We’re excited to introduce a new Open for Business series, in which we spotlight inspiring restaurants that are new to the OpenTable network. Here, we talk to Ksandek Podbielski, who opened Coquine in Portland with his wife and business partner, Chef Katy Millard, this summer.
Coquine may have opened its doors just last month, but the brand has been thriving for the past two years, as Ksandek and Katy held pop-up dinners at farms, wineries and other locations in the Portland area. Owning a brick-and-mortar restaurant was always the ultimate goal, though, and when they finally achieved it they were armed with an already-loyal fan base. The word was out about Katy’s elegant but rustic, super seasonal, technically masterful cuisine, complemented by Ksandek’s wine and hospitality expertise in the front of house.
We talked to Ksandek all about the story behind the restaurant, how they built a brand and following, and everything they learned along the way.
Tell me about your backgrounds and how you got to Coquine.
I was an army brat growing up, and I came back stateside for college. I moved to San Diego and studied English and Psychology, and somewhere along the way acknowledged an obsession with food and wine.
I wanted to work in a food and wine capacity, but there wasn’t anywhere in California I felt that I could afford to live or that I wanted to live. So I learned about Portland. I visited for two days, one day in the wine valley and one in the city, and then I moved up here four weeks later.
That was in ‘07. It was an exciting time to move up and be part of the wine industry. I worked at Anne Amie for about five-and-a-half years. I took a job as the Assistant Tasting Room Manager and within a few months was managing the hospitality program: the wine club, the tasting room and events.
I met Katy while we were both working at a food and wine event, and we hit it off. After a few other chance meetings we ended up trading numbers and eventually went out on a date, and now we’re married with a baby and have a restaurant.
She moved to Portland to be closer to her family, who live in Eugene. While in college she was backpacking through Europe and ended up getting a kitchen job, and worked her way up through Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris and Monaco, just kind of bootstrapping her way through France for five years.
In Portland, there’s a strange culture here in terms of how people in the city will accept you. You have to pay your dues. She had a hard time finding even a line cook position, because people were either threatened by her experience or she just didn’t think the quality of the kitchen was very good. After struggling to find a kitchen in the city that she felt she wanted to be a part of, she decided she maybe just needed to work by herself. I was still at the winery; I said, we’ll get people to know who you are, and eventually we’ll open a restaurant.
And that’s how the pop-up series started?
In the beginning I just thought that I would help get people to know who she is, and eventually I realized that I absolutely wanted to be a part of the whole thing. So we did a series of dinners in 2012 out on a farm about 20 minutes outside of Portland, a farmer whom Katy had formed a really great relationship with and was buying a lot of vegetables from.
I don’t think we invented anything new, but our timing was good. And the food is really great, so we kept people coming back — we sold out three dinners on the farm. Every event turned into someone that attended asking us if we would do something for them, so we were like, maybe we have a business here.
Last year The Oregonian and Portland Monthly both ran big stories on pop-ups. We were kind of on the front of that, but when it started really getting out of control we realized, we don’t want to be part of a pop-up movement. We’re not really saying this is the future of dining; we just wanted people to know who Katy was and how good her food is. We really started actively moving in the direction of opening up a brick and mortar.
We wanted to do this sort of low and slow. We intend to be here in 10 years and longer. We really took our time figuring stuff out and finding investors and not rushing into something that maybe wasn’t the right fit for us.
The space we actually opened as Coquine was the fourth location that we actively pursued. It’s a place for people who live in this neighborhood, and they can just walk over and drop in, and people who want to make a reservation and make an event of the evening — we’re willing to give them an experience that’s worthy of that.
The pop-up was also named Coquine, right?
We said, when we open a restaurant, what will it be called? Coquine. Then we said, if we think of something better for the name of the restaurant between now and when we open the restaurant, then we’ll change the name. But I think Coquine is fitting. And at this point we’ve got three years of branding behind us. We’re searchable; people can find us online. I think a name change would actually set us back.
We registered our business as a zero-seat restaurant, or catering company, with the city of Portland and were tethered to a commercial kitchen. We went to a culinary incubator. The people who own it and manage it are really amazing, good people. They want to see people successful, and they put their resources into making sure that everyone who works there has better visibility. They pay for PR, and their PR company promotes everybody who’s under that umbrella. We did have a lot of help from a lot of really great people in the industry over these last three years.
You mentioned that you had success early on and were selling out tickets. How did you get the word out?
I talk a lot. [Laughs.] The first nights were small; we only had 32 seats to sell. But we spaced them out far enough so that if the first event went well… My theory was, we have some people who will come, most of them will be friends, but most of the people we are friends with are in the industry as well.
Industry people talk to each other, and it’s such a small industry that word travels really fast. So I kind of counted on being able to fill the second dinner based on buzz from the first, and that’s exactly what happened. We sold out the first dinner about a week before the actual event, and then the next dinner we sold out a week after the first event.
I used to be in a position where I could talk a lot more to all sorts of people who had an interest in food and wine. I enjoy going out to restaurants and I enjoy trying new things. I think a lot of people who know me know that about me, so I have a lot of people who ask for recommendations. When it finally came time to tell them — well, you should eat my girlfriend’s food because it’s the best.
Facebook definitely was a useful tool for us. I created a page for Coquine, and then I would alway share any of our Coquine posts on my personal page so I was able to get some pretty good reach. We bought a nice camera for taking pictures of our events and of our food.
Did you feel like you had an established fan base already once the restaurant opened? How did you continue to communicate with those people and leverage that?
