Dame Collective Wants to Share Resources to Keep Restaurants Afloat
When Jane Smith first opened her wine-centric restaurant Dame in 2016, she thought she had it figured out. She had a business partner, a chef lined up, and a beautiful corner space on Northeast Killingsworth. Just a year after opening, however, the restaurant’s situation changed. Her partner left, her chef left, and Smith found herself treading water.
“Everything went into the restaurant,” she says. “As soon as we got stable, the pandemic happened.” For Smith, it took a reframe of how she viewed her business — and her life — to move forward. “I opened Dame as a people pleaser, but I know how to set boundaries now,” she says. “There’s less fear of disappointing.”
The Dame of today looks dramatically different from the Dame that opened in 2016. As opposed to a single restaurant with a single chef, Smith’s “restaurant collective” spans a number of different spaces around town — primarily the original restaurant and its smaller sibling, Lil’ Dame, in the former Beast/Ripe Cooperative space.
It works like this: Once a chef joins the collective, they can stay as long as they want. They keep 100 percent of their food sales, while Dame’s team keeps the beverage profits. The chefs split the cost of overhead associated with the space with Smith, and the front-of-house staff — servers, bussers — split their time among all of the restaurants’ concepts, which has been a relief for many chefs who have entered the collective.
Through the course of her work, Smith meets with a lot of chefs. She meets with pop-up chefs looking for a space, chefs figuring out their next steps, private chefs, catering chefs. The most common advice she gives? Don’t open a restaurant.
“It becomes your life, completely,” she says, sitting at a table at Lil’ Dame. Behind her, chef Lauro Romero — formerly of the lauded restaurant República, but now on his own via his pop-up Clandestino — preps for the night in the open-format kitchen, bags of masa and quart containers of pickled onions arranged around cutting boards. Romero takes over the kitchen Mondays through Wednesdays, sharing the space with a bialy baker, Italian chef, and matcha producer who take over the kitchen for different shifts throughout the week.
Down the street, chef Luna Contreras of the buzzy Mexican fonda and hot sauce line Chelo, rolls enchiladas and slices albacore for aguachile within the Dame space. On the nights pop-ups aren’t operating at Dame or Lil’ Dame, chef Patrick McKee — once a pop-up chef at the restaurant, now Dame’s official chef — serves pastas and other Italian staples in the main kitchen.
None of these concepts are operating more than four nights each week, and all of them share their space with at least one other business, be it a temporary pop-up or an indefinite residency.
“Most people live at their restaurants. There are so many restaurants at the edge of closing; so many restaurants are stretched to the limit,” Smith says. “I don’t want people to make the same mistakes I did.”
For Smith, that’s the goal — to make the hospitality industry, all together, more sustainable.
Although Smith doesn’t label her restaurant collective as such, it operates much like the pop-up incubators that have started appearing in cities around the country with the specific goal of hosting chefs without restaurant spaces for short-format dinners or meal series. Feastly had a brief tenure in Portland along these lines, hosting chefs like Cameron Dunlap of Morchella or Salimatu Amabebe of Black Feast.
But the current renaissance is different from that era, partially because it’s informed by the pandemic. Over the last three years, more pop-ups emerged as restaurants and food carts closed, leaving chefs out of work and interested in experimenting. The food carts Holy Trinity, Meliora Pasta, and Papi Sal’s transitioned into event and residency models, and chefs like Contreras and Romero left their restaurants to pursue their pop-ups full-time. Meanwhile, other restaurants — including Magna Kusina and Mama Dut, which started as pop-ups — began hosting other chef dinners on their off days. The chef residency also gained serious ground since the beginning of the pandemic, with bars like Southeast Portland’s Swan Dive and downtown’s Fortune hosting chefs long-term to handle their kitchen service.
