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January 31, 2011 at 7:21 AM

Rumor (Red) Mill: burger folks have eye on Totem House

The rumor mill never sleeps. And here’s what came into my inbox over the weekend, courtesy of Eater Grace Jurado: “I heard yesterday that Red Mill Burgers was taking over the Totem House by the Ballard Locks. Is there anything you can tell about this rumor? I think fish dipped in Red Mill’s onion ring batter would be soooo good.” Whoa. Now, there’s a restaurant rumor I could wrap my brain around. To say nothing of my mouth.

Want to supersize that? Sure, with a side of fish, please!

So I got right on the horn with Red Mill owner John Shepherd, who had this to say about that: Yes, he and his sister and business-partner Babe Shepherd have their eye on the prize: the fish ‘n chips joint across from the Ballard Locks, abruptly closed in December. In fact, he said, they’ve had their eye on it for years.

“We made a run at that thing in 2006,” John recalls. Back then, the owners of Red Mill Burgers (and the properties they stand on) in Phinney Ridge and Interbay had it in mind to buy the Totem House and make it their own, but a sale didn’t pan out. So when the sibs heard about the recent closure, they got excited all over again, and have since sent a letter to the owners — a local investment company — expressing their interest in the local landmark. So far, they’ve heard nary a word in response.

“We want to save the Seattle icon,” John told me. “We want to put in top-quality fish, sell halibut fish n’ chips, add five or six Red Mill signature burgers, Babe’s onion rings and restore all the totem poles and the whole building. It would be an awesome thing to do.”

It’s lights out, for now, at the Totem House in Ballard. What’s next for the local landmark? Well, here’s hopin’. [Seattle Times photo/Jim Bates]

Speculating as to why they’ve been ignored, “It’s all a guessing game with that property,” purchased for $1.2 million two years ago. “These guys could call us tomorrow and say, `We don’t want to sell it.’ They can call and say, `We’re under water’ or `we already cut a deal with Hamburger Harry’s.'”

What Red Mill’s owners don’t want, is to hear that the developers have bulldozed another restaurant icon, a la Twin Teepees. “If we did get our hands on the place,” through a sale or lease, “we could turn that thing around quickly, maybe in three months. If these guys wanted to negotiate, I’d go for it.

“I just turned 60,” John said. “It’s hard for me to get jacked up about anything. But the Totem House has our name written all over it.”

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