Owner of Sisters Gourmet Deli in Portland, Michaela McVetty is all about food and community
Michaela McVetty is no stranger to calculated risks.
“I’ve never seen failure as a bad thing,” says the 27-year-old, who’s a three-time restaurateur and founder of Sisters Gourmet Deli in Portland’s Monument Square. McVetty recounts her successful rise with a best friend’s candidness and a bartender’s ease, connecting synchronistic dots like an astronomer mapping pinpoint lights in space.
While she loved running Fit to Eat and White Cap Grille, two restaurants she co-owned and managed in downtown Portland, McVetty says she was “ready to have my own baby” by 2016. She envisioned an eatery that truly represented her passion and personality, and she wanted to channel her business smarts and energy into something simple, creative and community oriented.
When she announced the closure of White Cap Grille to her employees and attempted to place them in restaurants elsewhere, the response from the female staff was overwhelming. “They all asked. ‘What are you going to do? We want to go with you.’” Feeling a deep sense of responsibility to the young women who looked up to her, McVetty agreed to bring them along.
But first, she says, “I needed to go away for a while.”
She bought a one-way ticket to Spain for some much-needed soul searching, leaving her “very understanding” boyfriend and two cats behind. After a month-long tour of Europe, McVetty came home and signed the lease for Sisters Gourmet Deli four days later.
“I had an attic full of business plans,” says McVetty, “but it was my girls who really inspired this place.” The same network of staff who would follow McVetty anywhere are her closest friends—people she relies on for emotional support and inspiration. “We cry, we laugh, we love,” she says.
When considering the right path, McVetty heard the voices of those who knew her best. “My girl Delaney kept saying, ‘You were happiest when you were making sandwiches,’ and I knew she was right.”
The deli’s name, too, came from a Skype conversation McVetty was having with Delaney. While they were mid-conversation, a friend walked into the room and asked Delaney who she was talking to. “Immediately, she said, ‘my sister,’ because that’s the only way to describe the relationship we have. And that was the moment. It was Sisters.” Delaney works at Sisters when she’s not away at college, and is one of the women who McVetty calls both a close friend and an employee. “Once a sister, always a sister,” says McVetty.
And the Sisters mission? “To empower women and make the best sandwiches Portland has ever seen.”
If the shop’s immense popularity since opening in May 2016 is any indication, McVetty and her “sisters” are doing just that, running popular lunch deals like Lunch, Love, and Law Enforcement (an effort to help foster a sense of camaraderie and community between police officers and the citizens of Portland) and eating competitions like the Big Sister Challenge. Most recently, McVetty participated in the MDA Lockup, a jail-inspired fundraiser in which patrons work to “bail” her out with donations to support Muscular Dystrophy. “I have a platform,” she says, “and I’m going to use it.”
Running a business in Monument Square does not come without struggles. Last August, McVetty’s staff was verbally assaulted by a man who appeared mentally unstable and under the influence. “He came in and started throwing things and yelling at my girls.” The three women working that day kept their cool, called the police and quietly collected kitchen knives out of view in the event that things got physical. The incident, which lasted over 10 minutes, was captured on a security camera, and that video went viral when McVetty shared it on social media. She employed that video and her position as a concerned business owner to quickly broadcast a strong message. “I said, ‘this is what happens when you ignore mental illness in our community and drug use in Monument Square.’”
Sisters is successful, but McVetty is always looking for her next big break.
“I get bored easily,” she says. She’s one of three board members for the fresh food, self-serve kiosk Veebie, a refrigerated food trailer that allows people to order in advance and pick up food from local restaurants at varying locations around town. McVetty beta-tested Veebie last fall in Portland, and she will be heading to Portland, Oregon, this summer to further develop the technology.
Exciting as that is, the move comes with new challenges, such as continuing to grow her thriving deli business while she’s away. “I have to bring in people who can keep Sisters alive and growing.”
As a female business owner, McVetty struggles with “being young, female, friend, sister, boss. When I have to step into the boss role, and someone gets alienated because they thought they could slack off, that hurts. I take that home with me. But I have a business to run.”
And run it she does. What does the future hold for Michaela McVetty, beyond Sisters and Veebie? “I would love to do a Ted Talk. Put me in front of people, I’m ready.”
Sisters Gourmet Deli
15 Monument Way, Portland
Look out for more information on Veebie’s relaunch this spring!
Chelsea Terris writes plays, short stories and freelance journalism. She lives with her family in Portland.