The Nightwood Society: A New Approach to Hospitality Emerges in Portland
#86this: Main Menu
By Jane Gauger
The beginning of 2017 started off with women front and center. Yes, a man who bragged about sexual assault was headed to the White House, but women across the country put on their pussy hats, grabbed homemade signs, and showed up for the Women’s March. It seemed like the tide was finally turning. Instead, we got a tidal wave of accusations—Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Mario Batali—that gave rise to the #MeToo movement. It was a rough year. But throughout it all, women didn’t keep their heads down. We kept our heads up, our focus forward, and took care of our shit.
Instead of feeling hopeless, some women took a hard look inside their communities and workplaces to create real change. In Portland, Oregon, one group of multi-talented women pooled their skills and creative energy to rethink the typical food business model. They named their group The Nightwood Society and their new private event space The Nightwood. It would be a place for eating and education and women would be in charge.
Nightwood founders and friends Michelle Battista and Kati Reardon honed their creative, marketing, and business chops working for international brands like Adidas and Nike, but they wanted to focus their talents on food. Michelle co-founded a dining and event space in 2014 and left the restaurant group last year. Kati had always dreamed of creating a business that was a supportive place for women in the industry. They envisioned something immersive, serving locally produced food and wine within a beautifully considered space. It would also host culinary education classes led by women.
Harassment in the workplace permeates the food industry—magnetic, mostly male personalities mask what is actually going on behind the scenes and the hierarchical system keeps many women from reaching higher.
Kati stresses what so many of us know to be true: “The culture of harassment is about power. We have to empower those who don’t have it and neutralize those who abuse it.”
Power structures are often compared to food chains. While that comparison may seem too on the nose for us, it is accurate. Those at the top, usually men, enjoy immense amounts of power and everything that goes with it, including recognition and financial reward. The lower you are on this chain, the more your voice and your agency is diminished by abusive workplaces. Harassment isn’t always grabby hands or profanity-laced insults; it’s the toxic tone that’s set at the top. It’s the withholding of support and mentorship that doesn’t allow employees to learn new skills, get promoted, and thrive.
This was the perfect reason to break out, work as a collective, and be more collaborative. Michelle and Kati didn’t want to get stuck in the old restaurant model. They wanted to offer special dinners, seasonal gatherings, and customized special events. It would be flexible, nimble, and unapologetically female. Harassment would have no place here. “We’re in the hospitality industry and somehow so many chefs and restaurateurs are inhospitable to their staff,” says Michelle. “It’s become normalized. Instead of building people up and empowering them, it’s about tearing people down, taking away their voice and sense of self.”
They began reaching out to women they knew with different talents and skill sets: those who run kitchens, plan events, make wine, and farm. Some of the skills and duties would overlap, and there would be opportunities to learn something new from each other. When Michelle approached me about tapping my skills as a writer to tell the stories about this project, I knew there was no way I could turn it down. Women supporting, mentoring, and promoting other women? Hell yeah!
One month after we officially launched The Nightwood, our team gathered for dinner in our new home base. We had just taken over the lease of a former restaurant so the room was spare except for a lushly candle-lit communal table. Our floral expert Rosemary was creating a bed of blooms in the middle. Our wine maven Jules popped corks and poured each of us a glass while our farmer Kara told us stories as only she can. Sarah took charge of the meal with Leah and Cristina prepping by her side. Janene and Kati put water glasses and pitchers on the table. Camas, Michelle, Emily, and I strung boxes full of marigold heads, which we harvested the day before on Kara’s farm, into long garlands to dry and hang for a future dinner. The nearly empty room was like a warm cocoon. I felt a real sense of sisterhood as we put together a memorable dinner for each other.
Michelle believes the time is right to start rethinking how we feed others. “There’s this notion of food as entertainment with reality TV shows and movies set in restaurants. But it shouldn’t be about that,” she says. “It should be about craft and creative expression, not the personality in the kitchen. It should be about creating an experience that can touch people in a real way.”
Our collaborative model is not the answer for every food business. It’s an experiment that’s playing out in real time and we’re still setting the stage for all our big ideas—a wider range of culinary classes, off-site dining events, rotating art installations! Our hope and belief is that our mission of mutual respect and empowerment can work in any environment from restaurants to movie sets, vegetable fields to factory floors.
Portland is small city with a big reputation in food. We have talented chefs and restaurateurs in this proudly progressive place known for rule breaking and scene making. We also have all the same problems of harassment and abuse of power as anywhere else on the food map. With our women-run food venture, we aren’t trying to create an island. We’re trying to be a new kind of rule-breaker—a business where women are encouraged and empowered without the same old power structure dead set on keeping us in our place. We still are going to keep our eyes focused ahead and we still are going to get our shit done. But it’s going to be on our terms.
Jane Gauger is a writer and the chief storyteller for The Nightwood Society. She started her career in television news, which taught her to always ask questions and never fear a deadline. She now writes for online media on a variety of subjects including food, fashion, and design. When she’s not writing, she’s making jewelry, knitting sweaters, and reading everything that piques her curiosity. She lives in Portland with her family.