UO grad Ryan Murff finds success in the Bay Area restaurant business with Cafe Eugene
ALBANY, Calif. — Clam chowder is often grouped with New England-area food staples. But to Ryan Murff, owner and bar manager of Cafe Eugene in Albany, California, a warm bowl of chowder encapsulates Pacific Northwest cuisine.
“Clam Chowder was such a large part of my childhood,” Murff said.
Growing up in Eugene in the 1980s, Murff explained, his parents would take the family out on weekend trips to the Oregon coast, where they had a routine: first stop, Honeyman Park to play on the dunes. Next, out to the ocean to take in the scenic coastline and get some smoked fish for lunch.
“And then once we were all too freezing cold,” Murff said, “we would go to Moe’s which was back in the day a more local place, super special. We would end the day with a big ol’ pile of onion rings and clam chowder.”
He attended the University of Oregon in the early 2000s. His Oregon upbringing eventually became the foundation for Cafe Eugene. While at UO, he worked for campus-area classics like Caspian Mediterranean Cafe, McMenamins North Bank and Metropol Bakery. Murff noticed he was comfortable in the culinary industry, but he did not have the idea to open his own restaurant until later.
“I was the head line cook [at Mcmenamins],” Murff said. “The fast pace, the multitasking, I was just good at it. It wasn’t necessarily a creative thing for me at that point. I was fast, I could keep things in my head really well and I loved the pace of the business and the social abilities that you had to have.”
After graduating from UO, Murff moved to Hawaii for three years. His passion for cooking began to flourish as he worked under celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi at his restaurant in Maui.
Later in California, Murff found a creative outlet working as a caterer for his real estate agent-mother-in-law. He was happy to feed her prospective buyers at her open houses and they noticed his culinary expertise. “People just started asking for my card,” Murff said. He started an official catering business and got a job at the former Berkeley, California, restaurant Café Rouge. Eventually, he opened his own establishment, paying homage to his Oregon roots.
But to say that Cafe Eugene is exclusively “Eugene cuisine” would be misleading.
“Calling it ‘Café Eugene’ and having this Pacific Northwest theme was a place to start,” Murff said. “The overall idea behind calling it Eugene was we wanted to make it American fare.”
The cafe is a microcosm of Pacific Northwest style and culture in general, with the food fitting the “vibe” that Murff and his staff have crafted.
“We get a lot of people who are trying to connect to the Pacific Northwest,” Murff said. “And they love to come introduce themselves and say, ‘Oh, my kid went to Oregon’ or ‘I grew up in Eugene.’ A lot of people have connections to it. It’s definitely something that has brought people to our restaurant.”
Murff’s decor choices and the restaurant’s layout also contribute to the familiar atmosphere. An intensely colored, psychedelic image of a woman that looks right out of the Oregon Country Fair hangs above a small table near the door. In the far left corner of the restaurant, a photograph Murff purchased from the Register-Guard shows runners reaching the top of Spencer Butte during a 1970s Butte-to-Butte race. A UO beanie hangs over a coffee maker behind the bar.
The Pacific Northwest is embodied best by the striking mural of a pine tree forest displayed on the right hand wall.
“The trees on the wall is what really did it for me—really makes it feel like home,” Murff said. “If you talk about one thing that most Oregonians who aren’t living in Oregon miss, it’s the forest.”
Over a year after its opening, Murff now understands the restaurant’s direction. Though, the cafe’s ascent was not without its hiccups. Murff needed to completely remodel the restaurant’s interior before opening and had to change chefs just months into the start of service. He sometimes struggled to keep the restaurant financially feasible.
“[My chef and I] just got done with a meeting about how we can make a better connection with the community and really serve the community what they want,” Murff said. “You find out that a business isn’t always — actually it’s never about you.”
This customer-first mentality is something Murff has come to cherish. To him, running a restaurant is a celebration of life.
“We’re talking about eating food. We aren’t talking about brain surgery,” Murff said. “To be part of a special time when people sit down and treat themselves and relax and eat and laugh — facilitating that is really satisfying.”