This week, the original owners of the Bipartisan Cafe sold the 18-year-old landmark shop to their former employee Josh Pangelinan. Hobie Bender and Peter Emerson opened the coffee house and pie spot at 7901 SE Stark Street on January 18th, 2005. The corner eatery helped launch the century-old downtown main street’s resurrection, defining Montavilla, and has served as the community’s living room for nearly two decades.
Bender and Emerson opened Bipartisan Cafe after Peter Emerson decided to cash out his stock option at Starbucks and leave the company. Both were 45 years old, and their two children were not yet teenagers. This sudden career change allowed Emerson to pursue a longtime obsession with creating communal spaces. “I am always creating restaurants in my head, ” said Emerson. “I actually explored opening [the cafe] about five years before when I was not happy working for Starbucks.” However, he kept his corporate job until his manager noted Emerson’s workplace disinterest in a performance review. “So I gave my notice and started looking around,” recalled Emerson. The partners considered purchasing an existing business but decided to create something new in an untapped market instead.
In the early 2000s, Montavilla lacked the definition as a neighborhood and was not the destination it has today. “If somebody told me I’m in Montavilla, I would say ‘where’s that?’ but it reminded me a little bit of a small town, which I’m from,” recalled Emerson. They found a rough space on the corner of SE 79th and Stark that had potential. “It was ugly, [but] I can work with it,” he recalled thinking while touring the storefront. When they tore out decades of tenant upgrades, the partners discovered that the building retained its 100-year-old charm below the surface. Under the fake stone facade hid the original undamaged transom windows. Walls and a drop ceiling covered thin-plank interior cladding, and the hardwood floors extended the length of the space, intact but worn with years of use. Emerson recalled it was just the look he imagined for his creation. “I wanted it to look like an old Grange hall, a community-type place.”
When the Bipartisan Cafe opened, it joined a handful of existing restaurants, bars, and shops. “There were some anchor businesses, but there was not much traffic,” said Emerson. However, even during construction, people expressed excitement over the new addition to their neighborhood that needed more walkable resources. “A lot of people had just moved in [to the area], and we didn’t have a coffee shop,” explained Emerson. That excitement translated into a strong launch that almost lost its momentum. “The first year went pretty good, and then I didn’t realize that December and January we’re going to be really slow. I panicked and thought we were going under, but it picked up stronger than ever mid-January, and it’s been a kind of a cycle like that since.” Press coverage of the new shop drove some traffic, but an article about Hobie Bender’s pies put the cafe on the map and brought people into the neighborhood from all over Portland.
The local customer base was stable, but significant growth required media exposure to bring people from outside the neighborhood. “We did the interview for that in May and forgot about it,” remembers Emerson. By summer, when the publication printed the article, the partners were unaware that their business’s trajectory would soon change. “We didn’t even know it was coming out, and we got slammed. Since then, pie has been what made us [known] citywide,” said Emerson.
Initially, the partners planned for Peter Emerson to run the shop, with Bender providing occasional support. She was enrolled in classes and on a different career path but still wanted to support the family cafe. “I foolishly thought, ‘Oh, I can make that work on my own,’ but she was helping right when we opened the doors, and by the end of the year, she was full-time,” recalled Emerson. Bender stopped going to school and took an equal role in developing the cafe. “I felt a little guilty about that for a while, but she has reassured me many times that she’s glad we did this,” confessed Emerson.
Hobie Bender’s daily participation in the Bipartisan Cafe helped the young business get off the ground, but her more influential contribution came from Bender’s multigenerational pie-making expertise. Growing up in Southern Oregon, she honed her baking skills in the one-time family business, but not through familial guidance. “Her mom owned a pie shop, Pies by George Ann, and Hobie worked in it as a teenager, but her mom wouldn’t teach her how to make pies because she never wanted Hobie to do it for a living.” However, when the business sold, the new owners kept Bender on and taught her the family recipes as an employee. Decades later, those renowned dishes became the core of the cafe’s success despite the efforts of Bender’s mother. “Those are the pies that we have here, and when her mom found out that we were gonna serve pies… she was not happy with me,” recalled Emerson.
Emerson noted that pies were not a popular item among the younger patrons when the cafe opened. In 2005, few places specialized in the dish, with most restaurants offering commercially baked varieties. After the article recognized their baking talents, a segment of the population that longed for a classic fresh pie began making the trek out to Montavilla. “When they said something about our pies, all of a sudden, we’re getting people from all over the city, and they were all older,” said Emerson. That buzz about their pies and coffee spread across generation lines, bringing even more people to the shop and neighborhood. As the Bipartisan’s reputation grew, adjacent storefronts became main street destinations again with customer-facing tenants.
Even as businesses opened around them, the Bipartisan Cafe remained a common destination for all residents, just as Peter Emerson intended. “I come from a small town where there is a space you go to, and on certain events, the whole town is there.” That meeting hall idea themed the space as an all-welcoming place for the community. Emerson’s family had a long history of political involvement and civic engagement, contributing to the cafe’s name. However, the obsession with collecting political memorabilia came after the doors opened, starting with four big posters. “Somebody gave me Eisenhower, and I think I had Kennedy, Johnson, and Lincoln. At some point, somebody came in and said, ‘I notice you have only Democrats on the wall.’ And I said, ‘well, Lincoln is on the wall.’ but I [thought] I should have a representative of all presidents.” That eventually led Emerson to eBay, and then he was hooked. Over the 18 years, he has packed the shop with articles of American political history. All but a few items will stay with the shop as part of the sale. Peter Emerson will take his father’s name placard and two figurines representing his dad. Hobie Bender will keep a sign’s letter “H” that Emerson liberated from an old hotel marquee.
Until a few years ago, selling the business was not part of the owners’ plan. “I thought I was going to work here until I die, and I was beginning to hand it over to my kids in early 2020.” Then the pandemic hit, causing the cafe business to struggle through all of 2020, extending into 2021 and beyond. A community fundraiser kept the cafe open with significant contributions from Mr. Plywood and loyal customers. “2020 to now has been hard. We had to reinvent every six months, and at some point, I just felt like I don’t have the energy that this place needs and deserves.” Bender and Emerson’s kids decided not to take on the tumultuous life of working in food service, leaving their parents to consider the future. A year ago, they started shopping the idea of a sale, but they had high standards for any buyer.
Josh Pangelinan worked at the cafe for eight years and kept tangentially involved as a coffee distributer’s rep. Once he expressed an interest in buying the shop, Emerson explained there was no other reason to keep looking. “He knows what the Bipartisan Cafe is. He knows what Montavilla is. He knows how they go together, and he’s going to keep that.” Not only will Pangelinan’s personal history with the cafe maintain continuity for customers, but his hands-on involvement will support the staff from a place of experience. Peter Emerson will work for the next 60 days making sure everything transitions smoothly, and then take a summer vacation before looking for his next adventure. Hobie Bender will come in as needed.
Peter Emerson looks back on the years at the cafe with a sense of success. Together with Bender, they created exactly the space he wanted to build, a small town community space in the heart of a city. A room where people gathered for the exhilaration of the 2008 election and the deflated hopes of the 2016 election. The place where people formed the farmer’s market and local business association. He is excited to see what the new owner will bring to the space, and he will still come in occasionally, but mainly as a customer interacting with his community. “All my friends are from the cafe, and I’ve got some great friends,” remarked Emerson.
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