When there’s a rumor about a restaurant purchase in Bend, the one name that’s always front and center is that of Gavin McMichael.
Love him or hate him, it’s time for Central Oregon to get to know the man.
The executive chef and owner of The Blacksmith Restaurant, Bourbon Street Sea & Soul Food and Marz Planetary Bistro — and perhaps another restaurant or two, before you finish reading this blog — is a diligent businessman.
He just may deserve more credit for his entrepreneurial success that some folks are willing to grant him.
McMichael drew immediate raves after he opened The Blacksmith in 2002. He nurtured a successful catering business and twice remodeled his steakhouse, shaping the concept of “New Ranch” cuisine while adding an extensive lounge business and weekend dance club. He launched a retail line of culinary spices a year ago.
Then came 2010. And this year, Gavin, 44, has created a major stir in Bend’s restaurant community.
The rumor hound barked loudly in June, when he assumed the lease on the Old Firehall after the closing of Staccato Italian Restaurant. He reopened it as the New Orleans-style Bourbon Street in late July.
In September, he bought Marz, which he says he soon will revamp and reopen as a classy 1920s-style diner to be named Deco Bistro, or perhaps Gatsby’s.
Gavin is trying to buy up this town. How many times have I heard that line in recent months? But McMichael says it is simply a numbers game.
“I’m just trying to do what’s been done in larger markets for a long time,” the Texas-born chef said. “Three places are cheaper to run than one.
“This is one of the oldest strategies in the business. It’s so hard for the owner-operator to make any money on just one restaurant. It’s much easier to pull a little from several, and to spread the costs and demands of staff and inventory.”
With multiple restaurants under his ownership, McMichael said, he can offer some stability to the local food-and-beverage industry. “You create a stronger environment for the dining demographic,” he said.
“In this town, it seems, if you get too big too fast, you are a public enemy. But because the economic opportunities were there, I had to act quickly.”
Gavin insists that he did not set out to take over Staccato. That restaurant was in serious arrears to its landlord; Staccato’s owner had warned her staff of her precarious position, months before the closure. Until McMichael was approached by building owner John Gilbert, he said, he did not pursue the space.
When he moved into the Firehall, McMichael said, he discovered a house divided. Some embittered Staccato employees had sabotaged the restaurant they were vacating. Kitchen appliance cords and electric wires were chopped. Dining-room tables were gouged.
“I hired as many Staccato employees as I could,” Gavin said. “But in each job interview, I was forced to ask if they knew anything about the vandalism.”
McMichael said he dealt with similar negativity when he purchased Marz. “There were forces in the community that didn’t want to give (the new) Marz a chance,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we are changing it.”
The new restaurant, he said, will have Art Deco-style decor and a menu of old-time American classics.
McMichael is still open to other restaurant opportunities in Central Oregon. “I’m just waiting for the right price and location,” he said, noting that he has thought about a Tex-Mex establishment and a Chinese-style restaurant.
“I like to create concepts,” Gavin said. “I get a lot of calls. But it has to make sense.
“I’ve got a few things that I’m looking at in the next three to six months. And in a year or so, I may seriously consider another market with a larger population base.”
Eugene, he said, is a possibility. In part, that’s because he finds local attitudes frustrating.
“The politics of dining seem to work against our self-interest here,” he said. “Bend has got to accept the fact that this town is going to grow.
“I’m afraid the town will end up killing the thing it says it wants. Most critics don’t understand that you have to make money to sustain business.”