the craziest things. I think if you go into something timid and intimidated, you probably shouldn’t do it. You must have 100% belief in yourself or else your concept will crack. I tell everyone that. I know when something feels right. People ask me how I’m feeling about my next concept, what am I going to do? I can honestly tell you, it’s all about walking into a building to see if it’s a perfect fit. You have to look for the match. You can’t shove a concept somewhere just because you want to do it. It never works.
Restaurant businesses are some of the most difficult to run. What magic rules would you give to an aspiring restaurateur?
First of all, be a hands-on operator. Be on the property at all times. If you’re unable to, make sure you have that good number two person you can count on. Being set with those two aspects, understanding that you both share the same vision, that’s consistency. I’ve learned that from McDonald’s. You might go to McDonald’s and think it’s the best burger you’ve ever had. The next person might think it’s the worst burger they’ve ever had. Their food is always going to come out the same no matter what.
Consistency equals trust?
Exactly, because they know what they’re getting every time they come back. I remember the negative reviews, “This is never going to work! This is the Pearl District with elevated cuisine and fancy tables. What do they think they’re doing!” My wife started to freak out and I told her the same thing — some people love McDonald’s, some people hate Burger King, and vice versa. You can’t please everybody. You can’t panic either, you got to stay on course, believe in what you vision is and stay consistent. That’s the biggest thing.
What are some of your most popular menu items?
The diversity in the menu plays a large role in our success. We love to think about what “american classic comfort food” truly is. This is where my late chef Kevin Kenny, my wife and I would talk through the menu. We’d have conversations on what that looks like. What is it exactly? Is it Chicken Pot Pie? You gotta have it. Nothing says comfort food like that. You gotta have steaks, burgers, sandwiches, and pizzas. That was our interpretation. What you see on the menu is what we believe is “American classic comfort food.”
How do you define Brix’s atmosphere? Is it a sports bar or
That’s why we call our restaurant “sports friendly” and more “bar-centric.” It’s all those little combinations of words that makes sense of what Brix is. There are no beer signs, football jerseys, or logos getting in your way. It’s a sleek and contemporary sports bar. The word “tavern” is important too because it means it’s a place where your friends and family go to have a good time. It’s an upscale sports bar without the connotation of whatever a sports bar is.
From what I understand, failure to retain customers is the result of two different things – either the food or the service wasn’t that great.
Consistency and service are the two biggest parts. I tell the staff all the time that service can set you apart from everyone else in the city. If we serve very good food and pair it with incredible service, they’re always going to come back. If we serve good food and bad service, they’re never coming back. There are too many other options in the city.
As a customer I’ve noticed how quickly the food comes out.
It’s something that we pride ourselves on, preparation and training. It’s a big deal. You come to eat and you’re hungry. There’s nothing worse than sitting there for 45 minutes waiting for your food, especially at breakfast time.
Is there anybody that you would credit for some of your successes?
Absolutely, the late Chef Kevin Kennedy. He passed last August from cancer. He helped me build the entire food side of the business. Kevin is incredible. He cooked all of his life. The guy knew food. He helped me with all of my concepts and wrote the menu with me.
Was it fun to work with him?
It was so fun. We would go out and eat food together. The coolest thing about him was I could take him to a restaurant and say, try this dish, and he would try the dish and he could go back to the kitchen and make that same dish. I have never seen anyone with a pallet like he had. He was so diversified, it was unbelievable. 2002 is when we started our work environment, which is a fun story. I was actually brought in to fire him. Then, I realized, he wasn’t the problem. It was the management team. He was following their directions because he wanted to please. He’s one of the best chefs I’ve ever worked with and I’ve worked with a lot of chefs.