Amber: Hi, I’m Amber Ambrose and this is The BusinessMakers USA here in Seattle, Washington, brought to you by Insperity, inspiring business performance. And also, inspiring Ethan Stowell of Ethan Stowell Restaurants. Welcome to the show.
Ethan: Thanks for having me.
Amber: Excited to have you. So, for those outside of Seattle, because I know you’re well known here, but we have a national audience, hey guys, tell us in a nutshell, what is Ethan Stowell Restaurants?
Ethan: Ethan Stowell Restaurants is a Seattle based restaurant group. We have 16 restaurants in Seattle, plus a couple at the Mariners stadium, called Safeco Field. We have a good time, we have neighborhood restaurants where we have a good time, have great employees, and have fun at work.
Amber: And I know, at least from your website, I read that one of your threads running through all the restaurants is simple, fresh ingredients.
Ethan: Yeah. We’re out here in the Northwest. Seattle, and all of the Northwest are really known for their ingredients and the product that’s available naturally, so we want to use as much of that as possible, whether it’s mushrooms that are foraged, or nettles, or wild watercress, or king salmon, or Halibut, or whatever you want. It’s all available out here, which is great. It would be irresponsible to not mention that we have awesome, very well educated, respectful diners that really appreciate what we’re doing, which is great.
Amber: I’m sure it helps grow your concept when people really buy into what you’re doing.
Ethan: When people like it, it’s great. It always works out better.
Amber: Well, from what I understand you are self-taught.
Ethan: I am self-taught. You know, I definitely worked in some restaurants, but when I first started cooking I was kind of, really, a shy guy. It was right after high school, I was super insecure, as a lot of high school students are.
Amber: Sure, or adults, too.
Ethan: And I got in the kitchen and it was really the first place I really felt comfortable and had a great time. I realized that you could be as much of a personality as you wanted, and it just started growing. So, it kind of really hooked me and then I started studying a lot, reading a ton of books. I’ve read hundreds of cookbooks, hundreds of recipe and technique books. I did work at restaurants, and I don’t want to discount chefs that I worked for, but a lot of it was self-taught, just because of all of the personal investment in time I did for myself.
Amber: Right. So, you had a big distinction this year as your 10th year anniversary for the restaurant group, but that’s not how you started your first restaurant. That was in 2003.
Ethan: I started my first restaurant, it was called Union, in 2003. It was really your classic starting restaurant. You kind of, you know, you bite off more than you can chew, you don’t really know what you’re doing. It was a great restaurant; I loved it. It was all based on art form and food, and it’s just not much of a business model. It did well; I will say it did well and it lasted for seven years, and when the recession hit in Seattle it was a little bit tough, so it was one of the ones that it made sense for us to kind of, you know, pass that along and not operate that one anymore just because it was the one that was struggling the most. At that point, we had four restaurants, so we decided to form this company with myself and my wife, Angela, that I called Ethan Stowell Restaurants, and we’ve been growing ever since, which is great. We kind of figured out our model, we figured out what our customers like, we figured out how to make things work and not bite off more than we can chew.
Amber: And then stay true, I’m guessing, to your vision of simple, fresh and neighborhood.
Ethan: Yeah, it’s been great. I’ve definitely learned that a strong business model can allow you to serve better food because you can afford to buy better food.
Amber: Right, because you’re doing things smarter and just like any entrepreneur, I guess, you just learn as you go and hopefully put all the things into play that are important, and give you stability.
Ethan: Yeah, that’s the story of an entrepreneur; you figure it out in time, and we did.
Amber: You kind of have to or you are sink or swim. Which brings me to my next question: what are some of the biggest challenges that you faced and what did you learn from them?
Ethan: I think the single biggest challenge was managing a company as a younger person. Granted, I started in the restaurant business, my first restaurant I opened when I was 28, and then even 33, when the recession really hit, being 33 years old and managing 4-5 restaurants at a time and not really realizing how big of a problem we were in. The recession just came to us really strong, it was really swift and merciless, and at the same time I also say it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us just because we learned the most out of it. We got a lot stronger as a company, and it forced us to dig down and really understand our business like we had never done before. As much as I say it was hard, and believe me, anybody who has been through a recession knows that it was very hard,
Amber: Especially in your industry, I imagine.
Ethan: I don’t say in our industry. I think any industry where you are kind of a luxury is really hard in a recession. Looking back on it now, it was a very worthwhile education.
Amber: What is the best part about working with your wife, by the way, who is CEO of the company?
Ethan: That’s true. A lot of people have business partners. I have a business partner I can 100% trust, which is nice. I’m not saying that other people don’t. I think it’s one of those things where she has her side of the business and I have my side, and she trusts that I get my stuff done and I trust that she gets her stuff done.
Amber: And that was going to be my next question, was what type of boundaries do you set up to prevent people from the outside looking in, including employees being like, ‘Oh, well they’re in cahoots together.’ Have you faced any of those issues, being a husband and wife team, so far?
