By Rachael Rees
When restaurateur Bill McCormick ate at the Pine Tavern’s buffet in 1965, little did he know that nearly 50 years later he’d be purchasing the downtown Bend restaurant.
“I was always attracted to the Pine Tavern because of its iconic history,” said McCormick, co-founder of the nationwide chain of McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants. “Now I’m the new proud owner, and I’m really excited about it.”
McCormick plans to keep the elements that made the restaurant famous — its name, the living pine tree that grows through the roof and its legendary scones — but make subtle changes to draw new customers to Bend’s oldest operating restaurant.
“People tell me, ‘Don’t change much, and don’t get rid of the scones,’” he said Wednesday. “There’s no way I could get rid of the scones. That is the biggest concern people have had. They’re pretty addictive. They are dangerous, absolutely dangerous. I have succumbed to the scone.”
The restaurant was founded in 1936 by Maren Gribskov, who sold it in the 1960s. And for the last four years, it’s been operated by Justine Bennett and her mom, Christine Bender. Bennett inherited the restaurant from her father, Bert Bender. McCormick is buying the business from them, and the paperwork will be finalized over the next few days.
“It’s very exciting for me and the community,” Bennett said. “The Pine Tavern hasn’t quite reached the level that it used to be since probably the mid-’90s, and I believe that Bill is the man to elevate it back into its rightful place in this community.”
Longtime Bend resident Alana Hughson said when she takes her son to the restaurant, it still feels very much the way it did the first time she went there in the 1970s.
“At the time that we moved to Bend, it was very clearly the most renowned restaurant in town,” said Hughson, who’s also the CEO and president of the Central Oregon Visitors Association. “From the locals’ perspective, even as the community has evolved and the size of Bend has grown, the Pine Tavern has continued to be an exceptional experience, and in my opinion, really represents the heart and soul of Bend’s restaurant business.”
Negotiations for the sale began last fall. Bennett said she wants to focus her attention on being a mom.
McCormick brings more than 40 years of experience to the table. Fresh out of college, he moved to San Francisco to work for Wells Fargo, but ended up leaving his 9-to-5 job to pursue what would be a lifetime in the restaurant industry.
“I was single; I lived in a townhouse with five other guys, and we decided to open up our own bar,” he said. “Our business plan was we could drink for free and meet the same girls.”
Through the experience, he said, he discovered his love for the restaurant business and went on to start, with two partners, the Refectory Steak House, a company that grew to 20 locations within six years. Next, the trio opened Jake’s Famous Crawfish in Portland. After buying out his partners, he joined with Doug Schmick to open McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant, which grew over 30 years from a single location with 37 employees to a 94-location chain with 8,400 employees.
In January 2011, McCormick & Schmick’s was sold, and McCormick made plans to retire in Bend, where he has owned a second home for 23 years.
McCormick, the former U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, has an affinity for housing restaurants in historic locations. Fourteen of his former restaurants are located in buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. When working with restaurants with a history, he said, changes have to be made carefully.
Last month, the Pine Tavern went through an interior remodel, with the addition of intimate tables and a banquette booth. And in February, the restaurant expanded the menu, adding more seafood, vegetarian and other dishes.
The key to success in a small community like Bend is being diversified, he said, which is why the menu offerings grew beyond restaurant’s traditional fare.
“I want to have the senior folks coming in and having their martini then having dinner, and I want to have the young person coming in and having some whacked-out drink they just read about in Esquire Magazine,” he said. “The challenge is being something to everybody.”
He said the demographics of the population are changing every day, and restaurants have to constantly evolve to stay relevant.
McCormick said operating McCormick & Schmick’s became a corporate job, but owning the Pine Tavern will allow him to experience the part of the industry he loves most — running a restaurant.
“I have the same feeling that I had when I bought Jake’s Crawfish in 1971,” he said. “I saw something I can totally and passionately identify with that I‘d like to see go for the next generation and service the next generation and always be part of this community and have a great loyalty of customers and good employees.”