October 24, 2005
The Powell Doctrine of eating well
When Daniel Greenblatt&
s Greenleaf Grocery and Delicatessen opened in September 1985, I marveled at the cornucopia of offerings brimming in his deli cases. In a hot case, there was lasagna, spanakopita, calzones, quiches and tortes. A cold case held cheeses and a host of specialty desserts. The person who twice daily refreshed the cases was Susan Powell, who would go on to set new trends and standards up the alley a ways.
Before landing in Ashland, Susan was a schoolteacher in Northern California, where she started a private school. Her teaching credentials were impeccable and issued for life, until she applied for a job in Oregon. She was told that she would have to go back to school and get some specialized credits, which I assume were clear cutting 101 and chainsaw repair in the woods. She got the credits, but was never offered a job in Ashland. Teaching in White City didn&
t fit in her life, so she became a natural foods chef, to the enduring benefit of the refined taste buds of our denizens.
In 1991 Larry Cooper, who owned the ABC Cafe with Steve Sacks, bought the Creek View Cafe up from the Hillah Temple and renamed it the Lithia Park Café. He hired Susan to conjure up some tasty treats like Thai salad, teriyaki chicken, and Andouille sausage with Creole sauce, yet continued to serve the burgers, dogs, fries and soft-serve ice cream cones that made the place jump, as the children&
s playground was just a hop, skip and jump across the street and over the creek.
It was a seasonal business, closing every winter. Susan saw this as an opportunity, and in 1992 opened up an off-season food operation that she called the Winter Café and Chai House in the normally shuttered building, which she operated for four years until moving into the former Cheshire Cat space at 10 Guanajuato Way (changed years later to Calle Guanajuato, as &
sounds like &
to the Mexican ear and means &
not the sort of hearty handshake to offer our sister city while eating a burrito). There, she planned to open a wholesale business called Global Pantry offering products developed down the street at the Winter Café.
— — —
Susan Powell, owner of pilaf, has been an Ashland — staple since 1985.
Since she needed to build a kitchen, she decided to add a food service section to the tiny place, and since her products were primarily rice mixes, she called it Pilaf (which we all know simply means rice and other stuff). The space was small and had only one bathroom, so seating was limited to 15. The bulk of her business was in packaging rice, beans and legumes with seasonings that gave flavors from the Mediterranean to India.
On the Jan. 1, 1997, the roaring waters of a great flood liquidated Susan&
s entire inventory, providing epicurean-level substance all the way to Gold Beach. All was lost, yet Susan&
s spirit was not broken. She reopened in the same space, and during a visit to a cooking trade show in Portland, spotted a must-have item: an Italian panini grill. She developed a whole menu around it using pita/na&
an specially baked for her vegetarian and vegan customers (and sold locally under her Global Pantry label), and soon the hole-in-the-wall café had outgrown its original space and in 2000 moved next door into the remodeled Masonic Building. Her seating had grown from 15 to 100, with casual takeout downstairs and a full service dining room upstairs.
In early 2002, Global Pantry added the high-end granola that the Firefly Restaurant had formerly produced to the inventory, and Susan moved the Global Pantry and granola making to the former Cantwell&
s Market, using their four convection ovens to good purpose.
By 2003, she had taken over the Ashland Soy Works building across from the skateboard park, which now houses her office, room for expansion and a catering kitchen.
Her business is always growing and changing, and Pilaf now offers cocktails and later hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday with a late evening menu. Games are available for a cozy night by the fire. Pilaf also has a special family-style menu for groups, and can accommodate up to 24 in its small dining room, as well as larger groups in the main dining room or on the balcony in good weather.
Above all, Pilaf/Global Pantry is a family business. Susan&
s daughter Sarah is the manager of Pilaf, while her son Jay is the bookkeeper of both operations. Each day starts early and ends late, yet the Powells persevere and prevail.
I was walking down Calle Guanajuato the other day and thought of the great floods that have ravaged the Plaza and how much of the damage could have been prevented with determined action instead of waiting for days to see how things were going. Walking further downstream I was delighted to see so many diners appreciating both the soothing sounds of the creek as well as the delicious aromas emanating from the fine food that was served. In a flash, another dozen stories flooded my brain, there to be dammed and doled out weekly such that we might all share 30-plus years of memories together, bringing us together briefly, if only in remembrance.