Ethan: No, not so much. In all honesty, we decided a long time ago that we were going to be super transparent with our employees, whether that’s everything from how we manage, to our P&L’s, and all that stuff. It was a little bit of a leap of faith, and I think everybody was a little bit nervous about the transition because when you are a 100% open book, there’s no way to hide anything. I think what’s gone on is we’ve developed this culture with Angela and myself, and a few of our executive team; there’s Brandon Karow, there’s Sennen, those two guys have been around with us for a long time. There’s another person on the executive team named Michael Pagana who is newer but he is fitting in really well. It’s having this core of team members that are just trying to build this culture of transparency, trust, honesty, hard work, and everybody does their part. I mean, when you have that and people are buying in, it feels like a really special thing.
Amber: What is it like from going from one restaurant, and just happy, and you’re an entrepreneur, you’re cooking things that you like, to, what is the difference between that and where you are now with 16 restaurants and growing?
Ethan: I think everybody’s job, no matter what they do in their career, everyone’s career transitions. There’s different milestones that they have and different responsibilities they have, and that’s part of what it is. People say, ‘Well you’re Chef Ethan Stowell, so your main job all the time is cooking.’ I was like, I don’t really particularly like getting pigeonholed into saying I only have one skillset. That’s unrealistic to think that with a few hundred employees I can be on the line cooking every single day of the week.
Amber: I would think that would probably be to your detriment to be doing that.
Ethan: I don’t know if it’s necessarily that. I think it’s fun and I have a great time doing it, but the main thing that I can do at this point is be a good mentor for the people that are in the company, be a good role model for them, a good example, and help get people in the door so everybody is successful. Those are the things I think are really the most important for me, is really the mentorship and teaching aspect of it.
Amber: That makes sense. 2008 was a big year for you. You were named on of Food & Wine’s Best Chefs. How did that change things for you?
Ethan: I don’t know if it really changed things as much. I think it’s a good feather in the cap thing. You definitely get a lot of people coming in and checking out, you know, ‘Oh, this guy’s hot, let’s go check this thing out.’ I think those things are peaks and valleys, you know. On our first restaurant, Union, we had the restaurant that got every award out there. So, every time we got an award our business spiked. And then for three months after that it would go down, and then it would spike again because we got another award. It would go up and down like this and I found out later that that’s a really hard thing to manage. I’d rather have a consistent business model or even one that I’m growing, because I know I have to dig in. I know there’s not another peak coming and then another valley after that. So, those things are great because they’re feather in the cap things, and they’re awesome to, you know you can brag about them or whatever you want to do, but I think as far as the reliance on winning awards, we did that a little bit and it was a tough way to run a business.
Amber: Is there a concept that is maybe closer to your heart than any others out there? And why?
Ethan: In our companies, we’ve got a few restaurants that are like ones that are very thought out and very good wins for us. We started out with Tavolata. Tavolata is the one that really took me into a more casual style of cooking. We had Union and,
Amber: And that was the first one of the Ethan Stowell Restaurants to open?
Ethan: Yeah. So, we had Tavolata and Union, and at one point it was just the two of them, and I always thought that we were going to be opening Tavolata to be help support Union as our fine dining restaurant, but then I started cooking at Tavolata and I actually found myself enjoying working there more. It was more casual, it was more fun, there was less pressure on every plate being perfect, and customers were really happy, and it was a very jovial environment. So, I started finding that I liked more casual cooking. Tavolata is one that really took us in a different direction. How To Cook A Wolf was one that made us think about our size and scale of our restaurants. The smaller ones are easier to manage, and size and number of seats doesn’t necessarily predict the number of dollars coming in the door. Staple & Fancy, I felt like we got it right. Frellard Pizza Company is one because we have kids, it’s great to see a little kid pit in action. There’s a bunch. Goldfinch Tavern was like, you know, at the Four Seasons, I had my eye on the Four Seasons restaurants, on that particular Four Seasons Restaurant for years. I was like, man, I would really love it if our company could take over the Four Seasons. I thought about this for years before we actually did.
Amber: So, a dream come true?
Ethan: I never thought it was going to happen, and then they called us up and said, ‘I’d really like to partner in this restaurant, we’re redoing this restaurant.’ I was like, ‘friggin’ yeah.’
Amber: I haven’t been thinking about it for four years or anything.
Ethan: It was definitely something I, and the concept was different than what I thought it would be, but I love it. Being able to be back on 1st & Union, and be downtown, that’s our downtown restaurant where the majority of our downtown customers go. It’s busy and it’s cranking it.
Amber: Well, thanks for joining us, Ethan. I really appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure.
Ethan: It’s been fun. Thank you.
Amber: Once again, Ethan Stowell of Ethan Stowell Restaurants, here in Seattle, Washington. I’m Amber Ambrose, and you’re watching The BusinessMakers USA.
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