Have you ever imagined what your favorite fashion brand tastes like? Pfft. In 2021, chances are you've already tried it. From Ralph Lauren's equestrian-chic Polo Bar to Prada's Wes Anderson-designed Bar Luce, the worlds of haute couture and haute cuisine have come to harmoniously coexist like a juicy, grass-fed burger with cheese — sometimes extremely literally. I've never been, but my favorite is the Michelin-starred Beige Alain Ducasse Tokyo by Chanel — a place where, according to legend, the bread rolls arrive lightly toasted by the breath of angels.
Cost and lofty overheads mean that first-class gastronomy is yet to fully penetrate beyond the realm of luxury, but that could soon change, as retail operators look for fresh ways to win consumers' minds (and stomachs) in the post-Amazon era. Snow Peak — the elegant, uber-immaculate minimalists that are essentially GORP's answer to Apple — is the first of its kind to throw the proverbial doors open on a restaurant stateside. Takibi, which can be found at the label's Portland HQ, is predicated around the concept of "dwelling outside, together."
"The Takibi space reminds me of the Jyubako home by Kengo Kuma, and I like to visualize it as a larger representation of that environment, which to me is uniquely Snow Peak," explains executive chef Alex Kim. "Izakayas tend to be typically smaller, casual, and intimate spaces. So, we try to bring a special and close experience to every table, and our dishes stick to the scale of small, shareable plates that are most common to your most ordinary izakaya."
The menu is Japanese, realized with hyper-local seasonal ingredients. To my salivating mind, it sounds like René Redzepi's obsession with using ingredients found on the doorstep distilled through Nobu. That you can buy some of the crockery and cutlery from the store next door is also neat, redefining the idea of “try before you buy.”
"A perspective I had absorbed at my time in Rintaro was making Japanese food as if California were a prefecture of Japan," adds Alex, whose previous experience extends to several Michelin star restaurants. "I found this pretty interesting and find it directly applicable to us being in such a distinct region of the United States that we are in."
Ahead of the restaurant opening, I spoke to Snow Peak COO Matt Liddle to find out more about the new space.
Congratulations on the new restaurant, Matt. I'm guessing this has been a long time in the waiting?
That's right. We were in a fairly fortunate situation compared to a lot of folks in the food industry, where at that point we only had one employee, our executive chef. We didn't have a whole team that we had to think about employment continuity for, and make some of those really difficult decisions that some of our partners in the hospitality industry have had to make. So, we just decided to hold down the fort, as they say, and our chef spent the last year focused on refining the recipes. As we got around to winter, we saw the pandemic start to take a turn for the positive in the US. We were hoping to get the project ready by May, which has thankfully turned out possible.
Can you paint a picture of the setup then? So, it's at the HQ — can the general public just drive up to it and is it immersed in the day-to-day there as well?
That's exactly right. Our headquarters is on a premier retail street in Portland, Oregon. The ground floor of the building is half flagship retail store, and then half bar and restaurant. It's a seamless pass-through from the store into the restaurant concept, and vice versa. You could be a diner in the restaurant and wander your way into the retail store. That's really intentional for us. I think a lot of brands have tried to bring to life a project that blends hospitality and retail. In this age, I think increasingly, if you're having a brick-and-mortar retail, the more of a compelling reason that you can create, or the more compelling experience you can create, the better.
Snow Peak is such an experiential brand. It was really, for us, almost a no-brainer to say, well as we bring our flagship concept to life in North America, let's bring a restaurant and bar right alongside it.
We talk about experiential retail a lot, to the point where it's become cliché. But Snow Peak is different, given it is such a vital component of the brand's DNA.
Snow Peak is a gathering brand, right? I think so many outdoor brands orient around athleticism, or performance, and Snow Peak orients much more around people coming together in nature. At the heart of an outdoor gathering experience, is fire, food and drink. And so if there's a quintessential Snow Peak act, it's sharing a great meal close to nature. We thought about this a lot, and pondered ways to bring the Snow Peak experience to life. If we were a climbing brand, it would've been a climbing wall, right? If we were a skating brand, it would've been a skateboard park. But we're Snow Peak, and the best way to bring that to life in the heart of the city is a food and drink experience.
The idea of Takibi seems particularly relevant in these Covid times with all the restrictions. Did the pandemic tweak or inform the idea in any way?
Takibi means bonfire in Japanese. It's the heart of any outdoor gathering, right? For centuries, people have gathered round fire, for community, and to share food and drink. For us, we really thought about this concept; we kinda went back to what makes Snow Peak, Snow Peak. For us, it's gathering around the Takibi at the end of a great day outdoors. And we had that as the launching off point, from an inspiration standpoint, for the restaurant concept.
