written by Justin Fields
Bringing blue collar cuisine to new heights
Timing and location mean everything in the restaurant business, and Tilt owner Octavian Jurj has a knack for both. Just when it seemed Portland had reached its culinary zenith by offering every type of dining experience imaginable, a new brand of blue collar burger burst onto the scene on Swan Island in 2012, reinvigorating an area all but ignored by restaurateurs and foodies alike.
With truly generous portions, served in an industrial environment reminiscent of a steampunk cafeteria, Tilt caught the attention of a workforce accustomed to either brown bagging it, or hitting the drive through. With burgers piled high with fresh ingredients, colossal fry servings, biscuits smothered in savory gravy, and pies so fresh you can smell them the instant you walk in, suddenly the working masses had the equivalent of a union boss looking out for their taste buds. Portland’s industrial food revolution had begun, and business was booming.
In 2013, Jurj opened a second location in the historically blue collar Pearl District, again beckoning to the hungry working masses, albeit employed today in somewhat different industries. And again, it worked. The Pearl location added more seating, a Ristretto coffee roasters counter, and a bar specializing in craft brews and fine whiskies, but retained the steel, concrete and wood “industrial chic” aesthetic, replete with red fabric shop rags replacing disposable paper napkins, and counter service only.
On a cold day in October, I sat down with Jurj at the Pearl location to discuss the origins of Tilt, the inspiration for the industrial theme, balancing a higher price point with superior ingredients, and the new location on East Burnside scheduled to open summer 2015.
Here in the Pearl we’ve got roughly 180 seats. This location is about 5,400 square feet. It’s a really big space, but it really works because of the location. It’s at NW 13th and Everett so it’s kind of at this perfect storm of traffic and density.
How does that compare to the Swan Island location?
That was our first location. The idea behind it was that there’s roughly a little over 11,000 people that work on Swan Island every day and there’s no good food down there for them. So we wanted to open up a concept that really resonated with the workforce down there. We wanted it to be a place where people came in to spend time after work and grab beers with their buddies. Coming into a place like Swan Island, where basically you have a choice of either McDonald’s or Subway for lunch, the biggest hurdle that we had was trying to overcome the price question. Why would I pay $10 for a burger on Swan Island? It doesn’t make any sense, until people came in and they saw the food coming out and saw that it was all scratch made and really good quality food, and they realized this isn’t something that I’m going to compare to McDonalds. We came into it wanting to promote the blue-collar story and to promote that American heritage.
What do you have planned for the third location?
The third location is going to have a very similar environment to the Pearl location as far as fixtures and design goes. The RJ Templeton Building is a Portland landmark, so the building has a lot of really great architectural features that you can’t really duplicate, like the brick walls with old paint and things like that. So it’s really great for us because we don’t need to spend a bunch of time and money bringing the aesthetics of the space to where we want it to be as far as raw industrial look because the shell of the building already has that.
What do you think about the proximity of that location to the skate park? Have you ever been a skater?
When I was a kid growing up I was really into skateboarding and I used to go down there all the time with my friends, hang out at Cal’s Pharmacy and I’d go skateboarding at that skate park. So when that location became available it was one of those decisions where, I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I had to do it, because I think it’s such a great spot. I love what that skate park represents. It’s given a lot of young people a purpose and a sense of family and belonging that they wouldn’t have had outside of that. I’m really, really stoked about coming into that space.
Really my background has always been in marketing. Ever since I was a kid coming out of high school. Back then I thought that was something that I was naturally born to do. I’m definitely a creative type person. You don’t really want me doing your taxes. I went to Portland State where I actually had a double major in advertising and marketing. Once I was out of school, I did internships with some agencies around town and ended up going to work for an agency after I graduated.
Do you think that was helpful in what you’re doing here with Tilt?
I think that for me, it’s really put me in a position where I can approach Tilt not necessarily from being emotionally attached to the menu, but from how do I use food and beverage as a platform to communicate something bigger, which is supporting the American workforce. If you really break down everything important in our lives it usually happens around either a meal or a drink. Whether it’s your birthday or whether it’s landing that big account, you usually celebrate with food and drink or the deal ends up happening over food and drink. So for me, it’s the perfect platform to promote American industry. This is our little way of doing that. What’s great about doing it, here is that Portland is already so creative. They get ideas. They just go for it. It’s just a great city.
The quality of the product has to stand on its own. It’s really from the standpoint that everything we do is like an assembly of parts. A burger is only as good as the components that go into the burger. From the bun to the sauce to the protein. We really look at everything that we do as either making the best components that we possibly can that goes into that product, or sourcing the best components. Our model is we’re not going to go cheap on our product. If somebody comes in and they’re spending $10 to $13 on a burger, it better be the best burger they’ve had.
