By Mecca Ray Rouse and Julie Winsel | Photos by Dominick Barbero | Published March 2019

Eugene is a culinary destination, paired beautifully with our beer, wine, and burgeoning cider and distillery scenes. We have a reputation of serving food that is sourced locally, dietary restriction friendly, and celebrates all cultures. The Eugene food scene is diverse, with thousands of voices contributing to how we fill our bellies.

There are many restaurant entrepreneurs who have found great success in Eugene and become influencers in their own right, setting the bar high for anyone wishing to break into the scene. We talked to six local entrepreneurs to gain their insight and inspiration: Steve Mertz (Laughing Planet, Tacovore, The Wheel Apizza Pub), Arna “B” Khongkhaning (Ta Ra Rin, Blu Mist), Tim Murff and Mon Sutthiwari (Sabai, Novo), Stephanie Pearl Kimmel (Excelsior Café, King Estate, Marche), and Mark Beauchamp (Café Yumm!).

There were many common threads among these entrepreneurs when it came to secrets of their success. Among them: taking it slow and expecting success to take time, a deep attention to detail, listening to customers and adjusting when things aren’t quite right, and appreciating your staff. You also have to be willing and able to fully commit yourself to your restaurant, making it your true passion and accepting, rolling with, and adapting to any issues that arise.

All six of these owners have more than a decade of experience (a few have much more), but all started small, working from the ground up to build their businesses, help others with theirs, and take on new challenges as expansions occur and new locations open.

The love for Eugene is another common thread. While owning a business forces you to grow roots, that love has extended beyond simply needing to be close to their restaurant.

“The quality of life,” Kimmel says, “it’s just the mountains, the ocean, the beautiful valley, the beautiful, productive valley. We’re so lucky to live here.”

Steve Mertz

“Pay attention” seems to be the motto for Steve Mertz. What are the trends? What are people liking? Where do they have lines out the door? What is missing? These questions led Mertz to open Tacovore in the Whiteaker and, recently, his new pizza and pub hot spot near Skinner’s Butte, The Wheel Apizza Pub.

Mertz became intrigued with food and its political side during his time at Indiana University. The book Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Mealby Eric Schlosser made a huge impact on Mertz. He wanted to do something to bring awareness about mass-produced food and support the local and organic food movement.

“If you want to make a change in the world, the best way to do it is through business,” Mertz says.

He moved out to Oregon in 2004 specifically to open Laughing Planet with his business partner, Richard Satnick. In 2013, he left Laughing Planet to open Tacovore and, in 2018, he opened The Wheel Apizza Pub.

Starting a restaurant is not for the faint at heart: Lots of sleepless nights, lots of self-doubt, and it usually takes about a year longer than expected until the doors open.

“You just have to stay confident and remember the reason behind why you wanted to do a business like this,” Mertz says.

Tacovore

530 Blair Blvd., Eugene

2503 NW Kings Blvd., Corvallis

Sun-Thurs, 11 am-10 pm; Fri-Sat, 11 am-11 pm

541/735-3518

tacovorepnw.com

 

The Wheel APizza Pub

390 Lincoln St. #101

Mon-Tues, 11 am-9 pm; Wed-Fri, 11 am-10 pm; Sat, 12 pm-10 pm; Sun, 12 pm-9 pm

541/7350-3860

thewheelapizzapub.com

Arna “B” Khongkhaning

Arna “B” Khongkhaning has been involved with restaurants his whole life. Even as a kid, his responsibilities to his family’s restaurants came first. In 2000, he and his mother moved to the US from Thailand, opening Chao Pra Ya in 2002. In 2004, Khongkhaning broke out on his own, opening the first Ta Ra Rin location in 2004, opening the second location in 2012 in Springfield, and then opened Blu Mist in 2017.

Blu Mist is definitely different from his other restaurants. “After doing the same thing over and over again, all of a sudden, I just got a little more crazy and tried to challenge myself in the business,” Khongkhaning says.

He says he’s always looking for ways to change and do better, with the goal to keep expanding. “I always have a bigger goal in my mind that I can be someone, do something amazing,” he says. “I want this to be more than just me.”

Still, he focuses heavily on the day to day in all of his restaurants, making sure the customers and staff are happy. He keeps this responsibility, which he says is the secret to turning a restaurant with only five employees (including himself) where he did anything that needed to be done, to three restaurants with more on the way.

“Be responsible for what you do, all the time,” he says. “Care for it. It will show who you are.”

Ta Ra Rin

1200 Oak St., Eugene

Mon-Fri, 11 am-3 pm, 4:30 pm-10 pm; Sat-Sun, 12 pm-10 pm

541/505-8987

1410 Mohawk Blvd., Springfield

Mon-Fri, 11 am-3 pm, 4:30 pm-9 pm; Sat-Sun, 12 pm-9 pm

tararinthai.com

 

Blu Mist

1400 Valley River Dr., Ste. 130

Tues-Thurs, 11 am-9 pm; Fri, 11 am-10 pm; Sat, 12 pm-10 pm; Sun, 12 pm-9 pm

541/636-3306

blumistrb.com

Tim Murff and Mon Sutthiwari

Tim Murff and Mon Sutthiwari opened Sabai in 2011. The couple combined their experience–Murff’s background in media, marketing, and all around love for food and Sutthiwari’s Thai heritage and work at Chao Pra Ya and Ta Ra Rin–to open what they hoped would be a restaurant that encouraged community and brought in the social aspects of food.

