Enterprise Story: Whiteaker Businesses Survive Challenging Economy

By Sarabeth Oppliger

“Is that getting clumpy?”

Joel Poston turns to the bartender working on a batch of whipped cream to top off tonight’s drinks.

“You’ll have to put that into a stainless steel bowl and use a whisk to get rid of those bubbles,” Poston instructs his coworker at Eugene, Ore. restaurant and bar Izakaya Meiji Company.

Izakaya Meiji is nearly unrecognizable during the afternoon hours while its doors are closed for business. The bare wooden floors give a slight creak as you walk over them, and the chairs of the intimate seating are stacked on top of the tables. The bar is clean except for the small plate of rye bread a chef baked this morning and a collection of colorful liquors in small glasses that surround the bartender as he experiments with their flavors.

In the evening, this cozy space makes a complete transformation into a hip and happening hangout for Eugene citizens looking for a good bite and drink.

“Some nights we’ll hit an hour-long wait right at open,” Meiji general manager Poston says. He’s been with the company for a year and he says that he is happy with the amount of business that the restaurant receives. From inside these doors, the recession that has hit the country seems to be a far-off memory.

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With very few profitable industries, Eugene was hit hard by the recession. Today, the top employers in Eugene consist of the University of Oregon, Sacred Heart Medical Center and the local government. The remaining majority of businesses in town are smaller local firms that typically employ fewer than 20 people. Despite the resulting lack of city funding, the Eugene city council continues to be creative in the services they provide to citizens by providing more parks and libraries. The city of Eugene has also concentrated on maintaining and providing jobs and restoring the local economy.

One district of this city where the growth of locally owned businesses has assisted with the issue of unemployment is the Whiteaker neighborhood in northwest downtown Eugene. This small community provides the ideal environment for ambitious minds to start a business due to its energy and creativity.

“There is a desire to help each other and to support each other,” says Eugene mayor, Kitty Piercy. “There’s a kindness and compassion here.”

Whiteaker citizens are open-minded to all forms of business and have been supportive of those who have started their own. Izakaya Meiji, located on Van Buren Street and West 3rd Avenue, is smack dab at the center of the Whit and is quickly becoming a favorite for citizens across the Eugene district.

Meiji is approaching its second birthday in August and is among the businesses that are thriving despite the struggling economy. Its secret to success? Nothing strategic besides its company goal: to bring good quality food to customers at a reasonable price. The current menu at Izakaya Meiji ranges from Japanese pickles at a mere $1 to a delectable New York strip steak at $16.

A simple table setting at Izakaya Meiji Company.

There’s something to be said about the simplicity of Meiji and the warm environment it provides for its customers. With food prices increasing across the board for all restaurants, affordability is what Eugene citizens care most about when eating out and that, in exchange for a high quality meal, is precisely what this space provides.

“I wouldn’t say we’re recession proof,” says Poston. “But we haven’t been hit as hard as other businesses.”

Poston says that although Meiji’s weeknights are significantly slower than its weekends, the business it receives on a Monday night is twice as much as what passed through its doors a year ago. Much of its continued success has been fueled by its convenient location within the Whiteaker neighborhood, with sustainable businesses like Ninkasi and Sam Bond’s Garage down the street. The Whit businesses help each other out with customers, offering up their competitor’s services so as not to deny anyone a great meal on any given night. This neighborhood business market feeds off of itself, explaining the success that these companies have encountered and the continuing sprout of new businesses in the area. The city of Eugene also supports smaller companies by providing low interest loans to help businesses in the Whit build a foundation.

“That helps them when they’re just getting their businesses up and going or when they’re expanding,” says Eugene mayor, Kitty Piercy. “They pay them back and that helps the next business.”

Although it takes more than just a government loan and a good location to have a profitable business, the city support certainly helps to get that foot in the door.

Another Whiteaker newbie is Drum Rong Thai situated at the center of the intersection

The colorful and inviting home of Drum Rong Thai. Photo courtesy of kval.com.

of 6th Avenue and Blair Street. This brightly painted food cart will celebrate its second successful year of business this upcoming May, but that’s not to say the trailer’s life has been easy and breezy. Sumer Drumrongthai, co-owner of the business, says she and her business partner and husband, Ae, borrowed money from their family to get their food cart started. A trailer from the 1970s was all they could afford at the time. Aside from the expensive upkeep of the trailer and their need to expand their business to fit the customer demand, Drumrongthai says that the biggest challenge she’s faced with the recession is the drastic increase in imported food prices.

“Thai food that is imported into this country has doubled,” says Drumrongthai. “And in the winter it’s double what it is in the summer.”

Drumrongthai says that the colder months are stressful, but that business is booming in the summer and the food cart is able to bounce back.

“As long as we make it through the cold season we can still keep the business going.”

Drum Rong Thai, catering to Eugene’s growing appreciation for Thai food, is praised for its welcoming environment, but Sumer says it’s the consistency in flavor that keeps customers coming back to their cart for more.

“There’s only one chef and he’s pretty meticulous about getting [the food] the same way every time,” says Sumer. “And we keep our prices really low. We wouldn’t want a high-priced anything for that part of town.”

