Why, through boom, bust and 50-50 odds of success, are so many people willing to take a chance on opening a restaurant?
OPENING A restaurant is a dreamer’s fancy, a risky business. It’s brutal work, it ruins relationships, it rarely leads to riches.
So why, through boom, bust and a relentless recession, are so many willing to take a chance?
For some, it’s the ambition of becoming the next Tom Douglas, crowned this year with the James Beard Award as America’s Outstanding Restaurateur. Others just want to be their own boss after years spent under the tutelage — or thumb — of mentors and meanies.
Then there’s the passion.
Most Read Life Stories
- Thinking about escaping to Mexico for the winter? Think again, CDC says.
- Ramen kit perfection, a new Indian food truck and more eats in Issaquah
- Seattle’s best mapo tofu and our food critic's other takeout picks that will hold up well for a long drive home
- No vinegar, no heat. This small Whidbey Island pickle company stands by the age-old method of oak barrel fermentation
- This Seattle woman is on a pandemic-inspired mission to get everyone to jump rope
“Opening a restaurant is such an emotional experience. It’s so raw,” says chef Maria Hines. “There are so many factors beyond our control that you have to deal with, navigate and survive through.”
She’s done so twice: first at Tilth, in Wallingford, next at Golden Beetle in Ballard. Both were turnkey operations, restaurant redo’s opened on a shoestring. Hines ran high-end kitchens on both coasts before striking out on her own, with help from a few investors.
Ownership has brought her fame — including an opportunity to smoke Morimoto out of his Iron Chef coat. But, so far, no fortune.
She lives in a 550-square-foot house, and only recently traded her 15-year-old sedan for a new minivan used to haul food and equipment to caterings that add to her bottom line.
“I’m more in debt today than I was when I opened Tilth” in 2006, admits the 40-year-old chef, whose workweek often extends to 70 hours. That hasn’t slowed her plans to open a third, even a fourth Seattle restaurant. “Cooks are all about the suffer-fest,” she explains. “We love the challenge. And there’s nothing more terrifying than opening a restaurant.”
Larkin Young isn’t scared. Tilth’s former chef de cuisine was at Hines’ side when she bested the Iron Chef before an audience of millions. After three years at Tilth, he stood as second-in-command at Golden Beetle’s 2010 debut — taking mental notes for the day he’ll wield knives at a restaurant he hopes to call Spoon.
Young’s business plan includes a menu based on a locavore’s love of foraging, and a résumé jump-started when he was a boy, canning, baking and sausage-making with his family on 40 acres of Minnesota woodland.
What he doesn’t have is money.
“You don’t realize how much it takes,” says Young, estimating $250,000 to lease a 50-seat turnkey, do a remodel, secure permits and insurance, and still have “a little cushion” for unexpected items like a faulty hood or failing cooler.
Since arriving in Seattle a dozen years ago, Young has been both grill cook and head cook. Now 37, he’s done stints at several high-profile restaurants, most recently as sous-chef at Michael Mina’s vaunted downtowner RN74. There, he watched with fascination as the San Francisco-based chef’s Euro-luxe newcomer unfolded.
“I want to make something happen,” says Young, who since parted ways with the Mina Group. “I don’t want to put myself in the position of being someone’s sous-chef for another two years.”
But he might have to.
“I think it would be close to impossible for me to go into a bank and say, ‘Here’s my business plan, I need this amount of money.’ I rent a house. I barely got accepted for a credit card.”
HOMEOWNERSHIP and good credit were a godsend for Tony Mann. In 2004, it helped secure $250,000 to lease a prime spot in Edmonds’ new 99 Ranch Market complex and build a big, bright 110-seater just north of his original T&T Seafood Restaurant.
It took a $100,000 second mortgage on his home, a $70,000 business loan from his bank, and $80,000 squirreled away during the four years he and his partner, Theresa Lam, worked seven days a week at their first effort — a small cafe in Shoreline.
“Cooking is all I ever wanted to do,” says the 52-year-old chef. Born in Saigon to Cantonese parents, he worked his way up the ladder from dishwasher to restaurant owner after emigrating to the U.S. in 1979. It wasn’t an easy climb.
Tony met Theresa at Fortune City in Seattle’s Chinatown. He cooked; she worked the cash register. They fell in love, soon setting their hearts on opening the restaurant that would bear their initials.
