Bye Bye Birdy 

Half and Half's Decade Ends

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EVERY DAY for the last 10 years, a small black-and-white dog named Ebola has come to the squeaky screen door at 923 SW Oak and waited patiently to be let inside. When the door is opened for her, she walks the length of a coffee bar, past pegboard packed with oddities like audiotapes and beer cozies, and sits beside a display cooler packed with sandwiches, deviled eggs, and pie. After receiving the small bite of ham she's come for, she walks placidly back to the front door to leave.

While Ebola is the only canine customer to frequent the much-loved downtown coffee shop Half and Half, she is perhaps the perfect symbol for the constancy of the many Portlanders who've made the seemingly always sunny café a daily stop. Much to the dismay of customers (two and four legged alike) the Half and Half will close its doors on April 30 and become nothing more than a delicious memory.

In an interview with the Mercury, owners Robin Rosenberg and Jeff Heisler noted it was simply time to move on, but admitted the decision was bittersweet.

"The Half and Half has turned into an institution, and that's been great, but we've learned the hard way that it can't run itself [without us]. It needs to be an owner-operated place," says Rosenberg, whose job with Wieden + Kennedy has kept her from the daily operations at the café and is one of the motivating factors in the selling of the popular coffee shop.

For his part, Heisler feels he's outgrown the business. "Several years ago it was easy to come here because everyone was my age," he explains. "But now our customer base is under the age of 26. There's nothing wrong with that, but for me, personally, I'd rather be someplace with my peers." To that end, he has plans to move toward more adult ventures—in bar ownership.

Opened in 2000 by Rosenberg with her partner Keith Crowe, the café began life as Crowsenberg's Half and Half, and quickly became a haven for a decidedly eclectic downtown clientele who came for coffee, yes, but also for a quick lunch.

"Out of the demand of our customers, we had to sell more and more food," remembers Rosenberg. After Crowe's departure in 2002, Heisler became part owner. Given his and Rosenberg's background in the restaurant industry, the menu began to expand. Soon the Half and Half was serving craveable pies and a dynamic variety of sandwiches with names based on the day's news and flavors that could cause eye-rolling pleasure.

The Half and Half also offered pre-bumper-sticker Portland weirdness. One could always find something fascinating in the space, whether it was the monochromatic meadow mural or odd novelties. It's the kind of quirkiness that's seen less and less in the current slick Portland café zeitgeist. It's also the kind of quirkiness that attracted a diverse following.

"You've got students, you've got downtown weirdos, you've got construction workers, ad people, architects, lawyers," says Rosenberg. "I think this place sometimes has a reputation for being 'hipster,' but really, it's pretty populist." She pauses for a beat, "We don't have many Republicans, that's the only thing I'd say."

Aside from "watching girls walk by the window," Heisler will miss the people. "I'll miss a lot of my customers," he says. "I had two customers cry today when I told them. I feel guilty, but I'm also excited to be doing something new."

"I think that we really tried to keep it going," adds Rosenberg. "What we realized is that we can't do what we need to do to evolve and get into our 40s and keep this place going."

Half and Half will be missed, but one vestige remains. The owners of Courier Coffee, which replaced Stumptown's brew at Half and Half three years ago, will be taking over the space and creating their own downtown café vision later this year.

It shouldn't be that difficult to build a relationship with loyal customers... as long as they keep a little ham on hand.

Among the comestibles available at Half and Half, the pie often took center stage. Exclusive to the Mercury, Robin Rosenberg offers this recipe for a customer favorite.

Buttermilk Pie

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs, separated, at room temperature

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon lemon juice, more to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

generous pinch salt

1 cup buttermilk, room temperature

1 9-inch pre-baked pie shell

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Take the time to get your ingredients to room temperature.

2. In a bowl, using a whisk or electric mixer, mix butter and sugar until smooth and well blended. Add egg yolks and continue to mix. Mix in flour, lemon juice, nutmeg, and salt. Add buttermilk in a thin stream until just blended. Set aside.

3. In another bowl, whisk egg whites until they form soft peaks (when you pull the whisk up through the whites, they should hold some of their shape).  

4. Gently fold egg white mixture into buttermilk mixture, by hand, until just combined. Mixture will be somewhat lumpy.

5. Pour filling into pie shell. Bake in middle of oven until pie is the palest shade of brown and the filling is mostly firm, except for a bit of jiggle in the center, 45 to 50 minutes. If edge of crust browns too quickly, cover with foil.

6. Cool on a rack.  Serve warm or chilled, with fresh berries.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings.

Web Exclusive: Rosenberg's Blind Baking Tips

Custard pies always benefit from a blind baking home-made crust; your pie crust gets a head-start on cooking and develops a toothsome, rather than gummy integrity that contrasts well with the custard filling.

Step 1. Roll your pie dough out to somewhere between a 1/8 and 1/4" thickness and transfer to a pie plate. I like to roll the edge of the dough underneath itself before fluting to give the ends a little more thickness. Refrigerate the formed pie shell for at least an hour, up to overnight.

Step 2. Preheat oven to 400. Spread a sheet of parchment paper or aluminum foil over the chilled dough so that it hangs a couple inches off of the sides of the pan. Pour in your beans or rice or pie weights, and bake the pie for 10 minutes. This weight gives the dough the structure it needs for baking, otherwise the sides would collapse.

Step 3. After 10 minutes, remove the pie from the oven and carefully remove the parchment or foil and all of the weights. Prick a few holes in the bottom of the crust with a fork and return to the oven (without weights) for another 3-5 minutes, until very lightly browned. Let cool. Pie crust can be made several hours ahead or even the day before.

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