Right around the time Monday morning Gov. Jay Inslee was getting ready to announce the closure of all Washington restaurant dining rooms and bars, Canlis was getting ready to kick off a new business model the 70-year-old fine-dining institution hopes will help it ride out the novel coronavirus pandemic in Seattle.
The Canlis brothers’ announcement last week that they would shut their dining room and switch to drive-thru/delivery service proved surprisingly prescient as Inslee’s announcement basically left all restaurants in Seattle with the options Canlis had adopted: takeout or delivery only, through March 31 — and maybe longer, depending on how the state handles virus issues over the next few weeks.
With Seattle restaurant owners everywhere struggling to come to terms with their new, limited options, Monday began with cars lined up around the block waiting to partake in Canlis’ new drive-thru experience, and ended with a subdued scene at Joule and Revel, where respected Seattle chef Rachel Yang sold an abbreviated menu at half-price, clearing out three days’ worth of food in both kitchens; ordered a la carte, it sold out in under an hour.
Yang said she and husband and partner Seif Chirchi made the decision late Sunday night after hearing about Inslee’s pending announcement.
“When you see ‘immediate closure,’ it’s not like we have two weeks or 24 hours even to figure out what to do,” Yang said.
Neither Revel nor Joule is set up for delivery, and Yang says even though they sold out what they offered quickly Monday, they still need to figure out what makes sense moving forward.
“We sold about seven to nine items, 30-50 of each, so that was really good. But in order to make that happen, to get it packaged and ready, we actually had about 10 people working. Today all the sales we’re making are going to our employees,” Yang said. “But moving forward, for us to pay the employees and make the sale – not even to make it profitable but to make it even – it’s tough to see what the numbers will be.”
Yet, the scene at Canlis on Monday morning might give some restaurateurs hope as they navigate their new reality.
As Canlis had promised via its website last week, “Drive On Thru” service kicked off at 11 a.m., with the first-day menu including a burger and fries ($14), veggie melt and fries ($14), the Canlis salad ($12), ice cream sandwiches ($5) and a citrus soda ($4).
Even with five drive-thru lanes, cars wrapped down and around the building, piling up as far back as Queen Anne by 11:05 a.m.
The Canlis team was ready for a crowd, and had prepped 1,000 burgers. Within a half hour, the parking lot had been reconfigured to add three more drive-thru lanes; the staff of 60 taking orders, running food, and yes, even dancing a little as the line kept growing.
“At this rate, we will run out of food,” Mark Canlis said.
Paul and Tina Jackson were in one of the first cars, placing orders for burgers and a Canlis salad right at 11 a.m.
“We were out and about anyway, figured we’d get something quick and cheap,” Paul Jackson said.
The couple had been to Canlis before, and say they’ll most likely be back to check out the bagel shed, which opens Tuesday morning. They were out of the line and on their way within seven minutes.
Another couple, Matthew Guinn and Anna Frye, walked up to the drive-thru from their home about a block away.
Neither had eaten at Canlis’ dining room before, though they had attended occasional pop-ups in the parking lot, and they were excited to support the restaurant as it shifts to this more casual format.
“I was like, ‘Any chance I can have Canlis at a more reasonable price, I’m all for it … I’ve been dying to have the Canlis salad,’ ” Guinn said.
Vicky Jaquish and her daughters, Allison Jaquish and Katie Freshwater, waited in line for 40 minutes for their Canlis salads and ice cream sandwiches.
“We wanted to come and support (Canlis) and their efforts and try to support the city,” Vicky Jaquish said.
Mark Canlis says they are “taking things one day at a time,” and he realizes they’ll need to amp up production and figure out the “traffic situation.”
“We’re anticipating selling out of bagels in the first hour. We are currently looking for a bakery where we can do a higher production than our bread shed in the garden over there,” Mark Canlis said. “But that’s what we’ve got, so we’ll use it and we’ll make as many as we possibly can, but I anticipate that we’re going to sell out.”
Bagel sandwiches and coffee will launch Tuesday at 8 a.m.
So, onto the big question: Is the Canlis drive-thru experience worth the time?
If Canlis can get the traffic under control, yes. Also, if you live nearby or can find a safe place to park and feel comfortable, walk-up orders are available.
In terms of safety, a staff member takes your order using an iPad and you swipe your own card. To minimize physical contact, there is no signing, no printed receipt and no cash accepted.
Staff members wearing gloves run orders out to cars, and despite Canlis never having done drive-thru before, service is efficient once you’re actually in the parking lot.
The food itself was well worth the wait.
The burger is a 6-ounce patty topped with melty American cheese, shredded lettuce, caramelized onions, pickles, and “fancy” sauce. It’s a peppery, thick patty cooked medium with a generous scoop of those caramelized onions. Wait too long and your bun is apt to be a bit soggy. Fries are crunchy, skinny, and salty.
The Canlis salad is served with its signature lemon dressing on the side; the crunchy lettuce, chiffonade of mint, and bacon remaining crisp and fresh.
It’s all quite lovely, just as one would expect from a fine-dining institution such as Canlis, but the unlikely star is the ice cream sandwich. There are two thin layers of dark chocolate sponge cake flecked with sea salt sandwich vanilla bean ice cream. It’s like the one you ate as a kid, but gourmet and worth every finger-licking bite. Eat it while driving home, save the burger for later.
Later that evening, at Revel in Fremont, although there wasn’t any dancing, there was a round of applause for Yang as she stepped out to say a quick hello to those waiting to pick up their pre-ordered items.
“I’ve loved Rachel since Joule was on 45th,” said Eric Hull, a regular who recently sat down with his wife and son to map out the restaurants they “would be super sad if they closed.”
“You gotta do what you can, get out in the community and support all the restaurants that are struggling,” Hull said.
As for what tomorrow and beyond brings for Yang and her staff, she’s still uncertain. She says they have enough product to possibly do one more day of takeout orders before having to buy more food.
“We’ll see how appealing it is to customers to pay restaurant prices for takeout … It’s really hard to commit anything without any end date. We’re all in the same boat, we’re all trying to navigate and do the best thing that we can do,” Yang said.
So, do as the Hulls have done, think of your favorite restaurants and check in to see how you can best support them during this uncertain time. Maybe that means heading to Canlis for the bagel on Tuesday — or perhaps, find another restaurant doing takeout, and give that a go instead.