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The Companies that Care podcast highlights business leaders who are making a difference in the world. I have a passion for companies that care and give back to their communities, like Mother’s Bistro & Bar in Portland, Oregon. This week I’m cross-posting on my Finding Fertile Ground podcast, because Lisa Schroeder also has one hell of a grit and resilience story.
Lisa Schroeder is executive chef and owner of Mother’s Bistro & Bar. She is a mother, grandmother, chef, restaurateur, activist, and author devoted to providing better-than-authentic renditions of traditional home-cooked dishes at her popular, award-winning restaurant. Mother’s has grown over the years from a charming 90-seat restaurant on Stark Street to a gorgeous 200-seat Portland institution in the historic downtown Embassy Suites.
Chosen Restaurant of the Year by Portland’s Willamette Week; Best Comfort Food, Best Brunch, and Best Lunch Spot by numerous publications; and one of America’s Top Restaurant Bargains by Food and Wine, Mother’s Bistro & Bar is a destination spot for anyone who comes to downtown Portland.
As Lisa explains, Mother’s was not an overnight success, even though it opened to rave reviews. Back in 1992, while juggling a marketing and catering career and raising her daughter, Lisa realized no restaurants were making comfort, homestyle food. She dreamed of a place that would serve “Mother Food” – slow-cooked dishes, such as braises and stews, made with love. From that moment on, Lisa was determined to open such a restaurant and spent the next eight years working toward that dream.
She figured she could either become a lawyer or a chef, but she chose the path that excited her the most. She enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, where she was selected as one of the Top Ten Student Chefs in America by Food and Wine. After graduating with honors in 1995, she continued honing her skills at two four-star restaurants in New York City – Lespinasse and Le Cirque. Her education continued with apprenticeships in Provence, France at Roger Verge’s Moulin des Mougins and at Mark Veyrat’s L’Auberge de L’Eridan in Haute Savoie. At one point she was working 90 hours a week in two jobs, as a chef and a waiter, so she could afford to live in New York City.
As she explains in the podcast, while traveling and working all over Europe, she realized the only way to truly understand the best regional cuisine was to leave the fancy restaurants and go into the homes where the mothers cooked. When she met her husband, Rob Sample, she relocated to Portland and continued planning her dream restaurant. After working at brunch favorite Besaw’s Café for two years, she opened Mother’s Bistro & Bar in 2000. The first year she received “Restaurant of the Year” award from Willamette Week.
“Mother’s serves home cooking from mothers around the world, and each month we feature the cuisine of a different mother. We tell her story and have her dishes…when I was working on the menu I wanted to have motherly staples, pot roast, chicken and dumplings, meatloaf and matzo ball soup, chopped liver, pierogis. If a mother would make it, we would serve it.”
After working in the same location for almost 20 years, which had a gorgeous dining room but a horrific kitchen and tiny lobby, Lisa decided they needed a new location. Although she still had eight years on her lease, she found a perfect new location only three blocks away in a historic hotel run by Embassy Suites. They spent eight months renovating the space and moved in on Martin Luther King Jr Day in 2019 to huge fanfare. Then one year later, COVID hit.
“That's when we got smacked upside the head and everybody got humbled and realized, okay, you think you're all that? Well, let me show you.”
A gem on Portland’s restaurant scene (they serve 1,000 people between 8:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays), Mother’s has always been a personal favorite of mine. I’ve blindfolded two friends (Catherine and Caley) and surprised them with brunch at Mother’s. I’ve eaten there on my getaways with my mom and sister. I’ve gone there for happy hours with work friends. I’ve had breakfast, lunch, and supper there with beloved friends. We celebrated Mike’s 50th birthday there. I’ve long admired Lisa and I own her beautiful cookbook, where she shares her recipes freely…like a mother. What I didn’t know, though, is the way she runs her company and serves her community like she is everyone’s mother.
Lisa has been providing health benefits for her staff from day one, way before Obamacare. She also provides vacation and a 401K with a 3 percent match.
“Since my staff becomes my family, I invite them to my house for parties and events. We will do things together outside of the restaurant. I listen to their personal problems. I lend them money, a little too much, and oftentimes don't see it back…I had an employee arrested by ICE and I paid the $15,000 so he could get out of jail and start to work toward a green card.”
Lisa qualifies that by saying it’s a company managed by a human, which has its pros and cons. She says she can also take things personally if her staff doesn’t have the same level of commitment she does.
“It’s run by a human who is a mother and who tends to mother those around her.”
Lisa read about the pandemic before it hit and began to make preparations for providing takeout food. But after staying open became untenable, on June 5, 2020, she made the difficult decision to close the restaurant until things improved. Even though they were closed for over a year, most of her staff has returned to her as they’ve reopened.