Bars and restaurants hosting pop-ups aren’t just doing it out of kindness and support; it is beneficial for them as well. Oregon bars need to offer some sort of hot food to sell hard alcohol, and hiring a turnkey restaurant to take over the kitchen requires little labor on their part. Charging a pop-up rent or taking a portion of sales brings in extra funds for a restaurant, without the financial and emotional expenditure of opening for another day of service.
These extra forms of cash flow have become a necessity for certain restaurant owners, especially after the expiration of the commercial eviction ban and slow diminishing of pandemic relief options. And for pop-up chefs, paying a portion of rent for the space ends up being more financially beneficial than signing a full lease on a space. For Contreras, for instance, the added support of staffing and financial relief provided by an established business make Dame’s model more appealing. “The restaurant industry is high-risk,” Contreras says. “The collective model Jane is doing — you see it works. Dame is an established restaurant. They promote you.”
Dame’s collective model technically predates the pandemic. Back in 2017, Dame began casually hosting chefs for pop-ups, without a real master plan in mind. Maya Lovelace hosted Mae dinners at Dame, as did Deepak Kaul of Northwest Portland’s Bhuna. Over the course of several years, the number of pop-ups hosted by the bar increased, some becoming closer to full-on residencies — chefs taking over the restaurant for a portion of the week, as opposed to one or two days a month. In 2019, Dame made it official, dedicating their whole space to two separate pop-ups: Italian pop-up Estes with chef McKee, and whole-animal butchery pop-up Pasture. “It’s kind of a mother restaurant,” Smith told Portland Monthly at the time. “Nurturing chefs and concepts and working together.”
Over time, the space shifted. The team behind Pasture went on to open their own restaurant and butcher shop, and McKee shared the kitchen with fellow Italian pop-up No Saint. They split the week making takeout baked pasta and square pizzas, respectively, while Smith turned her dining room into a bottle shop. Regulars ordered both wine and Italian food for delivery, driven by the Dame team themselves.
After dining rooms began to reopen, McKee moved into Dame as the restaurant’s chef, and more pop-ups began to cycle in and out on his days off. Companatico started selling sandwiches out of Dame. No Saint moved into its own space but still remained connected to the collective, and other pop-ups filtered in, adding to the space’s diverse culinary roster. The business, for the first time in a very long time — if ever — felt stable.
Right around the corner, however, lauded chef Naomi Pomeroy’s restaurant, Ripe Cooperative, was struggling. When Pomeroy announced the impending closure of her restaurant on social media in October, Smith had an idea: Take over that former Ripe Cooperative space (now Lil’ Dame), and let it organically become a place for a multitude of different chefs and concepts. One day, it’d be an event space; the next, the home of a Mexican restaurant. Dame wines would pour into glasses on any given night. And the Dame team would take on new roles: wine directors or general managers for specific concepts, social media managers for others. Everyone would split up the responsibilities based on the skills they wanted to hone, and chefs would have the space to do what they actually wanted to do: cook.
“We were thinking about how we can support people in the community by using the space in creative, collaborative ways,” Smith says. “The goal for Dame Collective as a whole is to have all these chefs as partners. It’s not a pop-up incubator; they don’t need incubating.”
Smith doesn’t believe that the restaurant model, as it exists, is sustainable. Anyone who has followed the restaurant industry closely — or anyone who has worked in the industry at all — can attest to its issues. Shifts so long that workers become physically and psychologically drained. Mental health crises. Toxic work environments. Financial instability. But for the team at Dame, that doesn’t have to do with the work itself, but rather the system. For Carrie Thompson, Dame’s director of operations and partnerships, a collective seems like the solution.
“Because it is collaborative, it allows for the time and space to be inspired,” Thompson says. “We can all agree the current system is broken, but that doesn’t mean the work is broken.”
Because Dame Collective is intentionally amorphous, the team is constantly creating something new, taking on what they can without burning out.
“We can do a lot of different things,” Smith says. “Let’s not all try to do everything. Everyone will thrive. Everyone will be stimulated.”