Renee Gorham is the co-owner of Toro Bravo Restaurant Group, which consists of restaurants across Portland, Oregon, including Toro Bravo, Mediterranean Exploration Company, Shalom Y’all, Tasty and Alder, Bless your Heart Burgers, and more. Renee owns and operates the business with her husband, Executive Chef John Gorham.
We talk to Renee about Toro Bravo’s unique culture, the tips she’s learned for running a business with her husband, what it takes for restaurants to survive the COVID-19 crisis, and what to cook in quarantine.
What did you want to be when you were young?
From the time I was four years old, I knew I wanted to be in the restaurant industry. And I know that seems kind of like a crazy statement to make, but it’s true.
I grew up in a two-home household. My parents divorced when I was four, and my mom moved up to live off the grid, to a very rural area. Meanwhile, my father lived in Northwest Portland. I have many sisters, I’m one of five, and once a year for each daughter’s birthday, he would take us out to a restaurant of our choice.
I always chose a restaurant called Opus Too, it was my favorite place and I’d get this amazing fettuccine alfredo. But what I most fell in love with was sitting at the chef’s counter and watching the cooks satay and the flames would be rolling and I just felt like it was an escape to like this different reality. And I was enamored right away.
I didn’t come from a lot of means, and so from a young age, I saw the restaurant industry as this opportunity to be a part of a different world. When I was just a teenager, only 15 years old, I moved out of my parents’ houses and I dropped out of high school and got my first kind of real restaurant job. It was not the track that I would recommend for any young person, including my own daughters. But I found that I had an opportunity to support myself, and actually do very well. So by the time I was 17, I had left the terrible boyfriend I was with and I was living on my own and started working at Pizzicato on Northwest 23rd. I was just a workaholic. I found that I loved service and I loved creating experiences for people.
What lead you to Toro Bravo?
I kept that job at Pizzicato for three years. And then I went to another restaurant up the street. And I kept that job for three years. And then I went to Paley’s Place and I was there for five years. And then I opened Toro Bravo in 2007 and ended up falling in love with my boss, the chef, who is now my husband.
After Toro Bravo, we continued to open restaurants together. And now we have what people like to refer to as an empire. I don’t really love that term, because it’s not conducive to the type of environment and the company culture that we believe in, which is that we’re all one team. And you know, certainly, we’re at the helm, but I give so much credit to the people that we work with when people refer to me as their boss, I’m like, “No, no, no, you’re my partner.”
I believe that a good leader, as they have success, they almost become invisible, and they give all the credit to their team. And so that inspires their team to keep rising up and move into leadership roles themselves, which is how we’ve grown to the level that we have.
In the restaurant business, there’s this stereotypical “kitchen culture” that seems very cutthroat. What inspired the culture you have at Toro Bravo?
When we opened Toro Bravo we knew what we didn’t want to do. We were not going to be a towel-snapping, negative environment. There was no disrespect between our team members. This was before the Me Too movement, and this was before HR laws changed to what they are today, which are still a work in progress. But the restaurant industry was rife with flirtation and harassment. And I worked in all of those places. It was totally common, even at some of the fine dining restaurants, to expect to get your ass slapped on a regular basis. And that was something that I knew from the get-go that I did not and would not allow in our working environment.
The way that we operate our restaurants is fundamentally about a team effort of service. Each server, of course, has their own section. But we’re a pooled house, we share our tips. It’s not “my guest” or “your guest.” There’s no bribing the host for the higher check average table, or the better reservation. We’re only as great as our weakest link. This has meant that we’ve attracted people who wanted to take this seriously as their career. They are ready to invest. They know how to work hard, but they want to be a part of the end result, which is great guest experiences.
I was the working service manager at Toro Bravo for the first seven years before I got pregnant with my daughter Royal and stepped off the floor. We intentionally structured our management teams to also work as servers. So there’s not a lot of hierarchy, anything that I would ask my staff to do, I would do alongside them. And that really set the stage for our company culture, because everybody was valued equally. And I think that created a lot of inclusion.
It’s so reciprocal. If you take care of people, they will take care of your guests. I still have people today ask me, what do you do for your job? Honestly, sometimes I just say, “I’m a host,” because I do genuinely feel that my job is to host my staff, my guests and the greater community.
How has your approach to culture changed or grown as your restaurant “empire” has grown?
We opened Tasty n Sons a few years after we opened Toro Bravo, honestly as an experiment to see if we could run an operating restaurant without physically working in the building. We sort of exported our management style to a new team. And then watch them develop and grow within those same terms to provide that friendly working environment.
