"I ALWAYS WANTED TO DO THIS. IT WAS AGAINST MY BETTER JUDGEMENT KNOWING HOW HARD IT WOULD BE, HOW POORLY IT COULD PAY, BUT I LOVED IT. SO I DID IT."
What does a dream look like 24 years after it is born? After 24 years of incubation? After 24 years of being looked at, thought of, and poked and prodded from every angle? What does that look like? It looks like The Fireside restaurant and bar in Portland’s Alphabet district.
And after 24 years, a dream is no longer something you look at, it’s something you feel like cold mahogany on finger tips, something you smell like a waft of steeping poached pears, something you taste like a perfect blend of spirit, citrus and sugar atop a cubed ice in your tumbler glass.
When your dream is owning, running and designing your own restaurant, there is a story there, and everyone who comes through the door is part of that story. We got to be part of that story when we sat down with Sue Erickson, co-owner of The Fireside.
Sue had her first waitressing job 24 years ago in Jackson Hole Wyoming – not necessarily the birth place of fine dining but quite possibly the birth place of customer service, or at least customer service as an art – one that leaves you in a better place than where you were before you decided to have someone make you a warm meal and cold drink.
Sue traveled a long way since Wyoming, and not just the 800 miles between Jackson Hole and Portland. She got out of the restaurant business, made jewelry and even traveled the world as a wholesale importer.
"TURNS OUT TIBETAN ANTIQUES ARE NOT A BIG SELLER IN JACKSON HOLE WYOMING. WHO KNEW?"
Along with all that she went to school.
“I went to school a lot for no particular degree path, but always had an interest in small business.”
The small business she started out pursuing was interior design, which brought her to Portland. The sustainability program of Marylhurst University, gave her the education she was looking for and brought her to the west coast.
However, after getting her degree in 2009, which is said to be one of the worst years to graduate since The Great Depression, the design world was looking a little grim. Especially with about 40 percent of the industry being laid off around town. But it’s those types of life lemons that dust off old dreams often at a time when we might be a little more ripe for the dreaming.
When life gave Sue lemons, she did a little more than make lemonade. She made handcrafted simple syrups, homemade bitters and ratio-perfected cocktails. She blended her worlds and found some folks who shared a vision and decided to bring something to life that wasn’t before – The Fireside.
Sue carries an archive of knowledge about service and design in her mind. You can hear it when she talks. It’s this history manifested into space that makes you physically comfortable while also comfortably cared for when at The Fireside.
Comfort is one of those details they don’t let you miss.
"THE WORD 'COZY' CAME UP A LOT IN ALL DESIGN DECISIONS. EVERYTHING IS PADDED IN HERE. THERE'S NOT A SEAT THAT ISN'T PADDED."
Cozy is one of the touches that is a staple at the restaurant, but there are a lot of meticulous notes that you catch only on the second or third time as a patron.
Some think The Fireside is just a bar, a place to go for happy hour and incidentally has a food menu. It’s actually a restaurant that just so happens to have a killer bar.
“We’re a small restaurant that has a very large bar in it. But we're still a restaurant. I think that is one of the hard things for people to get. I get calls all the time from people asking if they can bring minors in. And I’m like, ‘Of course, we’re a family restaurant.’ They can’t belly up to the bar, but they will definitely enjoy their dinner."
That is one of the details that makes The Fireside, The Fireside. The restaurant has a beating heart at the center of it all that is a fully stocked and staffed state of the art bar ready to make your favorite drink or introduce you to a new beverage to complement your night.
“My big idea was that I wanted a big bar front and center, U-shaped, so that you have people to look at rather than just your reflection in some mirror.”
Making a neighborhood fixture on northwest 23rd is a great dream, but it’s also a lot of work when you decide to make that dream a reality. Just hearing Sue talk about how nice it is to consistently have two days off a week for the first time in three years, will make you exhausted.
“It’s a labor of love because the profit margins are not always high. If anybody thinks it is just going to be eating good food and drinking good wine – it just doesn’t work out that way. You have to love it because its going to be really hard and you are going to work 60, 70, 80 hours a week and you have to make it work. You have to make it work. So if you can’t do that, don’t bother."
It’s those 60, 70, 80 hour weeks from everyone involved that has made The Fireside what it is today – the upscale casual neighborhood pub where you can unwind on a Tuesday evening or put on a tie and have a destination dinner. It is those long days and nights that has enabled The Fireside to perfectly blend the best attributes of small town customer service with the city’s booming upscale casual dining experience.
The once dream turned labor of love has been an exciting story to see unfold in one of our favorite neighborhoods in Portland. We are looking forward to the next chapter of The Fireside. We know it is going to be a tasty one.