In 2018, three men searched nationwide to find the perfect home for a brewery and restaurant. They chose Salem.
In mid-May of 2019, they opened Noble Wave in Suite 112 of the Reed Opera House at 189 Liberty St. N.E.
Keeping that restaurant alive throughout 2020 has been a challenge.
"It ain't for the faint of heart. But running a restaurant, or any small business, even without a pandemic is not easy," said Riley Vannoy, cofounder and CEO of Noble Wave.
But his restaurant has faced more challenges than most. And through it all, he remains positive.
"We have a solid team, and we like to keep pushing forward and make lemonade out of lemons," Vannoy said.
Vannoy runs Noble Wave with Karl Schultz, his CFO, and Raymond Pelas, his chef. The trio met in college, and while they moved to different areas of the country after graduation, they dreamed of opening a restaurant one day.
They almost opened a pizza joint in Baton Rouge. But brewery laws in Louisiana weren't welcoming, Vannoy said.
"Oregon in general has great brewery laws, people spend a lot of money on craft beer here, and we really wanted to live on the West Coast too," Vannoy said. "Salem is a unique community. It's still small, but it's growing like crazy. And that means we can make a splash, rather than being just a drop in the bucket in Portland."
A government shutdown foiled their plans to serve crafted beer when they opened. They couldn't get the associated permits, and they didn't want to push back the opening date while they waited for the government to allow such businesses to fully open again.
So they opened as a restaurant alone with a menu that emphasizes their Louisiana roots.
"We put a lot of emphasis on flavor and spice, and we offer just a whole different cuisine than this area is really used to. We're one of the very few places in this area that is focused on this type of cuisine," Vannoy said.
The Hot Bird sandwich (fried chicken breast tossed in hot sauce, topped with slaw, and served on a sweet bun) became a customer favorite. Sunday brunch meals were also quite popular.
"We definitely did well before the shutdowns," Vannoy said. "We got a lot of people in here. We had lines out the door for Sunday brunch. Our mimosa and Sunday brunch menu were really popular, and it was just fun to see."
When Gov. Kate Brown ordered shutdowns in March, the Noble Wave team did a quick pivot to contact-free ordering. That launched on March 19, but layoffs soon followed.
Vannoy had a staff of more than 20 at the time. But a switch to takeout meant fewer employees were needed.
"It's rough," Vannoy said. "We're owners that are here every single day. I know my staff really well. It's rough to look people in the eye, tell them what's going on right now, and wish them luck."
But during that first shutdown, the Noble Wave team hit a major milestone. The first beer brewed onsite was released to the community on March 28. The team's Noble Light, American-style pilsner, was served in to-go Mason jars to the public. Other beers, including American IPAs and hazy IPAs, soon followed.
"It's a big differentiator," Vannoy said. "We're the only brewery downtown. That took a lot of effort and time to get that going."
As the shutdown stretched on, the team prepared to celebrate the completion of their first year in business. They partnered with other local businesses, such as Dolce Mamas and Roger That Barbeque, on variations of their menu items, dressed up in new ways for one day only. The initiative launched on May 11 and lasted for a week.
On May 28, the team opened up for dine-in service. And they added benches outside to serve an additional 28 people.
But on Aug. 14, a fire started in the lower levels of the Reed Opera House, and white the flames didn't hit Noble Wave, the damage did.
"That smoked out our whole building, and that caused us to shut down for at least two weeks," Vannoy said. "We had to throw out our whole inventory, including the plastics. The smoke and soot clung to them."
They reopened on Aug. 28, but when the Santiam fires came, they closed again.
"We didn't feel comfortable with our staff coming to work, plus our place would fill with smoke every time you opened that front door. So we shut it down and let it pass. It was a hard decision," Vannoy said. "We're used to hurricanes and not wildfires in the south. I've never seen anything like that before."
They were closed for two days as the fires burned.
"Some people lost their homes and businesses. We didn't have a lot of room to complain, but it did set us back a bit," Vannoy said.
In response to the latest shutdown order, the Noble Wave team is once again focused on to-go orders.
"We encourage our staff to just really be positive and create a fun and warm environment," Vannoy said. "Once you switch to to-gos, it's more transactional. There's not as much life in the restaurant. We're trying to keep the team positive, and push that through in phone calls and when people come to pick up food."
The Noble Wave team in mid-November bought a canning machine to leave the Mason jars behind and send customers home with a travel-friendly product. They offer 32-ounce cans and four-packs of 16-ounce cans. They have plans to promote their beer during the shutdown.
"Opening a brewery during a pandemic, you kind of lose out on the beer festivals and the other things you could do to promote beer. So, we're going to do what we can virtually to remind them that we have our own beer now," Vannoy said.
Glasses of beer held aloft figure prominently on the Noble Wave Instagram page. And other promotional plans are in the works.
Vannoy said his team has been surprised and honored by the attention they've gotten during this challenging year. Response to their takeout menus is robust, and they sometimes run out of featured items. Sales of gift cards have been brisk too.
That response allowed Noble Wave to bring back some staff furloughed during the first shutdown. The team is 14 employees strong now, and Vannoy said he hasn't been forced to perform more layoffs yet.
"I know we're not the only industry now that's being hit really hard. It's hard times for everybody. To see all of this community support is just amazing," he said.
But Vannoy said he misses the days when he can look out over a bustling room filled with happy customers.
"You gotta do what you can to keep your community safe. But it's a whole different ball game when you're just doing to-gos instead of filling this place up with a lot of happy people," he said. "We're looking forward to throwing an awesome party when this is over and out of the way."
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