As it stands now, with so many restaurants, our culture has really expanded. My drive for community advocacy has been a really big part of what we’ve become today. I got to a point just a couple of years ago, when I thought to myself, I’m ready to host not just my guests, not just my staff, but I want to host my whole community. I want to host all of Portland. And that absolutely shifted that the way that we started supporting community nonprofits.
And right now that has come back to us in such a beautiful way. For example, a small nonprofit called Stone Soup: they offer a training program for people to enter the restaurant industry. They do a six-week crash course in food and service and cooking. We’ve actually hired some of their first graduates and they’ve been great additions to our team.
Stone Soup was just starting up last year, and they reached out to us and I was like, “I have everything you need.” We have so many restaurants, so we have equipment and so many wares that we don’t need. We literally set up their space with you know, kitchen equipment and stoves and plates and chairs.
Since the COVID-19 crisis started, Stone Soup completely shifted their model and has started working through Multnomah County to provide food for the emergency homeless shelters that are opening up all over town. So that’s become a lifeline for Toro Bravo because the county actually has a budget for it. As of right now, we’re providing 100 meals a day, and they are projecting need of up to 400 dinners and then 400 lunches each day.
So it’s not a lot of money, but it’s enough for me to keep some of my staff employed. That’s huge. Yeah, I’m so thankful that our community outreach is coming back to us now… it’s all reciprocal.
Tell me about the partnership between you and your husband. How do you work together and how has your working relationship evolved?
I could write a book about this. Being married to your business partner comes with a lot of challenges. We’ve been married for 10 years now and have been working together for 13. And it wasn’t always easy. We’ve definitely figured it out as we’ve gone along. We’re both alphas, and that’s definitely come with some clashes along the way. Now, we’ve got a flow and we’ve learned to complement each other and not to butt heads.
He basically oversees the back of the house and all of the chefs. I oversee the front of the house, and all of the service. And then we each have a laundry list of other responsibilities that are in our wheelhouse.
And then we’re also parents as well. The most important decision we made was not to bring work home. Because as you go through every walk of life together, it’s so easy to get home and keep talking about work. Learning how to turn work off is such a vital self-care technique. And also our children are like, seriously, I don’t need to talk or hear you talk about merchant service fees right now.
We have a saying, and that’s to “not make a mess in the basement.” When you’re feeling low or frustrated, if your partner is feeling low or frustrated, or there’s a clash, just wait. Don’t try to work it out when you’re in the basement. Quiet your mind. Take some time to get some perspective and then come back to whatever the issue is. As immediate as the restaurant industry is, big decisions can always wait.
We both adhere to this understanding of what’s called the “Three Principles.” It’s basically (1) Mind, (2) Thought and (3) Consciousness. It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s basically an understanding that we’re all living this human experience. We’re conscious beings. So we’ve got to recognize that our feelings are just thoughts and that we can be in charge of when to let those feelings flow through us and not get all mucked up in them. That’s really the backbone of that exercise and learning to wait until your mind is quiet to navigate the hard conversations.
What have been some of the effects of COVID-19 on your restaurant business and to the restaurant industry at large here in Portland?
This has completely dismantled and turned our entire industry upside down. This has touched every part of our industry, the people that supported our industry, all of the farmers and purveyors and the fishermen and the winemakers. There are so many ripple effects beyond just the immediate.
So when this first happened, we made the decision to close all our restaurants the day before the governor mandated it. We laid off 275 people, which was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. And John and I went in and talked to as many of them in person as we could. We made sure that they knew you know how to apply for employment and how to get their Cobra offers. Even though they’re technically laid off, we’ve been staying in communication with all of them, just you know, making sure that they’re okay. They’re our family.
Then we had nine restaurants worth of food inventory to process. Waste is not something that we will accept, especially when it comes to food knowing there are so many hungry people out there. I knew food insecurity was going to very quickly become a very relevant issue for those who can’t afford to eat or can’t get to the grocery store or just don’t know how to feed themselves. So we immediately started creating free food bags, not just for our staff, but for anybody. And then we started making soups and freezing things and braising.
We have a few locations open for take-out. Bless Your Heart Burgers is one of them. As soon as school was canceled, we implemented a free food program for kids on free or reduced lunch. After a couple of days, we changed that to any family in need. So you can literally just show up and say, I’m here for the “hot lunch”. I didn’t want to close that one down because I feel a deep obligation to keep serving our community, kids especially. [Editor’s Note: Bless Your Heart Burgers closed temporarily but reopens 4/10.]
