Clark County restaurants see business improve

New eateries open as restauranteurs focus on cooperation to attract diners

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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Have Clark County restaurant owners finally found a recipe for financial success?

The allure of Portland’s well-developed food scene has long drawn Southwest Washington residents across the river for dinner. Add a prolonged era of high unemployment, and local dining establishments have been dealt a double blow in recent years.

But industry insiders say there’s been a recent surge in sophisticated Clark County restaurant offerings, and the data suggest that local diners like what’s on the menu. The county’s restaurants sold $108.8 million in food and alcohol from April through June, according to the most recent available figures from the state Department of Revenue. That’s the most quarterly spending in that category ever in Clark County. The number of open restaurants is also rising — from fewer than 500 in 2004 to more than 600 at present.

A spirit of cooperation is helping local dining establishments up their games, said Lisa Schmidt, owner of Vancouver-based Marketing Matters, who has spoken to restaurant groups about how best to promote the industry. Rather than go head-to-head against Portland’s scene, many chefs are recognizing that Clark County can benefit from being part of the metro area.

“The biggest challenge for restaurants on the Vancouver side is that it’s so close to just go to Portland,” said Mike Horn, who with Kevin Basarab opened Battle Ground’s Coachmen restaurant in January. “There are so many choices, cuisines and so on down there.”

For those seeking a white tablecloth, high service experience, Portland’s draw is hard to beat, said Jeff Stay, a producer with American Underwriters Insurance who specializes in the restaurant industry. “But people don’t necessarily want to drive down to Portland to eat dinner, and they’re finding that the stereotypical Clark County restaurant is not what you’ll find anymore. Restaurants are making eating more of an experience, rather than same-old, same-old.”

He cited Battle Ground’s Mill Creek Pub, which offers salmon and sandwiches, along with fancy martinis, alongside more familiar fries and beers that pubgoers might expect.

Brothers, a new Camas burger joint, has also turned a familiar meal into an experience, according to Columbian freelance restaurant reviewer Karen Livingston. With its distinctive decor and focus on fresh, quality ingredients, “Brothers has raised the bar for casual dining restaurants in Clark County,” Livingston recently wrote.

Coachmen, likewise, aims to bring an accessible food with its gourmet burgers and homemade sauces, soups and other dishes.

“The business is doing very well,” said Horn, co-owner and chef. “It’s paying its own bills.”

With more than a quarter of restaurants failing within a year of opening their doors, that’s a notable success.

These establishments are following a precedent set in Portland, which has developed a national reputation for its focus on local ingredients and creative preparation.

That “locavore” movement is increasingly taking hold on this side of the river, driving up for demand in Clark County. For evidence, look to the growing success of the Vancouver Food Co-op and Vancouver Farmers Market, and the recent arrival of Chuck’s Produce and New Seasons supermarkets.

The cultural focus on local food has helped restaurateurs clarify where the true competition lies.

Portland establishments are not the problem, said Stay, who recently founded a monthly idea-sharing group for Southwest Washington restaurant owners.

“Marketing has always been about how to take business away from other restaurants,” he said. “But the biggest competitor is the home kitchen, especially in today’s economy. How do you get people to have dining experiences? That’s something restaurateurs can work together on. They can share experiences. While it’s a competitive industry, I’ve noticed they are willing to share successes.”