Community building is a huge interest and passion of mine. The world needs leaders to step in and bring new models of living, commerce, community, and connecting. I am always excited to meet with interesting individuals in our community who find ways to shape and contribute to growing our local culture. These are individuals who go above and beyond to make our community great by sharing inspired ideas and businesses that touch and change lives.
Two individuals that I have had my eyes on for many years have been Lisa and Tom Beam. Whether you know them directly or not they will have somehow most likely touched your life through one of the many restaurants they have created/managed. From the Natural Cafe to Pasta Piatti, Tabu to Sesame, and Pie + Vine to Falafel Republic. Tom and Lisa have had their hand in all of these businesses, many times building them from the ground up with good “ole fashioned” hard work and dedication. Lisa and Tom have also been active members of our community. Lisa served on the Board of Directors for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce 2007–2015 and Mt. Ashland Association between 2008-2016, serving as President for both organizations. Tom was active and chaired the Ashland Conservation Commission for nearly 4 years and the Chamber of Commerce Green Committee. He continues to be active with High School Culinary programs and helping mentor students interested in culinary arts and business.
In today’s interview I got the chance I have been waiting for – to go behind the scenes with Tom and Lisa to hear more about their inspiration and passion for working together, providing leadership, and creating great businesses in our community.
Thank you, Shields! We are always happy to connect with you too. Being a part of this community over that past 18 years has given us opportunities to meet and collaborate with so many great people like you.
To begin with, I am curious to hear a little bit of your backstory. What has inspired you to lead the lives that you live and to venture into the world of restaurant and business creation?
Tom is a native New Yorker and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park. After graduation he spent some time running large-scale hotel restaurants, not long after he found a rhythm in seasonal work. He started working at a winter resort in Colorado and spending summers working at yacht clubs in the Hamptons, furthering his culinary skill and experience.
I grew up in Medford and was literally “born” into the restaurant business. My grandfather started a restaurant in the 1950’s, North’s Chuckwagon, which brought the family to Medford from the Eugene area. The business grew over the years and my father and uncle continued to run the business into the 2000’s. I spent most summers working in some aspect of the restaurant, from prepping food to managing phones at the front desk. It was after graduating from Willamette University that I moved to Colorado to spend a winter skiing.
Tom and I met in Winter Park, Colorado in our early 20’s. At the time we were working in resort restaurants and spending our days skiing, snowboarding, hiking and enjoying the Rocky Mountains. We were married in 2000 and decided to make a move to Oregon to be closer to home and find “real” jobs.
As newlyweds, our first “real jobs” here turned out to be lower paying that what we left behind in Colorado, but we knew it was still the right move for us. Tom found a job washing dishes at Primavera and I found a job as a file clerk at Harry and David.
In 2003, Carl and Johanna Wright owned The Natural Café and they were looking to make a shift in the focus of their business. Tom was working for Sysco Foodservice as a Marketing Rep and had developed a relationship with Carl when he approached Tom about a partnership, in August of that year. We had just had our daughter, Olivia, and I was on maternity leave from my position at Harry and David as an Assistant buyer of Specialty Foods. We were definitely at a crossroads, not only in lives, but our career paths. Tom was missing the creative outlet of being hands-on in the kitchen and I was struggling with how to juggle being a new mom and going back to work full-time. After weighing the options we were young enough to feel that we had nothing to lose. The idea of being self-employed had never crossed our minds… we’re not even sure we knew what that meant at the time.
As we started the creative process of developing a new restaurant we were drawn to the idea of neighborhood Italian, like the places Tom had grown up with in New York and the kind of place a young family like ourselves could go and enjoy a night out.
Our partnership lasted for the 5 years, then the Wright’s were looking to leave the area and we bought their half of the business.
Tabu came about through the relationship Tom had developed with Jeven Showers when the two of them worked together at Primevera the first year we were in town. Jeven had moved on to be the chef at Tabu. The opportunity to purchase the business presented itself. Like some many great stories, the two of them bumped into each other downtown one day and started to brainstorm a partnership. In 2005, we bought the business and stayed involved for the next 5 years.
