Standing in front of his enormous, custom-made meat smoker, Jack Timmons is a happy man. He’s a lanky guy who speaks with a gentle Dallas drawl; his family back in Texas, he says, is the kind that always offers a person a drink or a sandwich when they walk in. He loves parties, and he’s throwing one five days a week at his roadhouse on Airport Way. It’s called Jack’s BBQ.
Timmons worked at Microsoft for 12 and a half years — in IT, in operations, in marketing and in business development. After leaving in 2008, he produced “A Wink and a Smile,” his wife Deirdre Allen Timmons’ documentary about Seattle burlesque. Then he returned to his native Texas to go full-nerd on barbecue, attending BBQ Summer Camp at the Meat Sciences department of Texas A&M University.
Back in the Northwest, Timmons started his “barbecue raves,” aka the Seattle Brisket Experience, which caught on via social media wildfire. (The final S.B.E. sold out in 19 minutes.) This fall, he opened Jack’s in the no-man’s-land between Sodo and Georgetown.
The restaurant world has all the pressure and crazy-making hours of tech, but instead of a product release and the potential for a huge payout, there’s a never-ending timeline and razor-thin margins. The skill sets seem to have zero overlap; the rewards seem entirely different. But Timmons and three other successful former techies in Seattle have taken on the role of restaurateur. Why would anyone make such a move?
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They’re all fully aware of the downside. The restaurant schedule is “a ‘Groundhog Day’ kind of thing,” says Wassef Haroun, owner of Mamnoon on Capitol Hill. Expectations must be met or surpassed, out in public, over and over. “In the tech world, you don’t have that extra stress that you’re going to be walking the tightrope and people will see you fall,” says Mike Almquist, owner of Hommage in north Queen Anne.
But like Jack Timmons and Chris Cvetkovich of the forthcoming Nue on Capitol Hill, they wanted human feedback, in real time, while sharing something they love. They’ve also all found lessons from their former lives serving them surprisingly well.
Variety in “24/7” work
Taking a tenet of the tech world, Timmons recommends hiring the best from the get-go. “I got the A team,” he says, sounding admiring rather than boastful. In the kitchen at Jack’s, you’ll find former Poppy chef (and Texas native) Wesley Shaw; out back, manning the smoker, is pitmaster Tony White, who came from Louie Mueller, a classic barbecue joint in Austin.
Compared to making meat for hundreds of people five days a week, working at Microsoft was Sisyphean for Timmons. “I was always trying to get new stuff done, always pushing the rock up the hill,” he says. Then there was the sudden cancellation of laborious projects. “There was a lot of startin’ and stoppin’ there,” he says.
“Here, the worst days are [about] customer feedback. Usually, it’s unwarranted,” Timmons says. “Every now and then, though, I’ve sliced a piece of meat, and somebody might say it’s not tender.” He pauses.
“That crushes me more than anything, when somebody doesn’t like the brisket. ’Cause that’s our baby. It’s like somebody calling your baby ugly.”
Timmons prizes the variety in his days now, even though he works “24/7.” He even embraces the problems that come with trying to provide Texas-style hospitality.
“We have more eccentric people working in the restaurant industry. Engineers, especially, are very calm and sober compared to the average restaurant person,” he dryly observes. But, he says, “This is the entertainment industry — it’s fun. We’re puttin’ on a show every night.”
It’s a show with direct and potentially painful financial consequences, unlike his time in tech: “The fun thing about Microsoft, they had unlimited funding, if you could get it. … Once you got money, you were funded. You didn’t ask for $20, you asked for millions and millions. Here, it’s tight. Now I’ve spent all the investment money, and I’m running on profits. And profits are. …” He just laughs.
On the best days now, he says, his work is so thoroughly appreciated, “People come up and hug you.” Which never happened at Microsoft.
Wassef Haroun is calm, almost grave, amid the lunch rush inside dim, sleek Mamnoon. He and his wife, Racha, could’ve done nearly whatever they wanted after his 11-year stint at Microsoft, followed by networking and database startups in France and Dubai.
They chose to create Mamnoon for a serious reason. They’re from Syria, where a multi-sided war appears insoluble and unending; Mamnoon’s highly praised Syrian, Lebanese and Persian cuisine is the Harouns’ “ambassador for the culture,” Wassef explains. (“Mamnoon” means “thankful” or “grateful” in Arabic.)
Starting out, Haroun dispensed with spreadsheets and three-year projections: “There were some things that we were freed from because we were the only investors,” he says. The process of creating Mamnoon, informed by his tech experience, was an unusual one.