“I think many in the food service industry looked at COVID as a blessing as well as a curse...to be able to get a break was a gift. That's why we're seeing a lot of people not jumping back to work right away, and I don't blame them. This is a hard business, it's very physical. It's very demanding; it's very stressful.”
Lisa also kept herself fully occupied during the pandemic by homeschooling her grandchildren. Tragically, Lisa’s daughter Stephanie, mother of four, died in a hiking accident in 2016 at the age of 36. Lisa shares guardianship with their father.
“It's hard enough to be a mother the second time around, but then to have to be the teacher was brutal... but they are such good boys that it couldn't have gone any better, thanks to their sweet nature. I'm grateful I had the time to be able to spend with them and get them through this tough time in a positive way…without them I probably wouldn't have a reason to go on.”
The whole city mourned when Lisa, mother of mothers, lost her beloved daughter at such a young age.
“It’s really hard to have a restaurant called Mother’s and I don't even have my daughter…it's especially hard at Mother's Day when everybody is celebrating mothers. My whole raison d'etre is to celebrate mothers, and I have nothing to celebrate on that day. It's a very tough day for me, so when COVID was still here this Mother's Day, I was glad I didn't have to go to work and get through that day.”
My 18-year-old son, who's working as a cook this summer, wanted me to ask Lisa what it’s like to be a woman in the food industry.
“Everybody doubts you. They think you're not capable. You won't be able to lift. You won't be able to hang and you always start from a disadvantaged position where people have preconceived notions about your abilities, especially working in four-star kitchens as a woman in my 30s. People wanted me to fail...so if there was a pot to carry, I never asked for help. If I had something on the stove, they might turn the burner down for their fellow males, but they'd let mine burn. I was put to the test a lot and had to be twice as good as the next guy. It's very challenging to be a woman in a kitchen, and that's why anytime a female cook comes to me, I'm eager to give them a chance because I think women are amazing in a kitchen. We were born to juggle many balls, have the baby on our arm, answer the phone, make the dinner and talk to the gardener or something. We're made to multitask.”
Lisa and I spoke about the future of downtown Portland (it’s coming back!), her philosophy of sustainable food systems (like a good mother, she lets nothing go to waste!), and how she gives back to her community.
“I feel thankful I have a space and the power to use that space for causes I believe in. I feel lucky to have been given a voice to be able to help influence others. How many mass shootings are there going to be before people take action? One of the things I've used my space for is Mothers for Gun Sense…”
She’s also used her space for fundraisers benefiting the LBGTQIA community and had Don’t Shoot PDX use her kitchen over the holidays to prepare food for the homeless. When Mother's had to close, they boarded up their beautiful storefront windows and put art honoring Black Lives Matter on the boards.
“It was important for me for the boards to convey a message that I believed in, that was cohesive with the motherly view. I worked with one of my employees, Xochlit Ruvalcabra, and she and I came up with the idea that we would honor the children of color who were murdered by the police…we told their story so we could keep their memories alive and raise awareness about the horrors being caused by the police on people of color.”
Mother’s has served a lot of famous people in the past 20+ years. Listen to the podcast to hear some of the big names and stories, like the best tuna melt ever according to a big-name British singer. Or an actress with famous hair. Lisa feeds artists and musicians for free because she believes they work hard and deserve it. She has also served politicians, and even a certain unpopular and ineffective Department of Education head.
“She didn't want to be noticed. She was there on the down low. But I just respect people, no matter who. I can't disrespect them, especially not in my establishment. I'm here to serve everybody, so yes, we even fed her.”
I asked Lisa what advice she has for people who want to create companies that are.
“Well, you have to care...basically, be a human being and don't treat your people like a number, or that they're disposable or replaceable. Cherish each one and what they can bring to the company and the cause…Treat people with humanity…if you treat people well, they will respect you and treat you well…you'll get their devotion and loyalty.”
Lisa is excited to feed people again.
“I'm so thankful that I get to live my dream of feeding people and I'm so glad people want to eat the food we want to make, so I'm just really glad to be back. And I pray for this world to get back and for the deaths to stop. And for there to be peace and love really, I just I just wish that for everybody and health…maybe we've learned a lot from COVID. We've learned to slow down a bit.”
If you don't live in Portland and can't visit Mother's in person, consider buying Lisa's wonderful cookbook, in which she shares her homegrown comfort food recipes...like a mother!
Next week I interview Wendy Horng Brawer, founder and chief learning officer of In Tune Collective. She coaches people leading change and helps them become more conscious, confident, and connected in how they work with their colleagues and teams.