As the traditional retail paradigm shifts from storefront to virtual outlets, Seattle restaurants benefit from a new-found abundance of available commercial space. Opportunity abounds for chefs willing to jump from the proverbial frying pan of the kitchen into the fire of entrepreneurship But while many a cooks fantasizes about owning their own restaurant, only a few make it to the top echelon of restaurant owners operating multiple venues. So what’s the secret to building a restaurant empire?
Here, Foodable WebTV Network sits down with Seattle culinary phenom Ethan Stowell to discover his blueprint for success.
A native Seattleite, Stowell’s home court advantage translates into an stalwart community upon which he builds his stable of successful restaurants. Stowell’s eateries include Anchovies & Olives, Bar Cotto Salumeria & Bar, and Rione XIII on Capitol Hill, Ballard Pizza Company, Bramling Cross Gastropub, Chippy’s, and Staple and Fancy in Ballard, Goldfinch Tavern in Seattle’s Four Seasons Hotel, How to Cook a Wolf on upper Queen Anne, mkt. in Tangletown, Red Cow Bistro in Madrona, and Tavolàta in Belltown.
The kinetic kitchener chooses venue sites based partially upon pragmatism, partly upon familiarity with the neighborhoods. He and wife Angela boast more than a casual understanding of their client base because many of them include current or former neighbors.
From a no-nonsense viewpoint, Stowell seeks out sites he considers ‘good opportunities' that promise the bandwidth to sustain his business model, without over-saturating any one area. He eschews a cookie-cutter approach to fashioning his restaurants, instead honing in on what he considers his ‘sweet spot,’ namely manageable ventures featuring no more than forty to sixty seats, run by experienced, tight-knit staff.
When asked if he considers himself more chef or business owner, Stowell acknowledges, “Both, I guess. I might be a little unique that way,” he admits. “I’ve always had a strong business mind, and aptitude for math. But I have this craftsman side that enjoys creating the concepts for each space, the entire package, from pricing and menus to the look and feel. It’s an interactive experience.”
Ultimately, for Stowell, the most pleasurable restaurants to run are those that turn a profit.
Ironically, while Stowell enjoys a reputation as a creative risk-taker, he’s actually quite conservative about business. He notes that while he may be aggressive about growth opportunities, he refuses to take unstable, unproven operational risks. Especially now, as Seattle’s construction costs reach an all-time high, while staffing suffers a record low.
“It’s easy to romanticize about opening your own place, but the restaurant industry is a business.” Stowell concedes. “Young chefs need to understand fiscal responsibility.”
When asked if he has any advice for someone considering opening a restaurant in Seattle today, Stowell offers, “Make sure you have some experience, and do your homework. Know what you’re getting yourself into, things like hours, service, and products. Make sure your love affair with the restaurant industry doesn’t turn into hatred.”
Stowell continues, “You need to make money not just to pay your bills and employees, but to prove to the banks that you can turn a profit. You need to operate a profitable business in order to obtain financing. You don’t want to take on more than you can chew.”
Stowell finds inspiration for his menus from his native Northwest cuisine, as well as travels throughout Italy. This homeboy-made-good contends that the Pacific Northwest proffers the best products in the world, as well as the best customers. He also appreciates the region’s commitment to sustainability, slow food, and locavore movements, but worries about offering food that’s too ‘specialized,’ leading to only the super-wealthy able to eat out.
In Italy, Stowell and his wife soaked up the ambiance of Italian trattorias and osterias, returning home with a desire to recreate the country’s unpretentious emphasis upon casual, family-styled meals. Walk into any Ethan Stowell Restaurant, and you’ll discover that while the decor and menus may vary, each shares the same cozy, intimate vibe coupled with reasonably priced, freshly procured, expertly prepared edibles.
At the end of the day, Stowell strives to present good food, in a relaxed, low-key atmosphere that leaves consumers feeling good in both body and soul.
“People eat out for a memorable experience. I owe it to my customers to meet those expectations,” he insists.
Many restaurants run a lean, mean organization. Instead, Stowell carefully calibrates shifts as needed, refusing to trim back on staffing during especially busy nights. “We’ve been ridiculously fortunate about staffing,” Stowell allows. “We want our employees to have a quality of life, not burn them out with super-hectic schedules.”
“It’s about balance,” Stowell believes, crediting his wife Angela with that lesson. “My wife taught me how to be a company that doesn’t just hire good people, but how to focus on those employees, and give back to the community that supports us.”
Perhaps the most poignant example of this pivots around Ethan Stowell Restaurants’ EAT HOPE RUN annual Food and 5k fundraiser at Magnuson Park benefiting the Fetal Health Foundation. The event honors the memory of the Stowells’ twin sons lost to disease, and has become a beacon of good will in the Seattle community. Local luminaries like Tom Douglas, Luc, Mamnoon, Rob Roy and SAM Taste donate time, staff and eats to the cause, while families citywide enjoy athletic events, live music, and food and wine offerings.
Any other lesson Stowell has learned along the way as a restaurant entrepreneur? “Be a good person. Get pulled in the right direction. Be solidly grounded.”