Retailer: Pastaworks

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Pastaworks was a 2014 Local Hero Award nominee in the Retailer category. Read about the Local Hero Awards and the nominees. Voting is now closed.

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In 1983, Peter de Garmo and Don Oman founded Southeast Hawthorne’s Pastaworks with the idea that they’d make fresh pastas. Since then, this European-style market has not only carried house-made pastas and sauces, but an array of specialty products from around the region and the world. Pastaworks sets a high bar for the quality of its artisan goods, produce, wines, meats, and cheeses, often drawing on the bounty of fresh produce and premium goods in the Pacific Northwest.

Peter retired last October, passing the store to his son Kevin and wife Kaie. (His former partner, Don Oman, left in 1997 to open a wine importing business.) We sat down with Peter and Kevin discuss how Pastaworks has stood the test of time.

 

How did you get started in the food industry, and how did Pastaworks get off the ground?

Peter: A friend and I were unemployed at the same time, and we were both essentially house husbands, cooking meals for our families. While visiting Boston, I wandered through a small pasta shop, and I asked the woman what the secret was to her pasta. She said it was the water. I knew where Boston’s water came from, and it wasn’t much of a secret. So I came back and told my friend that we should start a pasta business. He said I was crazy. Then about a month later, we saw an ad for a refrigerator, and he said that we should buy the refrigerator and start a business. We decided to open a small retail space on Hawthorne, because we both lived in the neighborhood and rents were reasonable. We started with a small selection of wines, groceries, and he and I made the pasta.

Kevin: I think the important part of the history of the store is really its origin – that Peter and his partner built something up from very modest origins. It always has been a labor of love for the people working here. It didn’t make any sense if you think in a business model frame of mind, but all along, it’s been based on a desire to carry products that were really worth something.

 

How do you see Pastaworks supporting the regional food system?

Kevin: Our focus is on selling the best products we can find. The flour we’re using is from the Northwest from regional mills rather than big national mills. Some of the best wheat in the world is grown in the Northwest, and a good chunk of that goes over to Italy to be turned into pasta and then comes back to the U.S. We have the advantage of being able to play around with it locally. Being able to use what’s great here is one of the best parts of the shop.

 

What sets you apart from other food retailers?

pastaworks3sKevin: We’re a relatively small operation compared to the larger grocery stores, so pretty much every product in the store was chosen because one of us has tried it and really liked it. We’re also really honest about the product, and we only carry product we believe in and have tested, not just to make a buck. It is also a family operation. I came into it in the early 1990s after being away for a long time, and the senior staff had been around for a very long time.

Peter: We also hand cut our cheeses, and I know very few others in town who are still doing that. You can really taste your way through the store. At any time, there are 10 to 15 olive oils and vinegars out for tasting. And our fresh pasta is still awfully good.

 

Are there any changes to Pastaworks on the horizon?

Kevin: We’ve always focused on fresh pasta, but we may have another twist coming to the pasta world in the next few months. We’re working on offering house-made dried pasta. We’ve got all of these local grain producers that we can work with and great grains around here – faro, rye, triticale, hard durum wheat. Because we’re small, we can make small batches of things. I actually just got back from Italy where I was figuring out how to properly use a small pasta drier we have in the back. So we can have a nice tight control over a small-batch production, and it should be a lot of fun.

 

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What is your favorite part about the store?

Kevin: My favorite part about it is that I don’t have to specify what I do in my job, because I do a little bit of everything. I get to dabble in produce, wine, pasta, sauces, kitchen, and meat. And all day at work, I’m surrounded by these things that I get to look at, touch, see, taste, and smell. The best part of the job is being excited about something and being able to pass that excitement along to someone else.

Peter: I always enjoy telling the story of something. For example, we have a close friend who is the marketing director for a cooperative in Italy started at the end of the 19th century, shut down by the Fascists, and revived by our friend’s father and uncle in the early 1950s. It’s a cooperative that focuses on extreme quality. They pay their growers based on the quality, not quantity of the fruit. It’s a great story to tell. And more locally, there’s Eat Oregon First, and we carry a lot of their products. Theirs is also a really interesting story about how someone with a strong commitment to agriculture in Oregon has developed their business over the last few years and done it in a way that respects the producers and customers. So there’s a story that goes with their great products.

 

Is there a lot of education that goes on around your products?

Kevin: One of our goals is to try and show people what real food is, and to carry things that represent a tradition or an incredible amount of effort to make. For example, I’ve had customers who will come in and wonder why we don’t carry white balsamic vinegar. So it leads into a whole conversation about how there’s no such thing as white balsamic vinegar, because there’s a whole process to balsamic vinegar that has been perfected over hundreds of years and is approved by a consortium. We have a lot of products with a long tradition and history, and we often get to speak with our customers about them.

 

Are there any trends in the food world that you see as particularly encouraging?

Kevin: Just that people talk about food in general. The fact that people in their twenties are talking about food as a reasonable thing to talk about. It seems like there’s a whole generation of people growing up that’s interested in where their food comes from, what the differences are, and are interested enough that they’re willing to find a product with more quality, flavor, and production integrity. People are fantastically more aware of what they’re eating and why they’re eating it than they ever have been.

 

pastaworks_photoPastaworks Hawthorne & Evoe
3735 SE Hawthorne Blvd
Portland, Oregon 97214

Pastaworks Northwest in City Market
735 Northwest 21st Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97209

 

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