This New Restaurant Is Betting It Can Survive Without Waiters

Is Willow in Portland part of a brave—or doomed—new trend in restaurant dining?

Waiter, there’s a fly in my….

Don’t bother using that line at Willow, a radical new 10-seat farm-to-table restaurant in Portland turning out innovative tasting menus using seasonal Pacific Northwest ingredients. The restaurant has all the trappings of a fine-dining experience, except for one: There are no servers.

That’s right. Co-owners and chefs Doug Weiler and John Pickett, who previously ran the popular pop-up Crossroads Collective, are not only doing all the conceptualizing, sourcing and cooking for the nightly tasting menus; they’re also personally delivering the food to each customer.

No, this isn’t some sort of futuristic robot restaurant like the ones making waves in China, and it's also nothing like Benihana, where the chefs ham it up, tossing shrimp in the air for kicks. "We want to break down the barriers between the chefs and the diners, and among diners themselves,” explains Pickett. “When we reflected on what our most memorable dining experiences have been, it’s never been just about exceptional food and wine.” Good company is the secret ingredient.

To that end, Weiler and Pickett (pictured below, left to right) have adopted more of a convivial dinner party set-up, where guests are part of the action, within reach of the chefs who are preparing the meal. The chefs welcome guests into the second story of the 110-year old home that houses the restaurant, and everyone is invited to sit at an L-shaped food counter overlooking the kitchen and plating stations. The hope is that “you’ll walk in as strangers and you won’t know us or anyone else, but by the end of the meal, you’ll be leaving as friends.” (This has already happened to some guests. On a recent night, one of the diners ended up inviting a handful of other guests to a party she was planning to host the following evening.)

The restaurant takes some of its inspiration from a trend that’s caught fire in Portland and elsewhere: the underground supper club. At those hard-to-get-into, invitation-only dinner clubs, it's common to see rising chefs work both the stove and the crowd. Other restaurants, like San Francisco’s Lazy Bear—a pop-up turned fine-dining brick-and-mortar—are experimenting with the supper-club model too. There, diners commune over cocktails and appetizers in an upstairs parlor before sitting down with strangers at communal tables that overlook an open kitchen, interrupted occasionally by chefs delivering a little spiel about how each course was prepared.

But at Willow, the proposition goes well beyond simply fostering a homier dining experience. It's actually flipping the traditional restaurant paradigm on its head, and eliminating the divisions between front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house. Both chefs, along with sous chef Tiffany Emmett, rotate monthly through every aspect of food service: The front chef handles the beverages and guest experience in the dining area (pictured below); the back chef is in charge of the food execution; and the swing chef helps out where needed.

With the minimum wage for restaurant workers in Portland and San Francisco slated to go up to $15 an hour by 2018, this model is one way for a start-up restaurant to keep costs down. There's an 18 percent service charge built into the price of dinner, which the duo says makes them better able to provide themselves and their workers with a livable wage, paid days off and health coverage. Weiler and Pickett are part of a movement that includes Farm Spirit, a vegan restaurant in Portland that's also collectively run by chefs.

“The only reason why restaurants aren’t run this way now is because they haven’t been in the past,” Weiler points out.

Another trend that's reinventing the traditional restaurant set-up is the no-tipping movement, which keeps gaining momentum as pioneering business owners such as Top Chef judge and New York City restaurateur Tom Colicchio and his NYC peers like Danny Meyer introduce no-tipping policies and rethink their entire business models. 

As for how the changing payment and staffing practices in the industry will ultimately affect restaurant workers, that remains to be seen.

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