The streets of the Whiteaker neighborhood are home to a saddening amount of homeless citizens and it is not uncommon for Drum Rong Thai to encounter bargaining from time to time.

“We’ll give them food for free or for less. We basically just want to take care of people in need.”

Drum Rong Thai even made appearances at Occupy Eugene to hand out meals to the protesters. Their hospitality and generosity around town has given this small food cart a positive imagine throughout Eugene.

Both Drum Rong Thai and Izakaya Meiji Company have avoided many of the pitfalls that come with a falling economy by providing inexpensive, tasty goods and consistent and caring service that appeals to the wants of Eugene citizens.

To fight off the lull of a flow in business, New Day Bakery, around the corner and a block

New Day Bakery is a favorite stop for those looking for freshly baked goods and delicious meals.

down the street from Izakaya Meiji, utilizes what owner Bill Mahoney likes to call a Bargain Table. From here, customers can purchase half-priced baked goods made earlier in the day. Mahoney has found that his Bargain Bags are a favorite among Eugene citizens and have introduced him to his most faithful of clients. His aim as a business owner is to help people, and discounting his goods is worth giving a peace of mind to his customers.

Adjusting to the current economic issues is a challenge most business owners dread facing and is, unfortunately, a likely issue for today’s companies. The environment in the Whiteaker neighborhood has cushioned the burden of an unsteady economy for the businesses in the area and continues to encourage a positive monetary environment for owners. With the maintained support of both the local government and the community, a glimmer of hope for economic recovery steadily burns for the Whit.

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Sidebar One: Q & A with Eugene city major, Kitty Piercy

Kitty Piercy, Eugene city Mayor. Photo courtesy of eugeneweekly.com

Kitty Piercy is serving her second term as mayor of Eugene and started the Sustainable Business Initiative in 2007 which focuses on social equity, environment health and economic prosperity. Her efforts to restore the local economy have assisted businesses across the city, particularly assisting the Whiteaker neighborhood.

Q:  The unique Whiteaker neighborhood is home to businesses that continue to be profitable. Why do you think this neighborhood is doing well despite the economy?

A: There are businesses that have thrived and those that have not.  In the thriving zone, some are in Whiteaker and some are in other places. For example, Hummingbird and Mountain Rose are doing very well. So is Ninkasi. Whiteaker is an energetic neighborhood and very creative. The city has provided low interest loans to help Whiteaker businesses like Ninkasi, SweetLife, Nib, Arcimoto, and Meiji. That helps them when they’re just getting their businesses up and going or when they’re expanding.  They pay them back and that helps the next business.

Q: What is your favorite aspect of the Whiteaker neighborhood?

A: Whiteaker is a very varied population in terms of age, income, and beliefs. There is a lot of acceptance of difference. There is a desire to help each other and to support each other. There’s a kindness and compassion here. There’s a commitment to having fun. There’s nothing quite like the Whiteaker Block Party which now attracts thousands.

Q: What do you expect for the future for the Whit?

A: I hope it becomes our city’s “go to” place to hang-out (even more).  I hope it maintains its quirkiness and ease. I hope it continues to attract young people and their families. I hope it will continue to provide jobs and support for many people.  I hope it will be a place for people to have vigorous discussions regarding important issues in our community and world. I hope it will foster artists and performers and new ways of doing things. I hope it will continue to be the place where so much is going on with so many engaged people.  I hope it will be safe for everyone.

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Sidebar Two: Where to find great meal deals in the Whit

If you are looking to get the biggest bang for your buck, check out the specials at these favorite restaurants in the Whiteaker neighborhood the next time you decide to eat out. Be sure to check each restaurant’s webpage often to keep up with new deals and specials!

Izakaya Meiji Company

Sunday: Burger Special. One burger, one Bourbon, one beer: $10. (All night).

Tuesday: Flight Night. A different flight every week and a bite to compliment it. 6 – 9 pm.

Drum Rong Thai

Chicken, pork, or tofu plates available for $6.50. Daily.

New Day Bakery

Selected half sandwiches available for $3.25. Daily.

Bargain Bags: 50% off baked goods from the AM. Mid-afternoon, daily.

Ninkasi Brewing Company

Tasting Tray $5.50 – Pick any five beers on tap or have your bartender choose for you!

Year Round Beers – $4 pint / $3 glass – Total Domination IPA, Believer Double Red Ale, Oatis Oatmeal Stout, Quantum Pale Ale

Premium Year Round Beers – $5 pint / $4 glass – Tricerahops Double IPA

Sam Bond’s Garage

Sunday: Free LIVE Irish jam! All ages welcome! From 4 – 7 PM.

Monday: Free Bingo Night! Starts at 9 PM.

Tuesday: Free LIVE Bluegrass music! Starts at 9 PM.

Wednesday: LIVE music (free most nights / $1 – $5 other nights)! Starts at 9 PM.

Pizza Research Institute

Open Mon – Sun, 11:30 AM – 9:30 PM. New specials daily!

About sarabeth

sarabeth. twenty-something. wanderer.
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