We kept the page, we just dropped the “supper club” part off of the name, so all the people who were already following us are still following us. We shared our story; we actively engaged with people in all of the mediums that we possibly could to share our progress. We used that page to say, we’re working towards opening a restaurant.
Our message from the beginning was that we were eventually going to open a restaurant. Most of our audience were just waiting for it to happen. We had 82 guests on our first night. It was all people who had been following our story and wanting to be here from the get-go.
And I imagine it was easier to find investors and handle the business side of things, knowing that you already had something that people were excited about.
There’s that side, and there’s also that we were managing a company. From year one to year two, we grew our business six times. We actually paid employees and gave out W-2s and showed that we were able to run a business that didn’t lose any money and continued to grow.
That was another part of the beginning strategy: let’s do this slowly, and by the time we’re ready to open and we’re actively seeking investors we’ll be able to show people, this is our track record. We’ve catered this number of events, we’ve organized our own dinners and our own pop-ups, and in all cases we were able to do this without losing any money.
We continued to put our own personal money into it; I spent my life savings buying the equipment to do the first farm dinner series. I believed so strongly in Katy’s food and in our ability together to create a really great experience. I was like, if we rented all of the equipment and had it delivered to the farm for four dinners, it would cost this much money. If we can buy everything we need to do those dinners for what it would cost to do three of them, then the fourth one we’re actually making more profit on what we’re selling tickets for. Because we worked into the ticket price all of the equipment and rentals.
We scoured every Goodwill in the Portland metropolitan area for a month and a half to get enough plates and bowls and serviceware to be able to have something that looked kind of uniform. We bought glassware and Ball jars to use for water glasses, and we had a friend who does costume design, so she sewed a bunch of linens for us instead of us renting linens. We built tables; we bought wooden chairs that we found a creative way to store on the farm for a summer so we wouldn’t have to rent chairs. Then we ended up owning all of this equipment and we could continue to do these events where we don’t have to pay for rentals.
Are you using any of that stuff in the restaurant now?
No. We felt like the move from being farm-y chic and a brick and mortar — it was a definite personality change. It was Coquine grown up a little bit, so we wanted something that would be a little bit more elegant and sophisticated.
How else did the concept evolve? How is the menu different from what you were doing before?
It just allowed us to focus. She had a very definite culinary voice when we started those dinners — I was already sold on that.
How to execute things, how to make a kitchen run more smooth, being able to see the amount of time it actually takes to execute these dishes, the amount of labor that goes into it — that gave us a better idea of how big of a kitchen we needed, the types of equipment that were going to be mandatory for us. We have to have a salamander in the kitchen; we wanted a Pacojet for doing ice creams and sorbet. But knowing the other things we were willing to live without. Those were things along the way that we were able to understand, and then be able to have that master list — this is our dream, these are the things we really want, and these are the things we’re willing to compromise on.
I think a lot of it was being able to have a better sense of the organization, how to make the business run and being able to ensure that we’re giving people a consistent experience, which is something we’re really committed to.
Did you bring any staff from the pop-up to the restaurant?
Oh yeah. A lot of people who Katy cooked with — they said, I want to work with you. When our news broke that we were opening, there were two cooks that had worked with her over the last few years who came forward and said, “I just quit my job! When are you opening?” Which was really cool.
When Portland Monthly broke that news, that was a really great article for us in terms of having a positive impact on helping us get open. More than just filling seats, it actually helped us to continue building a crew. For the most part all of the people we already had some work experience with, which makes it a lot more comfortable going into opening, because there are so many other unknowns.
What advice would you have for someone who’s evolving from the pop-up to the permanent space?
I don’t know that I would be comfortable giving advice to people. I would just say, keep at it and take your time.
The one big thing, when I look back at how we approached our opening a restaurant plan — it was three years from when we said, we’re going to open a restaurant, to when we actually opened it. And the things that were important to us then are things that are still important to us now, which is: be consistent and do your homework before you commit to anything. And expect everything to take longer than you think it should.
With your complementary backgrounds, how have you worked together to create a food-wine experience?
We spend a lot of time fine-tuning dishes and wine pairings together. Beyond being incredibly creative and technically excellent when it comes to preparing food, she has a great palate.
We try to make sure that everything is balanced, both the actual dish and how the menu reads. We don’t have a week where we have three heavy dishes, but maybe there’s something lighter and more delicate and more elegant that balances it out. Those are things we work together on to make sure that both front and back of house have an understanding of the dishes that are being served. Everyone’s tasted it, everyone understands it.
But ultimately we also respect each other enough to stay out of each other’s respective areas when it’s important. I don’t go in the kitchen and tell her how to organize and how to cook; she doesn’t come and tell me, you have to have these wines or this beer or whatever. We’ve worked together long enough to know that we both completely trust each other to make the right decisions in those regards.
What’s next for Coquine? Anything in the works?
We’re only a month in. We both feel like we have lots and lots to do. We need to continue streamlining our systems and making sure that we’ve acquainted ourselves well enough with the restaurant space and how diners want to eat when they come here, that we’re able to remain as flexible as we’re trying to be for the kind of dining experience we offer.
There’s still this prevailing attitude in Portland that substitutions are politely or sometimes not-so-politely declined. We’re in the business of making sure that our guests feel welcome and that they are served what they want to eat. So that’s still a big thing for us right now: understanding what it is our guests are looking for and how to make sure everyone who comes through our door has a good experience and wants to come back.
Photo Credit: Katy Millard portrait and beans with fennel broth courtesy of Coquine; albacore with potatoes, pork rib, and exterior restaurant photo courtesy of Jannie Huang.