Before the pandemic, chefs Jasper Shen and Linh Tran followed a familiar path for restaurateurs: opening a new restaurant, finding an enthusiastic following of local foodies, gaining popularity, opening a second location, etc.
Shen is no stranger to the Portland food scene. Ten years ago he was one of the three founding chefs of Aviary, which blended French technique with East Asian elements, and in 2017 he opened Chinese restaurant XLB on his own. Eventually, Linh Tran, who was one of the first employees there, became a business partner and the couple opened their second location in February 2020. But within weeks everything changed.
“We were open for about a month and a half before we had to close,” Tran said. “It was really devastating.”
When the governor banned all indoor dining to guard against COVID-19, XLB laid off about 80% of its staff and quickly transitioned the restaurant to a take-out and delivery model. It was a devastating blow, not only because of the layoffs of staff and the halting of their expansion, but also because it took away a crucial way for them to be involved in the community.
“We realized that to build our community, we have to engage with our community,” Tran said. “And having a restaurant is our way of doing that.”
It also changed the whole trajectory of what they wanted to do.
Before the pandemic, Jasper Shen said they intended to open several different XLB locations, but the pandemic forced them to slow down and reevaluate.
“We kind of went in the opposite direction,” he said. “We wanted to focus on things that would make us happy and happiness for us didn’t mean a bunch of different restaurants, it doesn’t mean you make a lot of money, it doesn’t mean you get super famous, that’s all what matters to us is to pay it up front.
Even before the pandemic, the world of food was changing. After years of racial inequality, sexual harassment, poor working conditions and more, the restaurant industry had its own account. And the closures and layoffs have only shed light on the dark underside of the industry.
“We got to a point where we got very frustrated with what we saw happening,” Shen said. “The #MeToo movement, the racial inequality, the protests, the Asian bashing, all these very famous bosses being called out for heinous activities… We thought there had to be a better way for businesses to operate.”
Simply put, they wanted to improve the restaurant industry and the food industry – detoxify it from within. To do this, Shen and Tran, along with their partner Catie Hannigan, started a new restaurant group called Win Win.
Their goal is to create fair and sustainable foodservice opportunities while prioritizing BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ food makers. Chefs who partner with Win Win bring a combined 35 years of restaurant experience to help support and guide their concept – whether it’s a product for the market, a new restaurant or a a food truck.
They will get help with the management and financing of their restaurant or food concept, in exchange for shared ownership between the catering group and the chefs. Each grower will be paired with a mentor from the local food community, something Tran said is the foundation of Win Win.
“The idea is that if people see people who look like them doing the things they want to do, that’s an affirmation. It is to validate. »
Win Win has some pretty heavy hitters on his list of mentors. Like James Beard, named chef Carlo Lamagna, food truck icon Han Ly Hwang, pizza maker Shardell Dues and beverage authority Ro Tam.
Their goal was to find other BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ food makers who had different experiences than theirs to better match their mentees. For example, XLB is a counter service restaurant, so they wanted to make sure they had someone like Ro Tam who, as the owner of two cafes and the small tea company Tanglewood, has extensive experience in the world of drinks.
Win Win quietly launched its new restaurant group earlier this year, but already has its first group of partner mentees, including Sofia Khan and Sarena Maharaj. The pair are new to the Portland culinary scene, bringing their rich, spicy chai and delicate Pakistani sweets called mithai to pop-up events under the name Chaiwallah PDX.
Their first event was in February and they assumed it would be unique. But the response has been overwhelming. Khan and Maharaj said people took to social media saying the flavors reminded them of home.
“And that was exactly what it was for us,” Maharaj said. “It was so sweet that so many people connected to it in such a similar way to us.”
The couple had created Chaiwallah as a way to reconnect to their roots and deal with the isolation of being part of a first-generation diaspora.
“I grew up eating Pakistani food, [but] I lived in a fairly white neighborhood and was also trying to fit in with my peers,” Khan said. “So this food that I really enjoyed and that tasted like home, was also one of those things where I was like, ‘I don’t want to be associated with this. “”
For Khan, it took stepping away from her family in Texas and her parents’ cooking to realize what she was missing.
“I go to all these restaurants [in Portland] and it’s great and it appeals to me, but it’s not my home,” she said. “And so it became very important to me to understand how I find the flavors of the house.”
For Maharaj, who is Indo-Caribbean and whose father is half-Indian, it was a way to connect with a culture from which she felt disconnected. A feeling that was amplified once she moved from New York to Boulder, Colorado.
“I’m like the only brown person I know in the whole city, and I just didn’t have anything that reminded me of home,” she said. “Nothing felt familiar, nothing felt safe either.”
Chai was accessible – it had milk, cinnamon and vanilla – and even though she had never really cooked before, Maharaj started teaching herself how to make chai.
“I didn’t know a lot of things and I was ashamed, like so much shame, that I didn’t know that,” she said. “So I was like, ‘I’m going to learn everything about Indian cooking, even though I’m not even from India, I’m going to learn everything about chai.’ And that’s just something that stayed with me.
Maharaj continued to make chai after moving to Portland, sharing it with friends and bringing it to parties and events. It got to the point where if she went anywhere, people expected to have her chai.
But when the duo decided to pursue Chaiwallah as a business, they hit their first hurdle: where to make it for commercial production. Maharaj said her roommate is far from having more production at home. After texting friends, they got in touch with Jasper Shen who pointed them to commercial kitchen options. He also introduced them to the rest of Team Win Win, asking if the pair would like to partner up.
“We were so excited,” Maharaj said. “To be asked that is like ‘Wow’, there are so many opportunities, they offer so much of their time and experience and it feels like such a special thing to give to the community.”
It also aligned with their own values and vision of a food world in which BIPOC food makers would be more celebrated. There has been a long history of white leaders drawing inspiration from and capitalizing on different cultures, and Khan and Maharaj saw Win Win as actively charting a new course in the community.
“It was very appealing to be invited to be a part of this,” Khan said. “It was really cool to have two people of color, who also worked in the food business that’s in their midst. [with] flavors close to home… because that’s our raison d’être [too].”
The restaurant group has already partnered with five Portland food producers and is still looking to attract more. Win Win’s Catie Hannigan said she’s also curating a new food cart mod called Lil’ America in conjunction with ChefStable.
“Linh and Jasper are going to run it with only BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ food carts,” Hannigan said.
The group of six to eight carts is scheduled to open in September in southeast Portland.