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Porters makes it - 10/22/2006
Greg Stiles

A local restaurant beats the odds to celebrate its five-year anniversary

By Greg Stiles
Mail Tribune

You can excuse the proprietors of Porters if they take their time rounding the bases this weekend.

Rolar Yondorf, Brian Porter and Tim Tolman have hit a home run, so to speak, marking their fifth anniversary of running an upscale dinner house in the old railroad depot on Front Street in downtown Medford.

Restaurant failure rates are steep and the tough-love talk five years ago indicated the trio of veteran restaurateurs had an unenviable task ahead in a town where national chains controlled the dining market.

"I was concerned whether Medford really would support a large-scale independent restaurant," admits Yondorf. "People here were supporting national chains and if they wanted something different, they left town. The thought was that people weren't taking pride in their home town."

Reality was somewhat different than the street talk.

"We found almost immediately people were predisposed to be supportive of us," Yondorf recalls. "We'd hear from people, 'We had a great time, here's something you can fix to make it better.' I think it had to do with people wanting to make downtown better and an affinity for the old railroad station. They saw us as a big step for a downtown renaissance."

Porters, which begins dining room seating at 5 o'clock daily, serves more than 1,000 dinners each week and had sales of more than $2 million last year.

"It's a tremendous milestone for any start-up business," Yondorf says.

Surveys have shown a desire for additional restaurants in the downtown core in order to attract more foot traffic.

"This gives hope to people, knowing that if one or two restaurants can make it in this market for this many years with a high-quality food, there's a chance for other restaurants to make it," says Anne Jenkins, senior vice president of the Medford Visitors and Convention Bureau.

But this is no walk-off home run, and the game is still on.

Comment cards prompted Porters to tweak its menu and its bar has drawn new restaurant customers.

"We get a lot of feedback," Yondorf says. "Because we are independent, we can change what we're doing quickly. We have evolved to include more local, seasonal and family-farm kind of stuff."

Beverage sales follow an industry norm.

"A lot of people get acquainted with us through the bar and wind up being dinner guests," Yondorf says. "I like the way our bar is evolving socially — it gets a nice after-work crowd and then on weekends we get a younger crowd. For the most part, it's been one of the most civil bars I've been around, perhaps it's because we don't stay open till 2:30 with a last-call."

Word-of-mouth referrals from friends, hotel staffs and others has boosted Porters' clientele.

"It's nice to have people be able to go to a restaurant and you know they're going to get the right service," Jenkins says. "Chain restaurants are very important to us, but in the past we've had a hard time keeping people in Medford when they knew they could go to Jacksonville Inn or McCully House. We can compare Porters and Café Dejeuner."

One arena that didn't go according to the original plan was lunch. Although the food was good, the daily head count was about two-thirds of the 150 needed for success, so the 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. dining segment was jettisoned four years ago and the staff dwindled from a high of 85 full- and part-time employees to about 50.

"It would take hiring another 40 people, finding refrigeration space and it would create competition for meal preparation," Yondorf says. "We're a far better dinner house without lunch. Although at some point we may consider doing it, we really are concentrating our effort on nailing one meal period."

Revenue is growing 10 to 15 percent month-over-month, Yondorf says.

"The first two and a half to three years, the owners didn't take anything out, but Porters paid its bills," he says. "I would say that in the first three years everyone in the building made more money than we did. That was OK, it was part of the plan. We were in it for the long run."

General Manager Marty Williams has been at the helm for two years, bar manager Carla Cairo has been on hand since day one, chef Sean Crawford runs the kitchen, Rebecca Bradford runs the floor and operations manager Karen Parker has also been with the restaurant from the start.

With a veteran group of managers in place, the trio of owners has gone to working on the business instead of in the business, Yondorf says. "It helps to have a few good performers that have been here long enough to do peer training, instead of managers training."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or at business@mailtribune.com

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