As for Sesame, Tom and I were walking out of Lithia Park one day with our daughter, Olivia, and as we were approaching the plaza walking towards Lithia Stationers at 21 Winburn Way, we both said, “Wow, that would make an awesome restaurant location.” A couple years had passed and in 2008 the space came up for lease. The idea of Sesame Asian Kitchen came to us and was really driven by the idea of fresh, lighter fare that could be enjoyed when literally sitting in Lithia Park or along Ashland Creek on Calle Guanajuato. We loved the idea of a fusion menu and again a place that people and families enjoying the park and downtown could stop in for a lively atmosphere, classic Asian dishes with some twists, along with a cocktail or beer. We can’t believe it, but Sesame just celebrated its 10th anniversary yesterday! Still to this day, standing in the dining room I am stunned by the picturesque view.
I loved seeing the delivery cars you rolled out that were graphically designed to show half Pasta Piatti and half Sesame. That was a clever idea.
That is a funny story… we designed the cars that so it gave the illusion of two different cars while making their way through the one-way streets of downtown. We don’t spend too much energy promoting the delivery side of the business, we really just leave it to the cars and it seems to have worked for the past 12 years.
Lisa, as I recall, you also have helped design many of the logos while you both continually collaborate on keeping menus fresh and new.
I do enjoy designing logos, menu layouts, and dining spaces. During the few years I spent at Harry and David I was part of many branding and creative teams that really inspired and taught me the importance that those details carry. It’s a part of the business that I enjoy researching and learning about.
Keeping things fresh and new becomes more challenging each year as our loyal customers find comfort and favorites on the menu. We definitely “hear” about it when we take items away due to seasonal changes in availability or we need to give our kitchen crew a creative change of ingredients to work with. Even our own kid didn’t let us live down the time we took Chicken Parmigiana off the menu. On the flipside there are dishes we personally love and would like to offer, but when we test them as specials, they just don’t resonate with the broader population the same way other dishes do. That’s probably the most challenging part of menu work for us, learning to let go of the dishes that don’t sell like the classics.
We both grew up with positive role models in our families. We witnessed first-hand what it was to get up and go to work every day and no matter what, you figure out how to get the job done. Hard work and responsibility were something that was instilled in at a young age and laid the groundwork to get us where we are today.
Like the old adage goes, “opposites attract”. We are opposite in the way we approach projects or situations, but it is what allows us to find the middle ground to succeed. From a work perspective, it is a division of labor that has kept us sound, ultimately, we are passionate about sharing our creative journey together.
What are some passions you both share together in your family?
We love spending time outdoors, skiing/snowboarding at Mt. Ashland is probably number one. In fact, we were even married on our skisJ. It was also the thing we could do early on in the businesses, since Ashland does have a seasonal economy and we could more easily take time away from work during the winter months. We try to make time to take day trips to the mountain lakes in the summertime. Of course, we love eating and drinking in new places near and far. It is so inspirational to see what people are doing that is new, different, or just really good!
It started with the purchase of a new home at the south end of town in 2013…another project. After Tom spent the first summer mowing the 1-acre field of weeds, his wheels started spinning, as to what could be a better use of the land and his time. It was shortly thereafter that he began to regrade the soil and reached out to Dr. Greg Jones, Eric Weisinger, and Chris Hubert, along with many others who grow grapes and make wine in the valley. We had no idea what we were getting into, but we wanted to hear their thoughts on what we could successfully grow given our soil and elevation. Our decision landed with Tempranillo and Pinot Gris and from there we moved forward with the idea of a vineyard.
At this point Pasta Piatti was approaching its 13th anniversary and just like your home, there is a point that you look around and feel it’s time for an update. We had been looking at upgrading to a wood-fired oven and essentially just wanting to freshen things up. There was nothing about the business per se that was broken, we just wanted to take things to a new level and push our creativity. However, the only way to fit the new oven in the building was to literally demo the existing layout and re-design the interior. So, with the vineyard on the horizon, Pie + Vine was born. Along with this idea of farm-to-glass, we also began to think of how to better spend our time in the kitchen. We have always scratch-made our sauces, stocks, pizza dough and focaccia and felt that hand-made pasta only made sense. We decided to purchase a pasta machine from Italy and feature fresh hand-made pasta on the menu. The new wood oven and wood grill gave us a chance to create and change the flavors and preparations of menu items.
Once we got through the process of re-launching the restaurant we turned back to the wine side of things and began working with Eric Weisinger to produce wine for us. To play into the fact that this little plot of dirt that we planted was our yard, we thought it was only appropriate to give our future wines a name, Vine + Yard. The art on the label is a nod a line drawing on our very first Pasta Piatti menu. We first started by having Eric private label wine for us and sourcing fruit from the Ashland and Talent area. Last October we had our first true harvest and will be releasing out our Pinot Gris and Rose this spring. The Tempranillo is now aging and will be ready to drink next year. Needless to say, there has be a giant learning curve in all of this. But once again, all the wonderful people that have been so willing to share and collaborate to make things happen amaze us.
