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Chef Opens Third Downtown Restaurant


Opening a new restaurant is one of the toughest ways to make money. Between 25 and 30 percent of them fail within their first year, according to university studies.

But there’s been one Bend chef who’s managed to weather the economic storm, when many others have gone under: restaurateur Gavin McMichael, owner of The Blacksmith and Bourbon Street.

He’s just opened his third kitchen in downtown Bend, called Gatsby’s Brasserie and Bar, and we followed him through the process to find out his secret to staying in business.

“Welcome to Gatsby’s — this is our project!” exclaims an excited McMichael one morning in late January.

Formerly Marz Bistro on Minnesota Avenue, McMichael bought the ailing project and had an ambitious goal: Flip it, with a whole new look, new paint, new lighting, new bar and rearrange the kitchen.

In just two weeks.

“We’re refinishing the floors today. We painted the ceiling all cream, it used to be all dark. Then we’ll re-work the bar here and put in regular bar with a custom wrought iron piece,” he says as he shows us around.

“It’s done in the style of the roaring ’20s and ’30s, so we’ve given it a classic interior,” McMichael explains. “We’re gonna do American classic style food. Lot of dishes you don’t see in restaurants like beef bourguignon, chicken tetrazzini, which has a great history to it.”

With a few partners, line cooks, restaurant managers and now a personal assistant, McMichael’s team has significantly increased since opening The Blacksmith in 2002.

He’s not in the kitchen as much, which some say is a shame. But he is the only owner left standing out of the original, gourmet chef group of Cork, Merenda, Marz, and Blue Fish Bistro that first put downtown Bend on the culinary map.

McMichael says the secret is to really study the marketplace and fill a niche nobody else has.

“People go out more than just to eat, They go for an escape, and to have a restaurant that has something thematic about it, that has a culture about it, that’s going to be a draw. I think that’s part of the success, trying to deliver an experience, not just a certain kind of food or cuisine.”

Starting in 2008, when the economy really started to fall apart and places like Merenda, Deep, Volo and Cork all closed, that made business bad for The Blacksmith, McMichael says.

Downtown restaurants and bars rely on each other to create buzz and bring people out to bounce around from place to place.

McMichael credits the move of Zydeco downtown by owner and chef Steve Helt for picking things up again.

But owning now three restaurants within blocks of each other has brought some push back from the public. Complaints that McMichael is “taking over downtown Bend” came across on local blogs and in conversation.

His answer?

More than one kitchen actually brings fiscal stability — and he’s local, making a life here and caring about the community.

“I want everyone to succeed,” he says, standing outside Gatsby’s. “But people need to really come out and support these things, and I know it’s difficult, but they need to support these restaurants.”

“Because soon, and I’m really worried about it, some of these buildings will change hands, and they’re getting bought by people who don’t live here, more and more of the time, and those landlords aren’t exactly stake holders in the community. Well, They’re going to entertain more and more chains and corporate things, and everything nobody wants will eventually come in.”

Forget college professors, a restaurant owner is the best person to ask about economic trends. They watch their numbers, and they feel the changes in our pocketbooks immediately.

In December, when Congress let unemployment benefits expire for two weeks, McMichael says it affected everyone from Costco, where he buys bulk ingredients, to a slowdown in diners, who saw less money coming.

But he does see good signs, at least downtown.

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