We also have Mediterranean Exploration Company open. When we prepared to re-launch that location for take-out, we started by creating menus that were within the guidelines of safety. Weighing out the risk of being an “essential worker” and taking part in flattening the curve meant navigating this process to shift our operation from social distancing to extreme sanitation measures. We basically have a flowchart from the product delivery, every single step of prep and food production to the handoff of the to-go bag to mitigate as many touchpoints as possible, and sanitize anything that is touched in production. So that was just a lot to wrap my head around but if we were going to do this, we are going to do it safely to protect our staff and our guests and our greater community. Food is a basic human right, and while it can be argued that restaurant take-out isn’t “essential” for many it just is. We’re also offering sliding scale menus at all the locations offering take out so anyone can call and let us know what they can afford, even if it’s nothing at all, we will feed you.
Now we’re doing hospital food and food for hospital workers, so I’ve been following the FDA, the CDC and the Oregon Health Department guidelines every step of the way and have safety plans in action. I mean, literally, if you use a pen, it’s getting sanitized before the next person uses the pen.
We’ve opened Tasty n Alder, and we’re opening Shalom Y’all on the eastside, shifting to take out and delivery. My intention is to hire back as many of our staff who feel comfortable and want to make the choice to come back to work. I feel obligated to employ as many people as possible right now and also to provide food for people who just need to eat.
From a business standpoint, it’s terrifying. John and I have worked so hard for 13 years to get to a place where I never worried about covering my payroll. We had almost 300 employees. And now we have 17 people on payroll. We were lucky enough to have enough money to pay all the bills, so all our employees and farmers and purveyors got paid.
I’ve shifted to think not only how can I keep this machine running, but also how can I keep my brand present? How can I show my community that we’re still here, that we’re relevant, that we’re here for them, that we’re safe, that we’re not going anywhere?
Resilience is something I had growing up as sort of a survivor, feeling like I was a little bit on the outside of society. That’s just something that John and I share as what I would consider now to be our greatest strength.
What are the ways in which Portlanders and people at large can support the restaurants they love right now?
I actually am working now to launch a program that we are calling “Feed It Forward.” Essentially what I want to do is create a fundraising platform where our guests can sponsor a meal for a nonprofit. We’ll work with groups like Portland Homeless Family Solutions, Rose Haven and p:ear.
All of these nonprofits have had to shift their programs and their services so dramatically. Even those who were supplying food to the people that they serve, they don’t have the means or the safety guidelines or production facilities to do it. All food service needs to be individually wrapped so it takes a lot to do it safely. These non-profits simply don’t have the capacity to manage that right now. So what I’m going to build out and launch within the next couple days is a program where people can sponsor a healthy meal for a non-profit. Say p:ear needs 150 sack lunches a day, we can deliver that.
I see this as kind of a three-tiered benefit: Serving food to those in need, giving some relief to nonprofits so they can still feed those that they serve, igniting a small portion of the totally dismantled restaurant industry economy in the process. It’s going to keep my people working. And it’s going to give people an outlet to support their communities. So I’m hopeful that it’ll launch well and we’ll get some good coverage and that people will donate.
It is such a great thing that people want to help. I get so many calls and questions like, “What can I do? How can I help?” People want to keep the restaurant industry alive. We’ve always been these community gathering spaces. We can’t meet in person right now, but we can push that sense of community and connection out to those who need it most.
[Editor’s Note: We will make sure to update the TWT Community in a future email on the progress of Feed It Forward as it launches.]
The last question I’ll ask is a slightly more light-hearted question. What would you recommend people cook while in quarantine?
It’s funny, I am not the chef in this family, although I’ve always had a very strong connection to gardening and farming and growing my own food. I would recommend people keep it simple and use whatever is fresh and in-season that they can get. I would actually recommend everybody grow a garden, starting now!
I challenge people to get creative and look in their pantries. There’s something so comforting about a big pot of rice and some sauteed veggies or roasted chicken. Just simple, simple food that feeds your soul.
My mom used to have this incredible ability to make a meal out of nothing. I remember having rice and carrots and broccoli with just some soy sauce or some stuff that she would creatively make up. I would look in the fridge and be like, “we have nothing to eat” and all of a sudden the table was full of food and all our neighbors would come over. Keep it simple and explore.