For years in the 90s, the Refectory restaurant in Gateway was the busiest nightclub in Portland — grossing 2.4 million dollars in annual sales in its best year — but next month it closes, perhaps forever.
Mitch Stanley, who has owned the Refectory from more than 30 years, said he is negotiating a lease in the same retail center for a smaller space just across the way.
However, as of press time, no agreement has been reached.
If Stanley is successful, the new place will be less than half the size of the Refectory, and will open with a different name: Stanley’s Tap Room.
A national chain store is slated to take over the space as soon as the Refectory vacates, Stanley said.
Admitting to being late with rent payments a few times in 2012, Stanley said property owners Harsch Investment Properties, who he has worked with from beginning, chose to seek a different tenant.
News of the closure came as a surprise to many, but Stanley said it has been building for a while.
“It’s going to be very emotional, a tear-your-heart-out deal,” he said. “I did everything in the world to stop this; I’m going to do everything I can to keep going.”
Stanley candidly acknowledged that many factors contributed to the Refectory’s demise, including his own decisions.
One factor that hurt the business he said was years ago when they changed the type of music featured at night. “It helped bring in the money, but, to be honest, I wasn’t paying good enough attention to what we were doing.”
A creation originally of the Saga Corporation, The Refectory Steakhouse Restaurant opened on 122nd Avenue near Halsey Street in the early 70s.
At the time, Saga was the nation’s largest food service management company serving colleges, corporations and hospitals based in Menlo Park California and had just began creating restaurant chains in the late 60s that included the Black Angus, Stuart Anderson and Velvet Turtle.
The model for the Refectory was simple in concept, but challenging to execute: great food prepared by qualified chefs, served by well-trained, handsome, well-groomed, polite, smartly dressed servers in an elegantly appointed dining room, complete with white tablecloths and linens.
Run by Bill McCormick, the Refectory was his first Oregon restaurant and served as the prototype for his next when he bought Jake’s Famous Crawfish in 1974 with Doug Schmick. They later co-founded the national restaurant chain McCormick & Schmick’s.
Saga sold the lease in 1980 to new owners, who changed the name to Harry’s Bar and Grill.
With two of his cousins, Stanley bought the business, then the original name from Saga, re-christening it the Refectory restaurant in 1982.
Stanley said he bought his cousins’ share in the business a few years later, but continues to collaborate with them in other hospitality industry businesses.
As the restaurant’s popularity increased, and the opportunity arose, Stanley added space to the restaurant twice, increasing the size from a little more than 6,000 to 14,000 square feet by 1987.
When it first opened, Linda Ward and her husband ate dinner there regularly. When her husband died unexpectedly in a freak accident, Ward said she stopped leaving the house until her daughter, who was married to a manager at the Refectory at the time, coaxed her out of the house. “She said, ‘You’re not going to sit home and feel sorry for yourself,’ so we used to go up there for Happy Hour and that’s when I met Roy.”
They later married and held their reception at the Refectory. “We met in 1985, and were their first wedding in the new banquet room, Jan. 15, 1989.”
She likened the atmosphere to a big family. “It will always be my home away from home,” she said. “When I was single, it was like family, they all took care of me. I never had to worry when I was up there. I had great bartenders and management. I met many good, good people through the years.” She added, “People have been really loyal to that place. It’s just like a little family. Once you’re friends with people there, you’re always their friend, even if you don’t see them that often.”
Besides her grandson, who has worked there for seven years and has a baby on the way, Ward said she is concerned about the other employees’ futures. “There are so many good employees there, [Chefs] Craig and Curly [Krieger] and Gary [King], and Ed [Olson], oh my gosh, he started when he was in high school.”
A Portland native, Stanley is a large man at 6 feet, 4 inches and more than 200 pounds. He was a three-sport varsity athlete at Centennial High School, where he met his high school sweetheart and future wife Cecile (CeeCee). She was head cheerleader; he was captain of the football team.
After graduating from Oregon State University in 1969 with a degree in Pharmacology, Stanley got a position with Fred Meyer.
After a few years behind the counter, Stanley said he began learning the construction business on the side, graduating to building homes in his spare time and on weekends, leaving his pharmacy job after nine years to build luxury homes full time.
The Stanleys have two children: Lisa, 38 and Jack, 48, who is in the restaurant business too.
In 2012, while in Arizona where they have a second home, Stanley said he contracted Valley fever, an endemic fungal infection common in the southwest United States. In addition, last year he had surgeries to replace both hips and knees.
Stanley discusses Refectory history, mission, and traditions
Q: Do you remember the first day you opened your doors?
A: Sure do.
