John Stewart, Meat Cheese Bread

MercyCorps NW

photo and story by Kelsey Cardwell

“Opening a business seems like a monumental task, but it’s not. It’s just 300 small tasks. You make a list of all the things you have to do and you check them off one at a time”

John Stewart is as familiar with the mammoth challenges a new restaurant faces as anyone. As a child, John dreamt of opening a hot dog stand.  In retrospect, it seems fitting that this would grow into his lifelong dream.  He began working in kitchens at the age of 14, more as a means of playing his favorite arcade game than to gain kitchen experience.

Regardless of how it started, food became John’s life. He attended culinary school, cooked in countless kitchens, and after years of working for others, John was ready to make it his own.  However, starting a business is no small task. Restaurants have an abysmal success rate, especially in Portland.

John had confidence though, and knew he was able to offer more than a good product. He was persistent and used his network to its fullest potential, contacting mentors to help guide him through the many trials of restaurant ownership. He even diligently worked his way through stacks of paperwork, (not his ideal activity, but necessary to start a business right).

“Opening a business seems like a monumental task,” John explains, “But it’s not. It’s just 300 small tasks. You make a list of all the things you have to do and you check them off one at a time, and then eventually they are all checked off and you are open.”

Money was an issue though.  Traditional lenders wouldn’t risk their capital on a start up sandwich shop. He applied to Mercy Corps Northwest for a loan to purchase commercial kitchen equipment, including ovens and a refrigerator. Not one to let a thorough business plan by a prepared entrepreneur go unfunded, Mercy Corps Northwest made the loan.

MercyCorps NW

Photo courtesy of Meat Cheese Bread

When Meat Cheese Bread opened, the press caught on quickly. Within a month, John received praise in Bon Appétit. The announcement of the recession 2 weeks after opening day gave John pause, but ultimately didn’t prove to be a problem. The fact is, John’s sandwiches are just that good. 

“Every day that I come into work and we are really busy, it’s the best feeling ever,” says John. 

Ever since opening, John has gotten used to entertaining guests from the media.

“It’s a funny thing when chefs get famous,” John says, “because by nature, we are a pretty private group. I mean, we choose to work in kitchens.”

To John, his restaurant is his baby, and he shows all the signs of a committed parent. John employs four full-time and two part-time employees. “My priorities have changed,” he says. “I am the last person to get paid now.“

Although unlikely for new businesses, John started cash flow positive and has remained so ever since. In a few short years, John has now paid off his business debts and is thinking about next steps.

Next time you have a rumbling stomach, head over to 1406 SE Stark for a delicious artisan sandwich. Learn more at http://www.meatcheesebread.com

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