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April 29, 2009 at 10:40 AM

Chow Foods guys say: Breaking up isn’t hard to do

There was an attorney. And champagne. And after a 20-year marriage, a breakup. Of course, because that’s what always happens at at times like this, the neighbors started to gossip. But Peter Levy and Jeremy Hardy just went about their business — a business that until this month included joint custody of six kids: Queen Anne’s 5 Spot (opened in 1990), Capitol Hill’s Coastal Kitchen (1993), U-Village’s Atlas Foods (1999), West Seattle’s Endolyne Joe’s (2003), Ballard’s Hi-Life (2004) and their latest, Mt. Baker’s Mioposto (2006).

And now comes the announcement that the neighborhood restaurant kingpins are splitting the sheets: Excel spread, that is. In the settlement, Levy retains the business name Chow Foods and with it, the 5 Spot, Endolyne Joe’s, the Hi-Life and that sprawling mall-brat Atlas, while Hardy hightails it with Coastal Kitchen, Mioposto and a new corporate name — Seattle Eats. So, why are these regular Joes still smiling?

Levy, left and Hardy, in West Seattle (Seattle Times photo: Harley Soltes)

Because “We’ve been best friends over 30 years,” says Hardy. “And we’ll be talking to each other for the next 30, continuing our conversation.” That conversation started in the ’70s when the pair met at T.G.I. Fridays in Portland, and continued at Portland’s McCormick and Schmick’s where they tended bar. Next thing you know, they were moving on up to Seattle, running a busy little diner — and eventually a corporate entity known as City Restaurant Group, later renamed Chow Foods.

The partnership, now torn asunder, once knew great joy, including years when there were lines out the door for their first “baby,” born in 1988: Wallingford’s Beeliner Diner. Known for its sassy slogan, “Eat it and beat it!” the tiny Beeliner was the start of something big. It later grew into a vaguely troubled teen, Jitterbug (1996), before being sold (in 2005) then sold and renamed again, and again. Eat it and beat it, indeed.

Levy and Hardy also suffered the sad loss of an infant, Luncheonette #1, a mid-town marvel whose birth (1994) and death (a year later) cemented the notion, “If it ain’t a neighborhood, we don’t want to live there.” Something disproved, to a certain degree, when the mall-brat made its debut.

“The break has been in the works for some time,” Levy said yesterday when I caught him transforming a section of the old Jitterbug into the new Chow Foods office, where power tools whirred loudly in the background. Over the past week, the chat about the split went viral on the blogs and elsewhere. Hardy wonders at the speed of light in which their breakup saw day: “We agreed in principal to the break on a Thursday morning,” and later that day, “a good friend shot me an e-mail. He had eaten lunch in the Queen Anne Cafe, where someone stopped him and said, `Hey! Did you hear those guys are splitting up?'”

Regarding rumors of new restaurant-life in the old Beeliner/Jitterbug space across from the Guild 45th, Levy says, “I’m maintaining the restaurant side for I’m-not-sure-what, a catering kitchen, maybe? It certainly won’t be a full-service restaurant, that I can guarantee you.”

Pulling out that age-old verbal emoticon, Levy says of his business dissolution, “We’re just growing in different directions. People are going to make this out to be some kind of acrimonious split, but they’re not going to be successful.” He laughs, adding, “This is my first divorce” — noting he and his wife just celebrated their 20th anniversary. As for Hardy, who’s been twice divorced and recently remarried — to Tia Holt Hardy (known as Tia Oakford when she was GM at the 5 Spot back in the ’90s), Levy cracks, “This is old hat for him!”

As changes go, both insist this is one for the better, as they’ve been minding separate stores individually for years. After working together so long, says Hardy, it’s an opportunity to take their business interests to another level. Flying solo, he notes, provides him with the opportunity to grow the Coastal Kitchen brand, spinning it off into Coastal Kitchens elsewhere while further embracing the joys of pizza-slinging in Mt. Baker (and. . .?):

(Seattle Times photo: John Lok)

“We’ll still help each other out with our restaurants, bounce ideas off each other,” Hardy says, describing their new working relationship. “It’ll be, `I’ll play in this sandbox and you play in that sandbox’ — but we’ll still eat lunch in the same cafeteria.”

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