With two restaurants under their belt, a partnership with the Hoxton Hotel on Lovely Rita, Tope, and 2NW5, and a new restaurant soon to come, it's safe to say that Submarine Hospitality has become a well-established part of the flourishing food scene in Portland. Given this, it’s hard to imagine that, with the recent expansion of Ava Gene’s, the team has only recently been housed under one roof together. We talked with Shelbey Campbell Lett, the group’s Director of Operations, Ryan Dirks and Greer Shively, Submarine's Brand Director and Manager, about the joys of this new close-quartered collaboration, Submarine’s unwavering commitment to seasonal and local food, and what’s still to come.
Can you tell us more about how the recent expansion and renovation of Ava Gene’s came to be?
Ava Gene’s inherited a cramped, old kitchen that we’ve been pushing beyond its limits since day one. The expansion allowed us to increase efficiency, improve our workspaces, start serving brunch, open an adjacent event space, create an employee locker room, and add Submarine offices. It’s changed our lives.
Photos: AJ Meeker
What are your favorite parts of the new Ava Gene's space?
The best thing about the new space is that it brings multiple spaces and people together. We’ve thought about it as creating an ecosystem. On top of everything that comes with running a busy restaurant and Fora, our new event space, we get to develop recipes (and test them!) together, we’re shooting Joshua’s new cookbook in the back, Submarine hosts meetings that spill into the kitchen to sample pizza, chefs have an idea and walk upstairs to the office…We have created a community that is more productive and efficient, but also way more fun.
Photo: AJ Meeker
You’ve taken over the space above Ava Gene’s as a home base for the Submarine team. Why was this important to you, and what does it feel like to work/collaborate in the new space?
We went through a period without an office. Each of us would be at a different restaurant solving problems in our own world. The ‘home base’ is truly a ‘home’ for Submarine. Some of us are there early for coffee and strategy meetings. Some of us are there late for a glass of wine to recap the day. Between, it’s all energy and (mostly good) chaos.
Photos: Greer Shively
Can you tell us more about the Submarine team? Who are you and what do you all do?
Most of us got our start in the hospitality industry as dishwashers, bussers, and prep cooks. Some of us never left, while others took circuitous paths that led here from pretty diverse fields; interior design, art, science, finance, [and] academia. That collection of backgrounds allows us to collaborate in really fulfilling ways, which is crucial because a hospitality company like ours is really just a big collaboration.
Photo: Josh Chang
Now that you have grown not only at Ava Gene’s, but also to operate three other spaces, how do you make sure to stay true to your “locally sourced, aggressively seasonal” values?
“Locally sourced, aggressively seasonal” is truly at the core of what we do. It’s not hard to stay true to that idea because it’s at the foundation of every new project. So we’re never asking, “how do we make it local or seasonal?” That’s the starting point.
Photo: Laura Dart
How do you educate the teams at Ava Gene’s, Tusk, Lovely Rita and Tope on the local food system?
We have line-up every day before service. The staff tastes the ever-changing menu, and learns about the new produce that’s come in from the farm. It’s like a daily mini-seminar in local, seasonal eating. We also have an amazing relationship with all the farmers who provide that produce, so we take staff trips out the farms regularly. Sometimes the staff gets to harvest the food they’ll be serving the next day, which creates a pretty special relationship to the food.
Who are your favorite local producers to work with?
This list is way too long! We not only source food locally, we also work with local artists, ceramicists, furniture makers … Each restaurant even has its own custom soap and candle from our friends at OLO and Maak Lab. But, food is obviously at the heart of what we do, and perhaps no farm has been more foundational to the way we think about food than Ayers Creek Farm.
Photo: Laura Dart
How do you engage guests in thinking more about eating locally, seasonally, and mindfully?
Part of it has to do with staff education. When guests ask questions about a dish and begin to understand that each element comes from a local purveyor, that’s great. But when they taste the food … it’s really the flavor that tells the true story about what it means to eat locally and seasonally. There are many economical, political, and environmental reasons to be mindful of ethical food systems. But it also just makes for a much more delicious meal.
What is coffee service like in your restaurants? Who are your coffee partners?
Coffee service starts for us when we get to the office. If it didn’t, nothing else would happen. Tusk and Ava Gene’s both serve Stumptown, which is such a great partner. The Hoxton Hotel serves Proud Mary — also some of our favorite people. Portland is a ridiculous place to love coffee. We’re spoiled.
Photos: AJ Meeker
What’s next for Submarine?
Too much! But most immediately, we’re opening a pizza spot next to Ava Gene’s. Cicoria is the final stage of our expansion and we’re pretty excited about it.
Photo: AJ Meeker
Website: Submarine Hospitality