He’s in agreement with Timmons on hiring. “That’s something that you learn in the startup world,” he says. “You find the smartest person you can who’s the greatest fit for the team.” For Mamnoon, that person was chef Garrett Melkonian. Then, before the restaurant opened, he and Melkonian embarked upon a six-month, trial-and-error culinary collaboration that included Racha, both his and Racha’s mothers, and Lebanese cookbook author and food historian Barbara Massaad.
The “initial hypothesis” — that they’d need to teach Melkonian how to cook Middle Eastern food — was a “false assumption,” Haroun found. Slowly, he realized it was about communicating the palate of the cuisine, not the individual recipes or methods. “When that realization hit us, it was almost like we hit turbo mode,” Haroun says.
“It’s a blessing, in retrospect,” Haroun says of Mamnoon’s slow-motion genesis. “It was very beneficial, even though we probably — as they say in the tech world — left money on the table. We emphasized learning, observing and understanding way more than trying to optimize.”
Haroun’s advice for would-be restaurateurs, from tech or elsewhere, is simple: “Make sure that there is that passion there.”
From hobby to business
Mike Almquist started the tech company F5 Labs in 1996. According to his wife and partner, Sumi Hahn Almquist (who also happens to be a former restaurant critic), he’s been called “the Mozart of code.” After a few years, he says, “I left, the company went public, I had a bunch of stock — life’s good.”
Then other tech companies, kids, etc. happened. When Almquist made a couple of barrels of wine with a friend, he was hooked “by the puzzle of smells and flavors.” His approach to winemaking is a super-tech-nerd’s one: spreadsheets, matrices and experiment after experiment, questioning the fundamental rules, then questioning them more.
Eventually, Almquist says, “Sumi’s like, ‘Is this a business or a hobby? What the hell are you doing?’ ”
It became the award-winning Almquist Family Vintners and — to lure people to the winery’s tucked-away Fremont Cut location — a next-door restaurant. Following the tech principle of hiring the best, they ended up with chef Shaun McCrain and the posh, critically acclaimed French restaurant the Book Bindery. When McCrain recently moved on, the Almquists found chef Nico Borzee and his multi-Michelin-starred résumé, launching the Book Bindery 2.0 this October under a new name: Hommage.
Almquist’s first job was as a line cook in a Mexican restaurant; Hommage is “a boomerang,” he says. His intervening time in tech provides perspective.
“The hospitality industry is the hardest industry I’ve worked in,” he says. “In the hospitality business, you’ve got to be perfect and provide an amazing experience, every single solitary time.”
Chris Cvetkovich’s restaurant Nue (pronounced “new”) on Capitol Hill is so new it doesn’t even exist yet. Sitting among the debris and clatter of construction in the space, he’s in a position familiar to many in the industry: He’s spent his life savings and his investors’ money, and now he’s maxing out credit cards, working 17-hour days to get Nue’s doors open and cash coming in — which he hopes to do in mid-January.
Cvetkovich was an environmental artist for a small, independent video-game developer in Pioneer Square for about 15 years, but he never owned an Xbox. When he came home from work, he cooked, experimenting with modernist techniques and geeking out with friends like Scott Heimendinger of seattlefoodgeek.com. His home kitchen “looks a bit like a meth lab,” he says.
Eventually, he started doing 3D animation for the Culinary Institute of America. “But,” he says, “I actually wanted to touch real food.” On a trip last year in Portugal, experiencing the food there and community surrounding it, he says, “I realized that coming back here and working the rest of my life on video games, or computers for that matter, kind of would’ve been the death of me.”
Nue’s menu will include street food from all over the world, with modernist techniques employed but no “big dog-and-pony show about it.” It’ll have, he says, the key tech ingredient of agility; he’ll change it up depending on his tastes, those of the neighborhood, the season. He’ll take suggestions for menu items — from others’ travels, or others’ homelands — on Nue’s website.
Like Haroun at Mamnoon, Cvetkovich has taken a collaborative approach with his chefs Joseph Swain and Glynn Ward. They’ve worked on menu creation and the space itself together, and they’ll all be cooking and even doing some serving, Cvetkovich says.
He’s looking forward to direct user feedback as Nue’s food goes into mouths; he will not miss the kind of feedback he got while he was working on the game Max Payne. “It had this thing in it called Bullet Time, which is like this ‘Matrix’ slow-motion thing,” he says, “and we got a call from our publishers saying, ‘We made an executive decision: Every game from here on out will have Bullet Time.’ ”
Cvetkovich is taking real-time restaurant hopes over the Bullet Time whims of tech execs. “I’ll tell you in a month or two whether it was the right decision or not,” he says. “But right now, I’m glad I did it.”