They opened in 2000, when they found and leased a former pho shop, investing $45,000 in savings, knowing the cafe was to be demolished for road improvements. “We were never thinking far enough ahead,” recalls Lam.
But they had the foresight to hire an accountant familiar with the restaurant business to keep abreast of daily receipts, taxes, payroll and permitting. He’s still working for them.
That’s one of the smartest moves a first-time restaurant owner could make, says Anthony Anton, president of the Washington Restaurant Association. “Not understanding the financials is where people get crushed. Fifty percent of restaurants open in Washington today will be out of business — or owned by somebody else — five years from now.”
For those that last, “we’re still hoping to make a nickel on a dollar, and the average is 4 cents.”
Lam was a novice waitress, but learned quickly how to turn a nickel into a buck. When business was slow, she’d drive to a nearby Costco and hand out takeout menus. Meantime, Mann made all his sauces from scratch and soon had a fan club clamoring for his honey walnut prawns and “House Special crab.”
Among the fans: the management behind 99 Ranch, which offered him a new venue and attractive lease concessions. Sold!
For nearly a year, the chef recalls, he ran between the two restaurants. One night, his heart racing, he ended up in the emergency room. “You’re like an overheated car,” the doctor explained. His prescription? “Don’t work so hard.”
Since then, the couple has married, shuttered the original T&T and expanded their Edmonds restaurant, absorbing the store next door. They’ve paid off their house and much of the initial bank loan; grown their staff from five to 25, added a wildly popular dim sum kitchen. They’ve hired a general manager, cut their hours, learned to delegate.
After a recent family trip to Southeast Asia, Lam’s son, Wilson, and daughter, Stella, now in college, recalled those early days in Shoreline. After school, they’d come to the café, help bag takeout and fall asleep across some chairs.
Do they see themselves taking over the family business? Wilson laughs, pointing to his sister. “Anything can happen,” she says.
DONNA MOODIE, owner of Marjorie, the jewel-box bistro on Capitol Hill, studied French, art and communications in college, but her real education came after.
Working at Chicago’s Drake Hotel — in a small bar perfect for men with their mistresses and celebrities like Oprah — she learned the finer points of fine service. Tips financed a trip to Europe in 1985, and upon her return to Chicago, “I wanted a place where I can invest in the same way the people who own it invest: emotionally.”
At Jerome’s, she found just that, waiting tables and apprenticing as a baker during her six-year tenure. There the owners sourced organic vegetables and meat from local butchers. “Avant-garde for its day,” Jerome’s “had a charming patio, comfortable service and an amazing staff,” recalls Moodie.
It became the prototype for Marjorie, named for her Jamaican mother, whose “graciously hosted dinner parties” laid the foundation for her daughter’s career.
Moodie, who has so far invested in four restaurants, spent $120,000 — “our life savings” — to open her first, Marco’s Supperclub, with partner Marco Rulff (closed last year after a 17-year-run). Their second, Lush Life, was closed in 2002, renovated and reincarnated as the original Marjorie after the couple split the sheets.
“We had caring people on our staff,” Moodie says of that time. “But it was hard for them when we were breaking up,” a process that unfolded over several highly emotional years. “It was like they were the children of divorce.”
Then, in 2008, five years after opening, Marjorie was forced to close when the Belltown building it inhabited was sold. “When I found out I had to move, I felt really devastated,” she said at the time, “but then I looked around and saw it was a great opportunity, too.”
That opportunity came after a long search, a year and a half in which she waited tables at Ethan Stowell’s tiny Queen Anne restaurant, How to Cook a Wolf.
With the economy in free-fall, “Working at Wolf inspired me to look at a small space and be serious about it,” Moodie says. It also found her shelving her original business plan for the new Marjorie — one that called for multiple investors and two more restaurant concepts.
“There’s an austerity that makes sense in this economy. One that says, ‘If it’s doable, I should do it myself.’ “
Acting as her restaurant’s general contractor, she invested $200,000 to plant Marjorie in the shade of the Chloe apartment complex off 14th Avenue and Union Street — a corner that has since come to house Skillet Diner and the relocated Restaurant Zoë.
“Being adaptable is huge,” she says. “I’m not an interior decorator, but I became one. I’m not an HR person, but I do bookkeeping and hiring. I’m not a marketing specialist, but I need to know how to conduct social media. I’m not a sommelier, but I’ll purchase wines. I’m not a gardener, but I maintain the patio myself.