The ideas have been in the works for, oh gosh, I guess since late 2018. So, two-plus years now. Well, before the pandemic was anything on any of our radars, this project was already in motion.
What do you hope it can add to the Snow Peak brand?
I hope that it helps people understand Snow Peak, perhaps in a new way. Here in the US, we've had a presence for 20 years and we've gotten really famous, I would say, for outdoor essentials, like our titanium, which is, quite honestly, the best in the world. But there's a broader brand story to Snow Peak that is about people gathering together, and slowing down to restore their spirit. Our belief at Snow Peak is that the modern world is a convenient but stressful place. What's missing from many of our lives is found when we slow down and come together in nature. There's a healing, restorative power to time outside. That's the most important narrative for Snow Peak.
My first real introduction to Snow Peak was at the SoHo New York store a few years back, when a former colleague took me and started nerding out over a spork. At the time, I didn't really get it, but this brand gets under your skin and after a while, it becomes the only thing you want to buy. How does the company feel about its status as a cult label in the fashion space?
We're really very grateful for it. I think often that younger, tuned-in consumers have a really discerning eye for product. Not just a discerning eye for trends. We see the people who are attracted to Snow Peak, maybe from less of a traditional outdoor angle, often come from a design angle, and an appreciation for just really great design. Snow Peak is as much a design brand as it is an outdoor brand. We pay really close attention to the material story. We have a really dialed point of view from a design angle. We're a minimalist brand, form follows function, for sure. Highest quality, in terms of craftsmanship and materials, is tantamount to us. I think something that's really unique for Snow Peak is to have such a singular design point of view extend across the full range of outdoor lifestyle products. And there's a cohesion to a Snow Peak chair, and a Snow Peak spork, and a Snow Peak tarp, and a Snow Peak jacket, in a way that I think few brands can do.
That also applies to the restaurant — aesthetically, you can tell it's Snow Peak straight away.
It was a unique design challenge for us. We have a team of designers for gear and a team of designers for apparel, and they're really clear on what their design principles are. Designing a restaurant was an excellent exercise in the Snow Peak brand DNA, and how do we express that in restaurant design?
The materials in the space are inspired by Snow Peak gear; our products. If we were a different brand, maybe we would have completely filled up the space with all of our own products. Like in the restaurant, you could be dining on Snow Peak chairs, and Snow Peak tables, off of Snow Peak plates, or Snow Peak mugs, and Snow Peak lights, and have it be literally all of our own product. We make enough stuff to fill that space.
We decided that that might be a little ham-handed in terms of the experience we were trying to create, and so instead we took everything we know about our design point of view as a jumping-off point. The tabletops for instance, are made from beautiful, sustainable bamboo — they're custom for the space — but inspired by the bamboo tabletops that move across our product line.
That's an interesting challenge from an interior design perspective. How do you get the fact it's a Snow Peak restaurant across, but in a way that doesn't exhaust the customer? I imagine it would feel more like a weird gift shop than a restaurant if it was Snow Peak product everywhere
I think the same. You'll find Snow Peak product in all the right moments, but we've been really discerning about what those moments are. So, maybe your dessert will come out with a purple spork, and it'll just be a pop of color that's delightful and surprising and unexpected. But I also fully expect that somebody is going to be getting one of Jim Meehan's cocktails in a double-walled titanium mug, and the first thing that they're going to say is, oh my god, this cocktail's amazing, but halfway through the drink, they're going to say to their server, I love this mug. Can I buy this? And we'll say, sure.
Let's get to the most important part of all — the food. Was the whole team contributing ideas to the menu, or was it a case of letting the chef run with it?
It truly is the work of Alex. He had a creative brief at the beginning, in terms of where the restaurant concept was headed, and then he had tasting and feedback sessions from a small team here at our headquarters.
We said this menu should be inspired by Japan. It should be a menu that can only happen in the Pacific Northwest. So inspired by Japan, but totally driven by what's coming out of the fields; what's coming out of the forest; what's coming out of the sea. This place that we live in is so wildly seasonal and so bountiful in terms of food. In many ways, the food of Japan is wildly seasonal and local in its home country of Japan, and in many ways, the most Japanese thing we could do is not import a lot of things with Japan, right? When it comes to the food, there are certain key moments on the menu where we're using signature Japanese ingredients, that either we couldn't source here, or if we needed to source the quality that we wanted, Japan was the only option.
The restaurant architecture is designed with indoor and outdoor spaces. Even the indoor spaces are flooded with natural light, built with natural materials. So, creating a moment where people can feel connected to nature, and connected to one another, I think helps articulate what the brand really stands for in a way that people can experience, and not just read, or use, in the case of a product.
Find more information about Takibi, which opens May 18th, here.