“Food is such a bridge to so many things,” Murff says. “Whether it’s just the first time you meet somebody, or friends come over, or your family, food really brings people together. . . So, I think that is one of the deep things that we love about this.”

They build this bridge by paying attention to the details at their restaurants. Murff also has a lot of design experience and they did a lot of the renovations themselves, all to make sure that the atmosphere was conducive to the atmosphere they were creating.

They brought the detail-oriented mindset to Novo, which serves “modern Latin” cuisine and opened in 2016. They also recently renovated Sabai, adding a prep kitchen, more seating, and a wine cellar.

“We like to take a very holistic approach to what we do and that we really want to have a great atmosphere, great lighting, great design, great situations, really fabulous drinks, great wine, and good food,” Murff says.

Sabai

27 Oakway Center

Mon-Thurs, 11 am-3 pm, 4:30 pm-9 pm; Fri, 11 am-3 pm, 4:30-10 pm; Sat, 12 pm-10 pm; Sun, 4:30 pm-9 pm

541/654-5424

sabaicafe.com

 

Novo

105 Oakway Center

Sun-Thurs, 4:30 pm-9 pm; Fri-Sat, 4:30 pm-10 pm

541/654-8165

novolatintable.com

 

Stephanie Pearl Kimmel

Stephanie Pearl Kimmel, the founding chef and CEO of Marché and Provisions in the 5thStreet Market, has spent more than 50 years in the Eugene restaurant industry. She got her start at an off-campus coffeehouse while she attended grad school at the University of Oregon, she began working with the other women in the coffeehouse, who she described as incredibly accomplished home cooks, to develop special dinners and menus.

“I loved it,” she says. “I loved it so much–I loved the creativity and the collegiality of it. And I just dropped out of graduate school and made that my passion.”

She and her husband opened the Excelsior Café 1972, inspired by her time studying in France as an undergrad and, in their 21 years of ownership, she became a major culinary influencer in Eugene. Soon after they sold, she got a job offer from King Estate, still in its infancy, to lead their culinary and hospitality programs and design their dining room and kitchen. After three years there, she got another offer, with the opportunity to start Marché and Provisions, where she’s been since.

Even with her decades of experience, Kimmel recognizes the importance of appreciating your team and paying close attention to details.

“What really keeps me interested is just the joy of interacting with my staff every day and the people that bring us our foods, and watching people learn and be excited about it and sharing the success,” she says.

Marché

296 E 5thAve.

Sun-Thurs, 8 am-11 pm; Fri-Sat, 8 am-12 am

541/342-3612

 

Marché Museum Café

1470 Johnson Lane

Mon-Fri, 8 am-4 pm; Sat-Sun, 11 am-4 pm

541/346-6440

marcherestaurant.com

 

Mark Beauchamp

Mark and Mary Anne Beauchamp, founders of Café Yumm!, have always had the goal to feed people food that is “simple, nourishing, and beautiful.” They’ve kept this belief system from the very beginning, when they opened Wild Rose Café and Deli in the Friendly Market in 1991.

At Wild Rose, Mary Ann would cook and serve everything, including casseroles, soups, deli foods, and rice bowls, incorporating her love for food and diverse taste memory from a childhood that involved multiple international moves. The rice bowls started gaining a following. Mary Ann would make herself one for lunch every day, topping it with a special sauce brought from home. Curious patrons would ask her what she was eating and she would fix them some of it.

Their response: “Yumm!”

In 1997, through many trials, tribulations, location moves, and refining the now-famous Yumm! sauce, their first official Café Yumm! location opened in the 5th Street Market, with the rice bowl as the main focus.

As they continue to grow, Mark says that it’s been important for them to evolve their strategies to meet new layers of challenges. But, they’ve always maintained the goal of feeding people with nourishing food, with a compassion that shines throughout their business.

They’ve held true to their core values–integrity, enthusiasm, gratitude, and respect–since the first Café Yumm! location–the secret to their success as a company.

Café Yumm!

Eugene/Springfield locations:

North Delta, Eugene

1005 Green Acres Rd.

541/684-9866

 

Oakway Center

130 Oakway Center, Eugene

541/465-9866

 

On Broadway

730 E Broadway, Eugene

541/344-9866

 

The Meridian

1801 Willamette St., Eugene

541/686-9866

 

On Gateway

3340 Gateway St., Springfield

541/747-9866

 

PeaceHealth at RiverBend

3333 RiverBend Dr., Springfield

541/736-9866