“I’m not a trained chef, but I’m going to put my head back there in the kitchen and engage in a conversation.”
Emotionally, her investment paid off — something Moodie’s acutely aware of while hosting the dinner party disguised as Marjorie’s dining room. Financially, not quite yet. “In the early ’90s it would have been,” she notes. “Everything’s increased except for the public perception of the cost of dining out.
“It’s hard for people to understand what it takes to run a small business.”
RUNNING a large restaurant is no picnic, either, but it’s paid off big-time for Nate Opper — who beat the crowds to Ballard when he staked his reputation on a Tex-Mex tequila bar, the Matador, since cloned six times in three states.
Opper was working construction, tending bar part-time at a Pioneer Square pub when he had an epiphany: “Why should I be pounding nails in the rain and getting electrocuted by a Skilsaw?” Why not open a restaurant? Trouble was, “I was living week-to-week.”
Ten years and 10 restaurants later, he owns a view home in Seattle’s Broadview neighborhood.
“I never miss a sunset,” Opper boasts after the debut of his company’s second restaurant concept: Kickin’ Boot Whiskey Kitchen, a Southern comfort-food joint opened in August.
He also never misses a trick, says his partner, Zak Melang.
“You couldn’t find two people more yin and yang than Nathan and me,” says Melang, a family man whose mellow drawl speaks of his North Carolina roots. A former musician, bartender and restaurant manager, today he wrangles real estate and oversees design for their company while Opper rides herd on operations, food service and nearly 500 employees.
“I’m a really headstrong person,” Opper says. “Zak trusts that I’ll take care of things, and I do. If he was exactly like me, we’d be arguing.”
It took two years to locate and lease the first Matador, since reproduced in West Seattle, Tacoma, Redmond, twice in Portland and most recently in Boise. “I’m obsessive,” says Melang. “I probably lost 25 to 30 locations before I found our first spot.”
He’s as obsessive about his restaurants’ look as their locations.
“When I show people what a Matador looks like, Tacoma is what I like to show them: a historical building, preferably brick. I love corner locations. A small footprint — around 3,500 to 4,000 square feet. High ceilings are always a plus.” So is “a cool patio.”
Best of all is a high-density neighborhood, like the one in Northwest Portland where, two months after opening Kickin’ Boot, they launched its Southern sibling, Southland Whiskey Kitchen.
Opper, a self-taught cook with a refined palate, depends on a fleet of professionals to oversee his bars and kitchens. He trains them well.
On opening night at Kickin’ Boot, Opper kicked butt, showing a prep cook how to better batter fried chicken, expediting at the kitchen window and eyeballing bartenders slow to the task — before taking them to task for that shortcoming.
Says Melang, “He’s the kind of guy who excels when thrown into the fire.” Only weeks before Kickin’ Boot’s debut in the handsomely restored Henry Gowan Whyte Building, Opper added fuel to that fire. He gave the go-ahead for demolition on a third concept: Ballard Annex Oyster House, a seafood restaurant aiming to open in December betwixt the Boot and the Ballard Matador.
“It was never our intention to open three restaurants in a two-block radius,” says Melang, who finessed a lease that has them owning the building in five years — an important first for the company. “But these locations are magnificent. Someone was going to open a restaurant in them, and we figured we’d rather compete with ourselves.”
Eight years ago, the partners set out to control their own destinies and were able to do so thanks to an “angel investor” — a silent partner who’d made his own fortune in the restaurant business. “He lent me $70,000,” and financed twice that himself, Opper says. “Not a ton of money, but for me it was — because I didn’t have any.”
LARKIN YOUNG is still waiting for an angel. Last summer he hosted a successful Spoon “pop-up” — borrowing a friend’s restaurant for one night. He’s showed his business plan to restaurant consultants, small-business mentors and chefs who’ve taken the plunge and succeeded.
He has friends who’ve compromised, he says, taking a job at a country club or hotel, exchanging a vision for medical benefits and direct-deposit.
“Instead of thinking about compromising, I’m thinking of ways to support my goal. A food truck or a little sandwich shop, something more feasible. It may take more time to get where I want to go, but at the same time, I’ll get there.
“The one person who believes in me is me.”
Maria Hines says for dreamers like Young, there’s nothing like running your own show. “I couldn’t think of another thing that Larkin should do.”
Nancy Leson is the Seattle Times’ food writer. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.