Last week, Scott Simpson and Michelle Steele had two big announcements. One was the birth of their daughter, Lila. The other was their plan to turn their bistro and lounge into a neighborhood ale house. “Tuesday, July 28th will be the last day of business for The Jones,” they told patrons in an email. “We will be closed for a couple of weeks while we thrash about with lumber, nails and paint, re-opening on Friday August 14th as Roosevelt Ale House.”
Scott and Michelle, with their “second” baby, Lila (photo/Kate McElwee)
Four years ago, they couple mortgaged their home to buy Joe’s — a neighborhood joint in Maple Leaf then known as a place to lift and beer and watch the game. It wasn’t long before Joe’s had a new name — The Jones Bistro — and a tagline: “fine food without fine dining.” To that end Scott and Michelle hired Jason Jones (late of Nell’s and The Herbfarm) to run their kitchen and installed themselves in the front of the house. The Jones swiftly got the fond attention of the neighbors, and a vigorous nod from the critics.
That welcome was greatly appreciated, says Scott (who’s not to be confused with the Ballard burgermeister who shares his name), but they were unprepared for it. “The volume of what we were doing food-wise, the facility didn’t really accommodate that. We thought we were buying a bar that would have really good food,” he says, but Maple Leaf beat its collective hands on the tables. “They wanted more than just a bar with good food,” he recalls. “They wanted a restaurant.” And that’s what the trio gave them.
Along with a classic burger, braised pork sandwiches and pizzas to appease families and barflies, the menu also offered date-night options like duck confit and beef tenderloin. Pastas and breads were made in-house, though prices remained relatively modest. So it was no surprise that Maple Leaf had a jones for The Jones, regularly filling up the 100-seat restaurant and spilling out onto the patio in warm months.
Those were the days.
Last summer, their dear friend and lead-chef Jason Jones left to work for Jerry Traunfeld at Poppy. Scott took over in the kitchen for six months, later ceding his duties to his longtime sous Jeremy Fox — who’s leaving at month’s end to sail the seven seas. That, coupled with the birth of their daughter and the economy’s serious nose-dive, has led Scott and Michelle to revisit “the energy that our other baby, The Jones Bistro and Lounge, rightfully requires of us,” they wrote in their email.
Scott was far more blunt by phone.
“Fundamentally,” he told me, “people aren’t spending money on food anymore. We’ve lost money for six consecutive months. We’re at the point where if we don’t do something big, we fail. Maybe we fail even if we do, but we’ve got to go down fighting.”
So they’re putting up their dukes, fighting back with a remodel, a re-branding and a recession-driven look at what it takes to run a successful restaurant business these days.
“We’re completely gutting the front of the house,” says Scott, who plans to do the work himself while “calling in a lot of favors.” Out with the booths, in with the open floor plan, the bar-rails, a pool table and 58-inch LCD TV — visible throughout the dining room. “It’ll be more of a rock-and-roll than a jazz and ambient atmosphere.”
Rethinking the menu, “We’re going back to the pub-grub model — sandwiches and pizza,” with Scott in the kitchen, grilling up a mountain of burgers made with Oregon’s Painted Hills Beef, soon to be offered in two sizes: the classic two-fisted half-pounder they’ve been serving for years, as well as a less expensive third-pound option.
Looking back on how his patrons have come to use The Jones during a down economy, Scott says he’s instituting the changes to stay alive — while giving the community what it’s willing to pay for. “We have two demographics: people with children who want to have an early dinner — and sports fans.” They plan to accommodate both. “The concept is to make the place more fun, give it a real vibrant atmosphere.
“Ultimately, what everybody in this business knows is that your most profitable time is between 10 p.m .and 2 a.m.” That’s a time when patrons look for comfort, camaraderie and a cold one. “Whether we get anybody in the door is another story.”
Producing a profit rather than closing up shop is his goal as a businessman, Scott insists. One made all the more urgent now that he and his wife are providing for a child.