What are some of the key things that have helped you both in succeeding with your businesses here in Ashland?
Being able to ask for help has been something that neither of us has ever been afraid to do. There is so much clarity to garner from a fresh perspective. As small business owners, we are juggling so many things that we sometimes need those outside perspectives to really bring into focus what is important and how to better prioritize. We are lucky to have our family here to lean on and help us through tough decision-making times.
Getting involved and volunteering in Ashland really gave us an opportunity to meet and learn from people outside of the restaurant business. It was also a great way to develop wonderful friendships and work alongside other really motivated people.
You both still maintain a high level of involvement in your businesses to this day.
Yes, our jobs are really dynamic, and depending on the season, our work can vary greatly. We do our best to spend equal time at each restaurant throughout the week. However, as the businesses have matured we have found the time to expand our work beyond the days of needing to be so hands-on for every meal period like we were in the early years. With our vineyard now in full production, Tom is spending a lot of time tending to that. At the end of the day we do really enjoy all of what we do.
You both have played an active role in community as both business owners and leaders. How do you see our community continuing to change and evolve over the next ten years?
We are hopeful that with the coming changes in City Administration there will be strong leadership to see Ashland find ways to get young families and new industry established. It is no secret that affordability in Ashland has made attracting young families and new companies really challenging. Continuing to ramp up the year-round activities and tourism is going to be the key to Ashland evolving and staying vibrant.
You now have a new restaurant, Falafel Republic. Please tell us about it.
The idea began several years ago. In 2014, we met Sam Jackson when we hired him as the chef at Sesame. He ran the kitchen there for a couple of years. Naturally we were always throwing new concept ideas around and at some point the idea of a quick-service falafel menu came about. Tom and Sam even began developing recipes and we started looking around for potential lease spaces. At that point nothing panned out and we were ready to begin moving forward with the Pie + Vine project, so Sam transitioned to running that kitchen for the opening. After a year or so, Sam moved on to work at Sammich for a change of pace, and the three of us remained in contact…in fact we are neighbors.
In October of last year, we learned that the space where Milagro’s had operated, in the Market of Choice shopping center, was going to be sold. We immediately thought back to the idea of falafel and the brainstorming sessions with Sam. It started with a casual conversation, before long we were all on-board to partner and move this idea forward. We had always appreciated Sam’s approach to business and passion for food, seemed like a natural fit.
The food service industry is changing quickly. And as people have less and less time for meal preparation the idea of a healthy, quick-service restaurant confirmed that a Mediterranean menu was the right direction. Falafel Republic offers fresh baked pita, homemade falafel, shawarma, a variety of fresh salads and organic Greek frozen yogurt. It is a really casual and every day kind of place. From the partnership perspective, Sam is there as the operator, and the three of us collaborate and continue to find ways to be better at what we do.
I imagine you have a great cookbook selection at home. What are some of your favorites?
We have lots of cookbooks we look to for inspiration, but rarely do we take the time to cook from them. Some of our favorites are from Momofuku, Toro Bravo, Mario Batalli, Modernist Cuisine, anything Julia Child, Gwenyth Paltrow, and who doesn’t reference the Joy of Cooking?
When you are developing menus for a new restaurant or an updated menu at an existing restaurant, where do you turn for inspiration?
Traveling, trade shows, customer feedback are all great sources of inspiration for us. We come up with lists of ideas, but then there is the reality of what is seasonally available during the course of our 6-month menu.
In the middle of the week when you are working, your daughter is in school and afternoon activities, what is your favorite quick meal to make?
I think the answer is, I phone it in… Keeping it simple with a roasted chicken and salad seems to fill most nights of the week. We have an on-going joke in our house that rather than taco night we have FFYN (fend for yourself night). Sunday is the day we like to try new recipes and REALLY cook for family and friends.
Are there any last thoughts or comments you would like to share with our community?
We are of course grateful to all the people that have helped us find our way here in Ashland, from our friends, family and mentors. Ashland can be a tricky place at first to settle into, but if you are willing to put yourself out there, there are incredible people to meet and learn from.
Pie + Vine, 358 E. Main Street
Sesame Asian Kitchen
21 Winburn Way
1465 Siskiyou Blvd