The Portland restaurant scene is so competitive that it often takes a creative approach to opening a new eatery.
Last year, two seasoned industry vets teamed up with two local developers to form the 5th Food Group. Jason Loring and Michael Fraser sat down with Jed Troubh and Chris Thompson to figure out how to keep track of each of their existing investments while venturing forward in two new fooderies—Rhum Tiki Lounge on North Cross Street and Big J’s on Thompson’s Point, both in Portland.
“It’s taken a bit for us to get our feet under us and find everyone for the right positions,” Loring said.
Rhum brought on Trevin Hutchins as bar manager in March, and Chad Egeland to manage the kitchen, resulting in a brand new menu.
“On our new menu, we wanted to do something more approachable, fun, stick-to-your-ribs food,” Loring said. “People drinking want to fill themselves up, not with something light. Our food’s nostalgic. It hits on Chinese, Asian. Our lo mein reminds you of a local Chinese restaurant, done with a little more care.”
Loring, of course, has had his hands full with burger joint Nosh and the Sicilian-inspired pizza restaurant Slab, which he opened after selling Taco Escobarr. Michael Fraser was juggling the Bramhall Pub and new plans for the Roma Café, which he plans to resurrect in July. Chris Thompson, a principal at Thompson’s Point Development Co., and Jed Troubh, a partner there, had their hands full with a major expansion of food, beer, and music at Thompson’s Point. While the group's banding together has been a boon in an already bustling industry, at the time it felt like a calculated risk.
“We met with them a couple times a week for a year and got comfortable with each other, and to find out what we wanted to do," Loring says. "So we formed a restaurant group—the 5th Food Group. Like the four food groups, we’re the fifth.”
Their 60-plus years of restaurant experience came into play quickly when early success at Rhum led to long waits that could have unsettled their new regulars.
“We’re not overpriced; it’s all quality and value-driven and people don’t always understand that," Loring explains. "The response at the beginning was insane, and there was backlash from people having to wait, issues with getting the right bar staff. We went through difficult times with customers, but many hung on. We wanted to show them our improvements and expanded drink menu.”
In addition to Hutchins at the bar, he lured Egeland, his “chef de cuisine,” from the Thai fusion restaurant Boda in the West End.
“The new drink options are Tiki-driven, a nice mix of classic cocktails, like Trader Vic’s,” Hutchins said. “And we bring in more 'modern Tiki' with updated flavor profiles, like the Thatched Roof, based off Monk’s Respite, using a bright fresh green chili vodka. And Dead On Arrival, our version of a Zombie.”
He says this is where the value comes in. “It’s a $14 cocktail, but you’re essentially getting two for one,” he says. “It’s a big drink. We need to have a two-cocktail limit.”
Over on the food side, the Rangoon dip comes with wontons and is the biggest seller. “We offer a pupu platter for two, a throwback to your childhood sit-down restaurant,” Egeland said, “as well as General Tso’s lo mein and a soy sauce Kimchi rice bowl. We’ve started selling four, five times the food, and the customers have received it well.”
Loring said he came up with the menu with Chad, “but now it’s all him with a crew of three guys.”
“Each of us are prep cooks, line cooks, and dishwashers,” Egeland said. “It’s a team mentality. No one is like ‘Oh, I’m just a prep cook.’”
“It’s like Nosh meets Chinese food, with fun and forward flavor ideas,” Loring said. “It may not be people’s first thought when they go to a bar where you get turkey sandwiches. But in the way we approach it, food isn’t an afterthought.”
That was Then
Much lauded now, the Portland restaurant scene used to be much more subdued. Loring, whose first kitchen job was at the Back Bay Grill, remembers the less lucrative times.
“Back then [in the mid-'90s] it was just us (BBG). Stephen King’s daughter had Tabitha’s Jean’s, but it was short-lived. There were a few others—probably 90 percent fewer restaurants—maybe five or so," Loring recollects. "Congress Street had nothing.”
In 2010, Loring helped bring Portland, Maine, to the food map when Nosh’s Apocalypse Now burger—packed with crisp pork belly, bacon, foie gras paté, mayo, cherry jam, and American cheese—and its bacon-dusted fries were featured on the Food Network’s “Man vs. Food.” The newfound relative fame brought with it a reputation for admittedly fatty foods offered to the late-night bar crowd, as well as a reputation for creative menu items that extended to his other ventures. Now he has a handful of investments, so to get it all done, he balances time between restaurants and has managing partners at each one.
“They manage the staff. I have weekly meetings with partners and managers, and I’m around all the time. I try to stop into every restaurant during the week, but this (Rhum) has been the place where I spend most of my time lately, getting where we want it to be.”
This is Now
The spacious Rhum can accommodate large parties, with shareable food and shared bowls of booze for two to twelve. They plan to open a new patio this summer, with outside seating and lighting, under an alcove on the side of the street.
“The only reason to be in this business is if you love making food,” Loring explains. “You do not get rich quick."
"People look at me like I have all these restaurants, and I just bought a used car four years ago. Competition in Portland is huge, with so much high-end food in a simple setting. There’s casual and fast-casual, which you didn’t see before. It’s even harder to stay in the thick of it when people can spend $100 to $300 and it’s always good.”
The Rhum Tiki Lounge | 98 North Cross St., Portland | Mon-Sat 4 pm-1 am; Sun noon-10 pm | Happy Hour Mon-Fri 4 -7 pm | www.rhumportland.com
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