Pre-pandemic, chefs Jasper Shen and Linh Tran were following a familiar path for restaurateurs: open a new restaurant, find an eager following of local foodies, grow in popularity, open a second location, etc.
Shen is no stranger to the Portland food scene. A decade ago, he was one of the three founding chefs at Aviary, which mixed French technique with East Asian elements, and in 2017 went out on his own to open the Chinese comfort food restaurant XLB. Eventually, Linh Tran, who was one of the first employees there, came on as a business partner, and the pair opened their second location in February 2020. But in a matter of weeks, everything changed.
“We were open for about a month and a half before we had to close,” said Tran. “It was really devastating.”
When the governor banned all indoor dining to guard against COVID-19, XLB laid off around 80% of its staff and quickly transitioned the restaurant to a take-out and delivery model. It was a devastating blow, not only because of staff layoffs and the halt of their expansion but also because it took away a crucial way for them to be involved in the community.
“We realized that in order to build our community, we have to engage with our community,” said Tran. “And having a restaurant is our way of doing that.”
It also changed the whole trajectory of what they wanted to do.
Before the pandemic, Jasper Shen said they intended to open several different locations of XLB, but the pandemic forced them to slow down and reevaluate.
“We kind of went the opposite direction,” he said. “We wanted to focus on doing things that would make us happy and happiness for us didn’t mean a bunch of different restaurants, it doesn’t mean you make a bunch of money, doesn’t mean that you become super famous, this whole thing is about for us, is about paying it forward.”
Even before the pandemic, the food world was shifting. After years of racial inequality, sexual harassment, poor working conditions and more, the restaurant industry was having its own reckoning. And the lockdowns and layoffs only shone a brighter light on the industry’s dark underside.
“We came to a point where we became very frustrated with what we saw happening,” said Shen. “The #MeToo movement, the racial inequality, the protests, the Asian bashing, all these very famous chefs being called out for heinous activities … We felt like there had to be a better way for businesses to run.”
Simply put, they wanted to make the restaurant industry and the food industry better — detoxify it from the inside out. To do that, Shen and Tran, along with their partner Catie Hannigan, have started a new restaurant group called Win Win.
Their goal is to create equitable and sustainable opportunities in the restaurant sphere while prioritizing BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ food makers. Chefs that come on as partners with Win Win get a combined 35 years of restaurant experience to help support and guide their concept — be it a product for the market, a new restaurant or a food truck.
They’ll get assistance with management and funding of their restaurant or food concept, in return for ownership divided between the restaurant group and chefs. Each producer will be paired with a mentor from the local food community, an element Tran said was foundational to Win Win.
“The idea is if people see people who look like them doing the things they want to do, it’s affirming. It’s validating.”
Their focus was to find other BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ food makers who had different experiences than their own to best match with their mentees. For example, XLB is a restaurant with counter service, so they wanted to make sure they had someone like Ro Tam who, as the owner of two cafes and the small-batch tea company Tanglewood, has an extensive background in the beverage world.
Win Win had a quiet rollout of its new restaurant group earlier this year, but already has its first batch of partner mentees, which include Sofia Khan and Sarena Maharaj. The pair are new to the Portland food scene, bringing their rich, spicy chai and delicate Pakistani sweets called mithai to pop-up events under the name Chaiwallah PDX.
Their first event was in February, and they assumed it would be a one-off. But the response was overwhelming. Khan and Maharaj said people reached out on social media saying the flavors reminded them of home.
“And that was exactly what it was for us,” said Maharaj. “It was so sweet that so many people are connecting to it in such a similar way that we are.”
The pair had created Chaiwallah as a way to reconnect to their roots and also deal with the isolation of being part of a first-generation diaspora.
“I grew up eating Pakistani food, [but] I lived in a pretty white neighborhood and was also dealing with trying to fit in with my peers,” Khan said. “So this food that I really enjoyed and that tasted like home to me, was also one of those things where I was like, ‘I don’t want to be associated with this.’”
For Khan, it took moving away from her family in Texas, and from her parents’ cooking, to realize what she was missing.
“I’m going to all these restaurants [in Portland] and it’s great and it has its own appeal to me, but it’s not home,” she said. “And so then it became very important to me to figure out how I find the flavors of home.”
For Maharaj, who is Indo-Caribbean and whose father is half Indian, it was a way to connect to a culture she felt disconnected from. A feeling that was magnified once she moved from New York to Boulder, Colorado.
“I’m like the only brown person I know in the whole town, and I just didn’t have anything to remind me of home,” she said. “Nothing felt familiar, nothing felt safe either.”
Chai was something accessible — there was milk, cinnamon and vanilla — and even though she had never really cooked before, Maharaj started to teach herself how to make chai.
“I didn’t know a lot of things and I felt shame, like so much shame, for not knowing about this,” she said. “So I was like, ‘I’m going to learn everything about Indian food, even though I’m not even from India, I’m gonna learn everything about chai.’ And it’s just been something that has stayed with me.”
Maharaj kept making chai after she moved to Portland, sharing it with friends and bringing it to parties and events. It got to the point where if she was going anywhere, folks were expecting to have her chai.
But when the duo decided to pursue Chaiwallah as a business, they ran into their first hurdle: where to make it for commercial production. Maharaj said her roommate was far past having production take place at home anymore. After texting with friends, they got connected to Jasper Shen who pointed them to some commercial kitchen options. He also introduced them to the rest of the Win Win team, asking if the pair would like to come on as partners.
“We were just so excited,” said Maharaj. “To be asked that is like ‘Wow’, there’s so much opportunity, they’re offering so much of their time and their experience and that seems like such a special thing to give to the community.”
It also aligned with their own values and vision for a food world in which BIPOC food makers would be more celebrated. There has been a long history of white chefs taking from different cultures and capitalizing on that, and Khan and Maharaj saw Win Win as actively carving a new path in the community.
“It was very attractive to be asked to be a part of that,” Khan said. “It was just really cool to have two folks of color, who were also working within food that’s in their background [with] flavors close to their own home … because that’s what we’re about [too].”
The restaurant group has already partnered with five food producers in Portland and is still looking to bring on others. Win Win’s Catie Hannigan said they’re also curating a new food cart pod called Lil’ America in collaboration with ChefStable.
“Linh and Jasper are going to be curating it with only BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ food carts,” said Hannigan.
The pod of six to eight carts is set to open in September in Southeast Portland.