ANYONE WHO HAS eaten a “work meal” in Seattle the past 23 years probably knows Alissa Leinonen’s business, whether realizing it or not. Her company serves thousands of daily lunches around the region, giving her the reach of the city’s biggest restaurateurs, though not the name recognition.
Leinonen is CEO of Gourmondo, a company specializing in packaged box-lunch deliveries and business catering. The pleasingly gourmet-ish (or Gourmondo?) selections include entrees like mesquite wood-fired salmon and salt-crusted steak, rounded out with little touches like a fresh salad and signature mini-brownie.
So much has changed — for the city and for the business — since Gourmondo opened as a tiny four-table deli at Pike Place Market in 1996.
“We were right next to Madame Lazonga’s tattoo parlor,” Leinonen recalls. “Thank God, because she was a great customer — her and Sol (Amon) from Pure Food Fish. He knew we were struggling. Our first day of sales was 36 bucks, and 24 of it was my mom.”
Leinonen, a fourth-generation Seattleite, had known she wanted a place in the restaurant world.
Her first job, at 14, was washing dishes at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour. By 16, she’d moved up to a hostess slot at Adriatica and worked with local legends like Luciano Bardinelli at Settebello; she became a partner at Sostanza in her 20s.
“Seeing true, true restaurateurs who are passionate about their customers and their craft and their teams … I knew that I wanted to be in the industry,” she says.
The UW business school graduate also wanted children and some semblance of a balanced life.
She thought a little place of her own could be different from the typical 24/7 restaurant grind. She refinanced her car for $4,000 in seed money and maxed out a credit card for $5,000 more. She teamed up with Jennifer Clancy, a friend she had met studying in Italy, and with Ron Johnson, a Sostanza cook. (Clancy left soon after, but her wholesale bakery still supplies Gourmondo’s brownies. Leinonen bought out Johnson several years later.)
Pike Place was a natural site to make friends and allies, like Pure Food and World Spice and Frank’s Produce. Le Panier created a wholesale account just for Gourmondo so it could afford the baguettes, Leinonen says — an account that still exists, like many of the originals, at a much larger scale.
Profits were elusive even as business improved. A dinner delivery service seemed like a good supplement, an idea ahead of its time, but lunch delivery was what really took off. A fax machine was squeezed onto a top shelf at the 470-square-foot shop, where, “if I had three cases of canned tomatoes, I could stand on those” and reach the orders cranked out with every screechy connection.
It became the bulk of their income, an early sign of the region’s shift from long sit-down business lunches. The retail cafe shut down, and Gourmondo moved to a South End business park, expanding into more and more space and meals.
Now, the company has more than 250 employees, operating private corporate cafes and a few public ones in addition to the catering and delivery. The executive chef is Bill Morris, formerly of the Rainier Club.
The new open-to-the-public Cafe Omeros, at 201 Elliott Ave. W., is about a mile from Gourmondo’s Pike Place Market home, though with 10 times the seating and a killer patio view.
It sounds like a simple full-circle story, but it was as full of ups and downs as any other part of Seattle’s explosive evolution.
There was the time Gourmondo almost went bankrupt, when the company overextended into corporate dining right as the economy crashed. “The bookkeeper came in in tears. I thought, ‘This can’t be good,’ ” Leinonen recalls.
The lesson that came from it (also through her mom, more valuable than that $24): “It’s not the mistake that defines you. It’s how you recover; that’s what defines you.”
There were bright spots, too.
Philanthropy aligned with Gourmondo’s values has been a big push, with regular donations to the ACLU, to the YouthCare organization supporting homeless young adults, and to lunchdebt.org. That last came after seeing children shamed by stamps on their wrists saying they owed money to the school cafeteria. “We can’t have that,” Leinonen says. “We are in the business of lunch. Let’s help pay for children’s lunches.”
Work shifts typically end by school pickup time to accommodate working parents. (Leinonen’s own kids are now teenagers, and work for the business.) She shops for the kid gifts for the annual holiday party (92 Gourmondo children are currently of an age to appreciate Santa). Employees break midmorning each day for a joint meal.
One of the things she’s most proud of, Leinonen says, is that, “You’ll hear time and time again that it’s a family.”
After all, she originally wanted a schedule that could accommodate that.