PHOTO: Even before the new mask mandates, Lisa Schroeder required her staff to wear masks at her reopened Mother’s Bistro & Bar in downtown Portland.
BY DEBORAH MOON
After a year of vacillating restrictions and conditions, Mother’s Bistro reopened June 3 with limited days and hours in a downtown area still largely devoid of visitors.
“I was really optimistic,” says Mother’s chef and owner Lisa Schroeder, noting she had hoped to add two more days a week starting this month (and may still add one). “Now I am resigned to the fact COVID is here to stay – it’s not going anywhere soon.”
COVID’S LIFE LESSONS
While the path forward is a continually moving target, Lisa says she has learned a few lessons about what is really important. Before COVID, Lisa wanted to “try to feed all humanity.” So, she kept the restaurant open seven days a week, morning through evening, and featured a multipage menu.
Her approach is different now. “I learned it is OK to step back and not do everything,” she says. The menu, which is still extensive, has been pared down to one laminated page that can be wiped down.
“It’s OK to cut the menu down, to cut the hours and days; it’s OK not to have every kind of liquor on the shelf,” she says, adding she was the only person putting that pressure on the restaurant. “COVID taught us how to step back and reassess … to take things a little slower.”
But Lisa won’t compromise on food and service. Paring the menu down has helped ensure they can use fresh ingredients by Sunday and start afresh when they reopen on Thursday mornings.
“I am not prepared to offer less than the great service we have always had,” says Lisa, who still steps in and cooks on the line to give staff breaks and “to make sure guests don’t have to wait too long for their meals.”
“We are back, but the city is not back yet,” says Lisa. “There are no fun activities to do downtown … there are no office workers to bring people into the restaurant.”
Noting plays, concerts and festivals have yet to resume downtown, she adds, “We are somewhat of a draw, but not enough.”
With that reality in mind, Lisa has reopened four days a week from 9 am-2 pm and 5-10 pm Thursday-Saturday and Sundays 9 am-2 pm. The popular restaurant debuted in 2000 to rave reviews and the “Restaurant of the Year” title from Willamette Week.
The importance of family is another lesson Lisa says she and other staff have learned over the past year.
Lisa has enjoyed spending Monday through Wednesday with her twin grandsons, Oliver and Julian, who have lived with her much of the time since their mother died in a fall while hiking in the Gorge. On summer Thursdays and Fridays, Lisa took the twins to B’nai B’rith Day Camp, which she calls “the loving community that embraces these kids” during the summer, just as Portland Jewish Academy does during the school year. Each weekend, the twins join their 17-year-old brother Taylor at their father’s house. Sister Isabella, 18, is working in New Hampshire.
Lisa says some of her staff who have children can’t return to work until the restaurant can be open for Monday through Friday shifts, giving them weekends with their children.
Mother’s Bistro and Bar moved from Second Avenue to a much larger downtown location inside the Embassy Suites at 121 SW Third Ave. in 2018. Business was thriving until COVID hit.
When Oregon Gov. Kate Brown banned seated dining to combat the spread of COVID on March 16, 2020, Lisa tried to keep some of her 102 employees on the job by offering takeout and delivery. But she was only able to keep about 14 people employed, and when Black Lives Matter protesters flooded downtown, those employees had difficulty getting to work.
She decided to shutter the restaurant temporarily and covered the windows with plywood murals painted by an artistic employee who paints under the name Xochit Ruvalcaba. While most of those murals now have been shipped to an archive in Oakland that is collecting BLM art, Lisa’s favorite mural decorates the restaurant’s new outdoor seating structure. That mural declares, “All mothers were summoned when he called out to his momma.” The reference to George Floyd’s plea as he was murdered by police in Minneapolis sparked the BLM protests, and Lisa calls it an important reminder of the prejudice and discrimination we face.
Lisa says the protests have largely dissipated and are no longer the issue keeping people out of downtown. “What is bringing us down is COVID. It is the remaining closures.”
A WINDING PATH TO REOPENING
Lisa had planned to reopen April 29 with plans to serve Mother’s Day brunch May 9. Then on April 27, Gov. Brown imposed new strict limits in high-risk counties to curb a steep rise in cases. Lisa postponed the reopening till June.
Though the world seemed to be moving past COVID, the disease had other ideas, and the Delta variant has once again forced a reassessment for businesses.
On Aug. 9, Multnomah County announced a new mask mandate taking effect Aug. 13 on indoor public spaces to combat the rise in COVID cases due to the highly transmissible Delta variant. People actively eating and drinking in restaurants and bars can take off their masks, but masks are required for customers who have left their table. Gov. Brown later announced a statewide mask mandates.
HELP FOR RECOVERY
Lisa is grateful for grants from two groups and the federal government that “allow us to breathe.”
A group of gourmands in Washington state, Greg Hill Foundation and Restaurant Strong, gave Mother’s Bistro $5,000. The bistro received the same amount from the Restaurant Reboot Award by the Northwest Wine and Food Society. Those grants, which arrived before the federal government announced the Restaurant Revitalization Grant program, helped Mother’s reopen.
The federal grant must be used over the next three years to pay salaries, buy food and other inventory, and make repairs. It also paid for the outdoor dining structure that seats up to 40 diners. Additional outdoor seating is available alongside the building under the awnings.
“This money will keep us afloat over the next couple years while the world tries to get back to some sort of homeostasis,” says Lisa.
Lisa hopes the next couple of years will also allow the restaurant to once again host Passover seders, which feature her mother Belle’s recipe for matza ball soup (also available on the daily menu). Though the bistro is not kosher or Jewish-style, there are plenty of motherly favorites on the menu, especially during the holidays.