Lisa Schroeder was unhappily pulling 13-hour shifts in a fast-paced career when the simple question “What’s for dinner?” turned her life around.
While deciding between Chinese, Thai, or other delivery options, Schroeder remembers that what she really wanted, and yet nowhere to be found, was a comforting, satisfying meal that only a mother can make.
“Back in the early 90s, I worked as a telemarketer for major companies to try to help our family. I worked for Publisher’s Clearinghouse before becoming a food broker for Stouffer’s and Sara Lee, and ultimately wound up selling elite products for Weight Watchers International,” she recalls. “One day, while trying to figure out how to get people to buy things, it came time to get something for dinner. This was in 1992 and I decided what the world really needed was mother’s cooking.”
Soon after deciding to pursue a restaurant career, Schroeder, who was 33 at the time, went back to school, earned a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and doggedly pursued her dream.
After graduating, she worked for top chefs at such notable restaurants as Le Cirque, and further honed her skills in Europe, before realizing her restaurant dreams in 2000 with the opening of her longstanding restaurant; Mother’s Bistro & Bar, of Portland, Ore.
In this week’s Q&A with Recipe for Success @ Boxerbrand, Schroeder discusses her odyssey to serve comfort food to “SUV-driving” customers in the gray city she has come to adore.
Q: Your goal with Mother’s was not only good food, but a happy ambience. How did you achieve this?
Living in a gray city, which is a lot like London, I knew I wanted a color scheme that would help people feel happy and warm & fuzzy. So we went with yellow and green, and the chandeliers happened because I felt that there was a connection to the idea of mother’s food and the chandeliers that traditionally hang in a mother’s dining room.
I put in three chandeliers when we first opened, and after a while people started bringing them to me. They realized I collect them— I think they’re good Feng Shui— and now we’re up to 25 chandeliers in our restaurant.
Q: After you built your dream restaurant, how did you get customers?
When I first started, there was no social media, Google reviews or Yelp. What I learned since opening is that you get a guest one at a time. You make your name one by one. Early on, I got involved in the community, and hosted charitable events and allowed by my space to be used for other causes I believed in. Over time, we became a part of the community we live in, and our guests are like our family.
Q: Please tell me about the food.
To this day, I believe there’s no other place to get mother’s cooking as authentic as the cuisine we offer. Our overarching concept is that every dish is something a mother would make, from slow cooked short ribs and brisket to Thai green curry or matzo ball soup. Our best-selling menu items at night are chicken and dumplings, meatloaf and pot roast. Our top breakfast item is the salmon hash, which is made with tribe-caught northwestern salmon and served with leeks, potatoes and a touch of cream. And our crunch French toast is another big hit.
We don’t offer a “twist” on comfort food. Instead I try to serve the perfect example of that motherly dish, using the best butter and ingredients.
We take homemade favorites and refine them with classical cooking techniques to produce delicious slow-cooked foods that take hours to prepare, like hand-made dumplings, stews, roasts and braised dishes. We make everything from scratch.
Q: What has been your biggest obstacle?
For any restaurant, it’s human resources. Staffing the restaurant with people who drink your particular brand of Kool Aid, and who can be trusted to carry your message forward, is always the hardest part.
I’ve learned to be a better manager. When I first started, I wasn’t the best boss. I came out of kitchens where everybody was screaming and throwing potatoes. I finally figured out what it takes to get and keep good employees, and I show my appreciation both in words and in the way I treat them.
Q: It seems the restaurant business was a real answer for you.
I always thought I was going to be a lawyer. I took the LSATs and applied to law schools. But I quickly realized I wouldn’t be able to support myself practicing the type of law I wanted to. So, I worked as a telemarketer to help make ends meet. Around the time, I got a job working for Weight Watchers International, I started to realize I lived and breathed food, food, food. I was 33 when I decided to go to the Culinary Institute of America, and after that, I spent many years studying with the best so that someday I could make my dream of opening a restaurant come true.
I always knew I would leave New York City when the time was right, and when I discovered Portland, and learned it was a place definitely NOT teaming with restaurants, I decided it was the perfect place to try my comfort-food concept. I’ve been in business for 18 years, so I must be doing something right! — Mother’s Bistro & Bar uses Boxerbrand menu covers in its table presentation. Thank you!