She was a dynamo who knew how to deliver. She helped develop Cool Whip, won the Nellie Cashman Woman Business Owner of the Year award and...
She was a dynamo who knew how to deliver. She helped develop Cool Whip, won the Nellie Cashman Woman Business Owner of the Year award and was the first woman president of the Washington Restaurant Association. And though she grew up wanting to be the next Betty Crocker, instead she became a brand name herself.
She was Gretchen, of course.
Gretchen Mathers, operating partner at Schwartz Brothers Restaurants and founder of the long-loved Seattle café and catering company Gretchen’s of Course, died among family and friends at her home Tuesday (Aug. 7) from complications of breast cancer. She was 66.
“I’ve never heard one bad word said about Gretchen in her whole life, and you know how restaurant people talk,” said her youngest brother, Jack Mathers, owner of Jack’s Fish Spot in Pike Place Market. “She was the big sister who watched over everybody.”
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Her brothers Tom, Bill and Jack grew up in Capitol Hill, where they watched their older sister grow from Garfield grad to corporate executive, taking her determination — along with a degree in foods and nutrition from Washington State University — to New York. There she worked for Stouffer’s Restaurant Group and General Foods, later returning to Seattle to work for Western International Hotels (now the Westin), where she was the company’s first female food and beverage director.
At 6 feet tall, Jack said, his sister “was a big lady at a time when big ladies weren’t in vogue. But she didn’t become a wallflower; she became a dynamo.”
And along the way she became the best friend of many, including John Fikkan, a former designer for the Westin. When they met in 1966, he said, Gretchen spent her time developing standardized recipes. He was her chief taste-tester; she was his fabulous friend who turned him into “the new Perle Mesta,” after the late socialite who was perhaps America’s most famous hostess of the ’40s and ’50s.
Forty-one years later, he recalls a woman who wore her mother Helen’s smile and “was never down on anything or anyone.” She was a consummate entertainer whose numerous kitchen remodels — in Madison Park and at her second home in Maui — he engineered.
Eventually she went into partnership with Schwartz Brothers Restaurants, developing Gretchen’s Shoebox Express (whose fleet of red vans can be seen all over town), Schwartz Brothers Bakery and Columbia River Bakery, under the corporate umbrella of Gretchen’s of Schwartz.
In 1979, back when she was intent on stepping off the corporate ladder and opening the original Gretchen’s of Course in Pike Place Market, Gretchen learned she had breast cancer.
Tom Mathers’ wife, Carolee, recalls her sister-in-law running between catering gigs and chemo drips, telling her oncologist, “I don’t have time for this!”
That was 26 years ago. Last September, Gretchen stood before a crowd at the Swedish Hospital Women’s Wellness luncheon, where she spoke about beating breast cancer. Three weeks later she learned it had returned.
Along with brothers Tom, Bill and Jack, she is survived by her father, Jim Mathers.
A celebration of her life will be 2-4 p.m. Aug. 26 at the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle. The famous Mathers chocolate-chip cookies will be served.
In lieu of flowers, contributions in her name may be made to the Swedish Medical Center Foundation Hospice Program at Swedish Care Services, 747 Broadway, Seattle, WA 98122, or to a charity of choice.
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.