Q: What was it like?
A: It was scary, and it was fun. I worked really hard, but it didn’t seem like hard work … spent many hours … lots and lots of hours. But it didn’t seem like work because every time I turned around I saw something I could make better. Coming from the aspect of being a custom builder, coming up with ideas, like coming up how to resection the restaurant with trick walls, or different things to make the servers more efficient, how to lay out stuff, how to take an order, designing the bar in such a way, bartenders could work faster and make service more efficient.
Those kinds of things were a lot of fun to do and very satisfying.
Q: What are the most common misperceptions people have about the restaurant business?
A: That you make a lot of money. But really, you don’t. You can make some good money, but you have to do a lot of business to do it. And, it comes with many headaches. The biggest headaches we have here are the employees. But, they’re also the biggest positive. Just like the customer. The customer is the bigger headache, [but] is also the biggest fun thing about it, the most enjoyable.
Q: Were you ever consumed completely with the business?
A: Yes, I spent a lot of time doing it. For the first three years, I’d get here at seven and go out the door at 2:30 in the morning … a long time … seven days a week.
Q: What is the biggest difficulty you had to overcome in the hospitality business?
A: Controlling costs: food, labor and liquor.
Q: Have you always been this confident?
A: Pretty much, I didn’t realize I was confident. I’ve been told that sometimes I’m intimidating. I don’t see how. I view myself as a fair, pleasant person, but I’ve been told that sometimes I’ve been intimidating.
Q: What is soft about you?
A: How I treat people; especially when the people are in need. I’ve done so many things in the past for them. Simple things for employees like loaning them money. In my 30 years, they’ve sat in front of my desk many, many times with personal problems that had nothing to do with money and they sought out my advice. I took that as a very serious thing and I have to say I probably helped 95 percent of those who sat in front of me, and that was very satisfying.
Q: Your closeness with your employees is legendary Mitch; over the years, there have been at least a half-dozen marriages between Refectory employees. Children of former employees work for you. Is it because you treat employees like family?
A: We had 56 employees, of those 56 employees we probably have 25 of them that have been here more than 20 years. If you were a short-term employee, it was like seven or eight years, which is completely unlike a regular restaurant.
The employees felt the camaraderie; they worked together, they spent their time off together. They were just like a family, they argued and fussed among themselves, but they also were really good to one another.
Q: Did there come a time when you looked around and said to yourself, ‘I’ve made it?’
A: Sure … that would probably be the mid-90s when we were the number one spot in town. There was a line at the door every Friday and Saturday and we were busy seven days a week.
Q: If you had one do-over, what would it be?
A: I should have sold the Refectory in the late 90s and retired.
Q: What is the fairest and most unfair criticism you or the Refectory have ever received?
A: That I treat people good. The most unfair? People have a bad opinion that the Refectory is this nightclub/meatmarket with a bunch of problems. And it’s completely not the case. We have been a very busy place, and when we were, some of that came along with it. I agree with that, but 95 percent of what the Refectory is is the “Cheers” atmosphere that this has had [sic] with the ownership, the management, the employees and the customers.
Q: Was there a moment when you ever doubted yourself? What was your lowest point in business?
A: In 2007, when the economy went down and the business was changing I regret the fact I didn’t change soon enough. People quit spending money, the business model changed: suburbia wasn’t in, downtown was in. It reversed. It used to be suburbia was in and downtown was out, and then it switched. I should have taken it from a 14,000 square foot restaurant and made it half that size; do a more manageable restaurant from cost controls.
Q: Has the Refectory ever made you cry?
A: No, but it will when I leave. It’s like tearing off a part of you. I’m here thirty years. I’m walking [sic] into this building at 38; I’ll walk out at 68 … that’s a lifetime.
Q: How does it feel knowing how many shared memories of the Refectory people have?
A: It makes me feel good when people talk about how long they’ve come in here and how well they got treated and how they like it. Without exaggeration, there’s literally hundreds of people who’ve said to me, ‘I met my wife,’ or, ‘I met my husband there.’ We’ve had dozens of marriages performed here of [sic] people who met each other here. Jack met his wife here.
Q: What do you do that annoys the people who love you?
A: I am constantly trying to do something new.
Q: What has been your worst day on the job?
A: The day I realized we’re no longer going to be here. I have been working on coming to grips with that for the last four months. Still, I’m not able to do that well.
Specific days in February are set aside for Refectory customers, past and present to come in and leave contact information so the Stanleys can let them know where they land. See the ad on page two for the dates.
The phone number is 503-255-8545. The Refectory is at 1618 N.E. 122nd Ave.