Web Exclusive | February 2017 | By Danny Klein

The Start of a Fast Casual Sandwich Empire

With a chef-driven menu and a culture rooted in music and freedom, Bunk Sandwiches is ready to leave its mark from coast to coast.
Matt Brown (center), Nick Wood (right), and Tommy Habetz started Bunk hoping to get away from the 'pomp and circumstance' of restaurants. David L Reamer

What were three indie-rock dudes, who like music and hanging out, doing raising capital to fund a restaurant chain? That’s a question Matt Brown continuously asked himself in those early days of Bunk Sandwiches, a time when the housing market was a crumpled mess and banks were about as generous as that rich uncle you haven’t seen since Christmas.

Yet Brown held firm to one notion. While the concept, still in its infancy, was just starting to make a name for itself in Portland, Oregon’s food-crazed community, the trio behind Bunk Sandwiches had zero reservations about its potential. The problem was simply translating that passion into something resembling a solid business model.

“We had to grow up a little bit and learn how to ask people for a lot of money,” Brown says.

Let’s look ahead a bit. In the next five years, they would essentially open a Bunk a year. Currently, there are five Portland brick-and-mortar units. There was a unit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as well, but it recently closed, and the team said it is exploring another Big Apple location. There are also three outposts in the Moda Center—home of the Portland Trailblazers NBA squad—and a “big-ass bar” at Providence Park, where the Portland Timbers, of the MLS, play.

In other words, Brown and the Bunk team figured it out. Although Brown admits this process of building a fast casual was new to everyone, it wasn’t erected on shaky ground.

It started when Brown, Tommy Habetz, and Nick Wood were working at a fine-dining, New American restaurant. Habetz was the chef, Wood was the sous chef, and Brown was the bar manager.

“I quit the restaurant thing first and I was like, ‘Look, I’m done with the pomp and circumstance of a restaurant. I’m over it,'” Brown says. “I want to do things centered around music and simple stuff.”

Habetz, an accomplished chef who clocked time at Mario Batali’s Pó and Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in New York City, agreed. “He said, ‘Let’s just do sandwiches and we’ll get a bar where you can do shows,” says Brown, who also founded Bladen County Records.

The first Bunk, named after William “Bunk” Moreland from the hit HBO show “The Wire,” opened in 2008. In 2010, Bunk Bar on SE Water Ave debuted, officially injecting music into the brand’s DNA. That personality is part of why Bunk has not only been so successful, but why it’s so marketable, says Noah Cable, head of operations.

To paint the picture, here’s a fact: The Bunk Bar is one of the top five selling Pabst Blue Ribbon venues in the nation. “That kind of says it all, doesn’t it?” Cable says with a laugh.

This image of fast casual as the antithesis to stuffy waiters, code-written menus, and white tablecloths everywhere, couldn’t be truer at Bunk. “On any given day, if you were to tell Matt he has a corporate job he might punch you in the face,” Cable says.

But also in the vein of what makes fast casual tick is the food. As you might imagine, a chef with Habetz’s pedigree can make some pretty damn good sandwiches.

The Pork Belly Cubano is a thing of legend in Portland. Habetz, who also went on to open Pizza Jerk, a restaurant Bon Appetit listed in its Best New Restaurants 2016 feature, makes an Italian sub Brown calls “the best in the world.”

To get to this success point, as Brown touched on earlier, the team had to master the operations side. They hired a business coach and unleashed a funding strategy that doesn’t quite follow the typical playbook. Instead of searching out one major investor, or securing a bank loan (impossible in those days) Bunk set about collecting rain drops of cash until it filled a bucket.

They each compiled a list of 10 to 20 people they thought might lend them $5,000, $10,000 or $25,000, promising to pay them back with a little bit of interest over three to five years.

Instead of equity, they offered an allowance to eat at Bunk and a chance to play a role in the brand’s development. “That way they can feel like they’re a part of something. They can bring friends in and say, ‘Yeah, I get free food here every month because I loaned these guys some money.’ And it’s really appealing to people,” Brown says.

It helped that Bunk was hatching in Portland, a city that historically supports its own.

“The local interest in the food market also made it available for a young, broke guy with an idea to succeed. We don’t take that for granted,” Brown says. “... When you’re not a franchise growth model, when you’re independently growing, the No. 1 rule to follow is that you have to have someone on the ground where you want to land."

That’s the blueprint moving forward. Bunk, Brown says, could show up in any major city, from Texas’ stronghold markets to Chicago, as long as the person on the other side is an invested partner. They have to love Bunk and they have to understand the culture.

Cable says they’re currently working on a deal to put Bunks in Green Zebra Grocery stores, including one on Portland State University’s campus. This could result in four new stores.

No matter who links up with Bunk, they will need to appreciate what the brand stands for. From personal experience, Brown has always wanted Bunk to employ and support creative minds. Notably, they tend to hire a lot of musicians. These people flock to Bunk as well, since Brown has made it clear that he wants people to enjoy being there and to pursue their bigger goals.

“If you want to go out on tour for a month no problem. Just get your shifts covered. We’ll give you your job when you get back,” he says.

“As far as that growth model goes, for us personally, Bunk is about freedom because it gave us freedom to be able to walk away from restaurants and go into something that we were really happy and comfortable with,” Brown adds. “It will always have an element to us of does this still feel free? Do we still feel like this is an experience of freedom? It’s all dictated by the kinds of people we are.”

Add new comment