Do you think there’s something blue-collar about Portland in general? Does it hearken back to the history of the area? Did the industrial persona of Swan Island and the former history of the Pearl play into the design?
Absolutely. When people first came to Portland, it was a pretty treacherous journey. With just that alone, you’re going to pretty much get that kind of tough DNA pumped into the city just by having those types of people. They’re obviously driven risk-takers. It all plays back to the genesis of our city. It’s always been, this town where people just kind of go for it. We’re not big on formalities. If someone has an idea and they can’t do it alone, they find other people to collaborate with. As far as the Pearl goes, the building we’re in used to be the original GE distribution warehouse in Portland. The floor is a 13-inch thick slab of concrete, so it’s a very industrial building. We just left it as is. Why would I put sheetrock on that? That’s history right there. That’s our thing.
You have an eco-friendly approach to your service. What earth-friendly practices does Tilt incorporate?
We’ve always tried to be as eco-friendly as possible. On Swan Island, before the Pearl opened, we realized that obviously our food is big and it gets messy and we go through a lot of paper products. You just waste so much paper. One night I was sitting there working on some things as far as getting the Pearl opened, and it just kind of hit me: shop towels. It’s like when you’re eating a huge burger and you don’t want to go through 30 paper napkins, shop towels are the best thing you can have. But I think that’s an object that we all know. I think that’s what made it unique and at the same time we don’t go through any sort of paper napkins in this place. Same with our bathrooms. Our bathrooms have industrial hand dryers. It’s obviously great for the environment and it’s great for our business because it reduces the amount of waste that we go through. Between paper napkins for food and paper towels for the bathroom, we’re probably dropping our waste by about 15 to 20 percent.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs just starting out?
I think that the most important thing is to really understand your brand before you ever develop a single menu item, before you ever develop any sort of marketing. The brand is like the DNA of everything you do down to a tiny little item on your menu. The brand is like saying ‘I have nothing to hide, here’s my story.’ At the end of the day there’s a lot of great food in Portland. We’re very blessed with good food. So begin by thinking, how are you going to differentiate yourself? It has to come down to identifying who you are and what your brand is before anything else. That’s your blueprint.
How does the bar fit into what Tilt does? What’s it like being a purveyor of microbrews in what I consider to be the epicenter of beer culture?
It’s the same thing. If we’re going to make cocktails we want to make cocktails the right way. We keep it really simple. We’re heavily focused on whiskey-driven drinks. Our cocktails are usually three to four ingredients max. It’s the same approach that we take to our foods. Rather than try to do everything for everybody, it’s very honed in as far as what we do and don’t do. We don’t carry Red Bull. We don’t carry Fireball. We carry products that we’re actually proud of, that we actually make proper cocktails with. And as far as beer goes, I’m really proud of our beer program. We originally only had eight handles. The idea behind that is we really strive to have every single beer that’s on our taps have a reason to be there. All of our beers are hyper-local. We do not feature any beers that are outside of Oregon at all on our taps.
Do you have a favorite?
Right now we’ve got a beer on tap called the Pie Bomb and that’s a collaboration between us and Sasquatch Brewing. The inspiration behind it is the peach pie. We basically took our peach pie and threw it into the mix so to speak. The product is just phenomenal. So that’s a program that we’re going to keep going as far as collaborating additional Pie Bomb beers. For example, I think next week we’re rolling out with a pumpkin pie Pie Bomb, which I’m pretty excited about.
What is it like to work with your spouse in an endeavor like this?
I don’t know if this makes us unusual, but my wife Brittany and I have always been able to work together. I think it really comes down to the fact that we’re good at very different things so we don’t step on each other’s toes. The biggest challenge for us was balancing the launch of a new business with being new parents. Her long-term vision for Tilt and pie baking is to inspire other women to get into baking, and to learn that craft. She’s considering doing an instructional pie school, working with underprivileged girls to teach them how to bake, and give them purpose through baking.
Is that a goal of Tilt is to have some other involvement in the community beyond the business face?
Oh absolutely. Like I said with the new Burnside location, that has definitely been the approach. Coming in and actually getting involved with what’s going on with the skate community at Burnside skate park, and finding out how we can help take care of the park. A big thing for us is trying to use this to help other people, whether it’s from a mentoring perspective or teaching people new skills or helping people to get a job. That’s always been in the back of our minds as far as how we use Tilt as something bigger. Just dive in, see what the needs are of the people that are in our community, and try to plug ourselves in wherever we can in an organic way.