"So why is coffee such a big deal around here?"
We were in the Pearl District for the final stop on our bike tour and our tour guide Sierra had just told the story about buying the $9 cup of coffee. She furrowed her brow at the man's question for a moment. The guy who asked the question conjectured that it was because it was always so cloudy and people needed the caffeine. She kind of half agreed, but then she said:
"I'm not really sure. I guess it's because Portland is an artisan culture. People here are really passionate about their coffee, their food, their beer. They're proud of what they create."
That ethic is noticeable as you go through the city. The locally owned businesses are everywhere: restaurants, bookstores, coffeeshops, donut shops, art studios. Speaking of art, it's enormously important to the city. There is a Saturday Market by the river each weekend (it's on Sunday too, I have no idea why it's just called the Saturday Market) featuring all kinds of paintings, sculptures, clothing, carvings, photography, etc. from local artists. In the Alberta Arts District, there was a quilting/sewing/fabric shop called Modern Domestic that had EA beaming like a child on Christmas morning.
This isn't to say that there aren't national franchises in Portland. There are a ton of Starbucks. There is also a shockingly disorienting amount of Subways in downtown Portland. There's like one for every five people. Yet the pride that Portland takes in its artisan culture is evident. These are a people that love to create and that comes out in much of what they produce.
The craft culture was a breath of fresh air. So much of what we experience these days are built on franchises. Businesses want a return investments on their money and so they place their bets on known quantities. We easily franchise culture in restaurants and stores. But we can also see it in our art. The amount of original television shows and movies are greatly diminishing while known franchises--be they superheroes or successful young adult novels--are being recycled. Franchise culture even leaks into our churches.
Now there is not anything wrong with franchises per se. One of the positives is that you know what you are going to get. Of course, that is one of the negatives too. There is something to be said for a unique experience.
On Saturday night, we went to a local restaurant called Le Bistro Montage. I was charged with the task of finding dinner for that night and I settled on a seafood/cajun/soul food/miscellaneous restaurant underneath a bridge on the east side of the river. Honestly, I was a bit nervous. I had been given this responsibility by EA's parents and you don't want to whiff on dinner choices with your in-laws (they would have been great about it if I had, but even still).
While waiting to get in, we were sitting in a lounge with a local couple. EA's folks started chatting with them and the couple was surprised to find out where we were from.
"Usually the tourists don't end up at this place. They typically go to (a seafood restaurant downtown) which is like a fancy Red Lobster."
That was encouraging because the local experience was what I was aiming for and the experience was wonderfully memorable.
Le Bistro Montage is in what looks like a converted warehouse. Diners sit at long tables next to other parties. The room is lit by candles on the tables and is adorned with some unique artwork including a painting of the Last Supper in which Jesus is wearing the same distinctive coat of the restaurant's waiters (which I'm cool with because Jesus came to serve). They served Cokes in glass bottles (from Mexico, which means they are made with sugar and not corn syrup). The food is excellent. I had some gourmet macaroni and cheese. When you were done with the meal, the wait staff would make elaborate aluminum foil animals and flowers to hold your leftovers.
The atmosphere was one-of-a-kind and the unique experience led to an enjoyable evening with my wife and her parents. That meal will probably be one of the most vivid memories of our trip. The staff at Le Bistro Montage obviously cared about the quality of their restaurant; probably because it was their restaurant and not someone else's. This is not to say that there are not quality franchise organizations, but there is something about the place being your own.
Yet as I think about it, that is something that all of us can emulate. Whatever you do--whether it is running a restaurant, creating art, teaching, preaching, picking up garbage, being a parent, working as an engineer, anything--is your craft. You may not be cool or trendy or hip, but you can put all that you have into your craft.
You can create good and beautiful things that, whether people notice it or not, will make a difference in this world because each of us has unique gifts, contexts, stories, and relationships that no one else has. If we dedicated ourselves and realized the sacredness of doing whatever it is that we do, imagine the kind of culture that would create.