Amid a global pandemic that continues to cripple the restaurant industry, “fine dining is not what Seattle needs right now,” has been the constant refrain from Mark and Brian Canlis, owners of the soon-to-be-70-year-old Seattle dining institution. As the food industry wrestles with how to stay afloat in a constantly changing landscape, Canlis has been a bellwether for restaurants looking for alternative business models. Seven months ago, Brian and Mark Canlis were on idea No. 1: a drive-thru burger restaurant. Then came a bagel shed, a home delivery service, a CSA box, BINGO night, a drive-in movie theater and the crab shack. The Canlis brothers keep pivoting so consistently it has started to look more like a pirouette.

Now, they’ve done it again and their next act is a bigger, more complex pivot than filling the upper parking lot with sand for a crab shack. It’s idea No. 10 and they’re calling it “Canlis Community College,” playing off the fall back-to-school momentum. The program will launch by the end of this week.

Canlis Community College is a six-week “semester” of programming complete with all the trappings of school. There will be classes, field trips, intramural sports, and even a shop stuffed with Canlis-themed collegiate wear. Tuition fees are $25. In addition to the food and wine-centric classes one might expect, there will also be programming that delves into Seattle history and culture as well as tips and tricks that skim the surface of homesteading.

As work continues on the Canlis Community College Mark Canlis shows off his Canlis University T-shirt.  

 (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
As work continues on the Canlis Community College Mark Canlis shows off his Canlis University T-shirt. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

The six-week program’s “Finals Week” culminates in a scavenger hunt not dissimilar to the Canlis menu hunt that captivated the city a decade ago, except this time the grand prize will be one $5,000 gift certificate to Canlis.

“It’s money at a restaurant that currently doesn’t exist,” Mark Canlis says with a laugh. “We’re offering someone to come in and throw a party at Canlis once we reopen again.”

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The goals of the community college are threefold; the most obvious is finding a way to help the restaurant keep the lights on. It will also serve as a fundraiser for FareStart, specifically helping to fund the emergency meals program. Thirdly, the Canlis brothers hope this “inspires all people to turn toward each other.”

 The $25 “tuition” fee unlocks almost all programming, and once a “student” is “enrolled,” they can sign up for any classes. Once expenses (including rent and employee salaries) are covered, the remainder of tuition received will be donated to FareStart. There will also be a button on Canlis’ website where people can donate to FareStart directly.

Since the pandemic began, FareStart has produced 1.3 million emergency meals or roughly 46,000 per week, to area families.

“We’re thrilled to be the beneficiary of this program,” said Angela Dunleavy-Stowell, CEO of FareStart. “We foresee an increase this late fall and winter of families experiencing food insecurity. We already know one in five families are in need.

“The Canlis relationship and the contribution from the community college will allow us to keep the program moving.”

Once enrolled, students are provided with a school ID, allowing them to sign up for classes, many of which take place on YouTube in the early evening.

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“We need a few thousand people [to enroll] for this to be worth everyone’s while,” Mark Canlis says.

The curriculum includes everything from food and wine classes with an interactive component – watch and follow along as Canlis chef Brady Williams learns to make soba from Kamonegi’s Mutsuko Soma, or navigate the wine aisle at Safeway with a Canlis sommelier – to what they’re calling Seattle Social Studies.

This translates to one of the Canlis brothers sitting down with Seattle-area experts from the Seattle Art Museum, MOHAI, KEXP, or Wing Luke Museum to talk about everything from the history of Seattle music to the women who helped shape Seattle’s art scene.

The idea, Canlis says, was to ask, “Who are the heroes of our story that we can look back on, the founding fathers of this town who have incredible attributes?” and tap those people to teach classes.

To that end, there’ll be classes on darning and home haircuts with experts from Filson and Rudy’s Barbershop, a drum circle with Deep Sea Diver, and morning aerobics with dancers from Pacific Northwest Ballet. Almost everyone they approached agreed to volunteer their time to teach classes, Canlis says. Additionally, there will be a Community for Kids component that will be free to the public, even without enrollment.

Back in college again Mark, left, and Brian Canlis jump down after working on the Canlis Community College billboard.    (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Back in college again Mark, left, and Brian Canlis jump down after working on the Canlis Community College billboard. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
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Many classes will have an optional food and wine component, and Canlis is also going to offer a “cafeteria food” frozen TV dinner option featuring dry-aged meatloaf, chicken fried chicken, and vegetable lasagna.

While nearly every class will be streamed via YouTube, there will also be social distanced options to get people out of their homes. Students can sign up to play pickleball in the Canlis parking lot or (virtually) jostle for space on exclusive small-group field trips that will tentatively include everything from football throwing with a Seahawks player and a hardhat tour of the Kraken’s new arena, to kite flying at Gasworks Park and bird watching.

Due to COVID-19 and current King County health guidelines, most field trips will be limited to 4-5 people. Prices will be set “based on exclusivity and demand,” according to Canlis, but expect a range from $50-$250 with 100% of the field trip fees going to FareStart.

(For those worried about social distancing, the field trips “sound like a similar activity to guided outdoor recreation, which is allowed with masks and distancing,” Gov. Jay Inslee’s press secretary Mike Faulk wrote in an email.)

Oh and by the way, you might want to pay attention in class.

The clues from the final scavenger hunt will be culled from the weeks-long programming, but Canlis stresses he doesn’t want to force people to “think they have to take all 40-odd classes.”

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Canlis hopes this will be an “idea, model, maybe permission for companies to think beyond the boundaries that they would normally think of. And that includes profitability.”

“I think a pandemic is a really interesting moment in time, it’s a great time to ask the question ‘how much money do we need to make right now?’ ” Canlis said. “We live a privileged life. … I don’t know that in the seventh month of a pandemic, it’s Canlis’ role to make money. Our goal isn’t to make money, it’s to inspire people.

“The pandemic pulled the veil off a little bit of the backstory of this place. Mom and dad had that heart in the ’70s, it’s what’s been driving the company behind the scenes all along. Now is a good time to learn, so we’re going back to school.”

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