Mark Stern’s business has undergone a few evolutions since he moved to Eugene from San Francisco 28 years ago.
From a soup cart on the University of Oregon campus in the late 1990s to a full-service catering company, Carte Blanche Caterers has grown in step with the city’s growing number of residents and business clients.
And Stern continues to serve them, even as the catering business adapted during the pandemic by offering individually boxed lunches and dinners for large groups.
“We really are fortunate, despite whatever the economic circumstances are, because they really do come and go,” Stern said. “We aren’t suffering from poor city planning, not suffering from being so detached from our food sources. We’re just very lucky in that we have quite the bounty here.”
Despite the tough circumstances, businesses here are finding ways to pivot their operations. For many, those circumstances are creating a renewed purpose in the type of mission that defines doing business in Eugene.
At the onset of the pandemic in March, the Eugene distillery Thinking Tree Spirits worked with state and federal lawmakers representing the region for approval to start producing alcohol-based hand sanitizer. It was one of the first distilleries to do so, Thinking Tree co-founder Emily Jensen said. And over the following months, the company worked with local partners to form a production and distribution network for their sanitizer.
“I can definitely say I formed this business because I feel deeply rooted in this community” – Emily Jensen
Jensen and her partner, Bryan, moved from Alaska 15 years ago to settle in Eugene and raise their children. In 2017, they partnered with distiller and Eugene native Kaylon McAlister to open Thinking Tree Spirits in the Whiteaker neighborhood.
“I can definitely say I formed this business because I feel deeply rooted in this community,” Jensen said.
Thinking Tree has grown partly through its relationships with local farmers and suppliers, including liqueurs made with fruits grown around the Willamette Valley, and gins and vodkas made with Camas Country Mills wheat.
Now, what began as a love for Eugene’s commitment to sustainability has grown during the pandemic into something even more community-based.
“The reason why we committed to Eugene is that we just feel really proud of the approach this community has taken to supporting one another, and supporting local businesses,” Jensen said. “I believe the more we show up and take advantage of the opportunity to give back to the community, the more it comes back to us ten-fold. It’s not just a karmic, gut feeling. I’m seeing it in the [accounting] books.”
It’s a philosophy that has guided Mark and Mary Ann Beauchamp, owners of Café Yumm!, over the last three decades.
Married for 45 years, the couple lived in 13 cities and small towns up and down the West Coast, from San Diego to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. They were looking for a new place to call home in 1987 when a visit to Mark’s brother in Eugene produced what he calls “a Goldilocks moment.”
“Some of the towns are too small or too big, too busy and hectic or too isolated,” he said. “We landed in Eugene and said, ‘This just right.’ It’s the perfect mix, not too big or too small. It’s got the university, and it’s connected to the I-5 corridor.”
They got the opportunity in 1991 to open a small café in the Friendly Street Market, where Mary Ann started serving what would later be known by its many fans as the Yumm! Bowl.
Nearly 30 years later, Café Yumm! Has 23 locations in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, and its massively popular Yumm! Sauce is sold in 190 grocery stores. Each bottle sends a bit of Eugene flavor across the country, as some of the restaurant’s most die-hard fans can attest to.
The company’s roots are set firmly in Eugene. In 2014, Café Yumm! Became one of the first businesses in Oregon to register as a b-corporation, or “benefit company,” committing to operate under a business model built on accountability and transparency.
The pandemic has forced businesses of all kinds to adjust, whether it’s shifting to online orders at Café Yumm!, hand sanitizer at Thinking Tree Spirits, or boxed meals and home delivery at Carte Blanche Caterers.
This global recession is unlike any other. But for Stern, Carte Blanche’s founder, past downturns have shown the value of maintaining local business partnerships and strong community ties. That is what has made doing business in Eugene a special experience, he said, and will for years to come.
“We will always have people who really take pride in the region,” Stern said. “That’s why I came here 28 years ago.”