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June 2, 2011 at 10:12 PM

Olives, an Edmonds favorite, has closed: and that’s the pits

Olives Cafe & Wine Bar, in the heart of downtown Edmonds, morphed over nearly a decade from a specialty food store, to a cozy wine bar, to a bustling restaurant and cocktail lounge whose menu could rival its big city-bistro brethren. In March, the place morphed once more. It quietly changed its name to Il Buffone, offering wood-fired pizza and handcrafted pasta.

That transformation was so quiet, owner/chef Michael Young never bothered to switch-out the sign above the dual storefront. And then, to the shock of a once fervent following, Young locked the doors for good Saturday night after service, leaving a cryptic (if literary) goodbye on the company website. This week, the neighbors were left asking “What?!” And they weren’t the only ones.

The OPEN sign is off for good at Olives Cafe & Wine Bar (aka the ill-fated Il Buffone) in downtown Edmonds.

Young, whose restaurant has long been among my hometown favorites, responded to my own query with a lengthy email, followed by a phone call from New Mexico — where he’s attending his parents 50th anniversary celebration with his fiance and infant daughter. “I’ve opened quite a few restaurants over the last few years,” he said. “Closing one is a new experience. And it sucks.”

In 2008, Olives expanded into the office space next door, doubling seating capacity. Initially the place was packed, Young recalls. “I owed the electrician an additional $10,000 that was never budgeted, and we paid that off in three months. Which was good because that was when Lehman Brothers wet the bed. Sales plummeted overnight. Suddenly, we could play handball in the middle of my pretty, spanking-new restaurant at 8 p.m. on weekdays. Weekend nights were better, but not much.”

Here’s a bite (or four) of what they were missing, from Olives memorable menu.

The down economy “certainly was the kindling, if not the match, wadded up newspaper or can of gasoline that set this on fire.” But there was more to the denouement of his beloved business. In retrospect, he should have paid more attention to marketing, to his labor costs, to his bottom line, he said. Worse, “when we opened Olives, it was the first small-plates restaurant in Snohomish County. Now you can walk to five similar restaurants in five minutes from our front door. So there was an ever expanding number of players going after the ever shrinking pool of discretionary income.”

After much deliberation, Young decided to change his business model entirely. “We would turn Olives into Il Buffone,” expanding on the handmade pastas his kitchen regularly put out, and installing an Italian brick oven. It was a swift change, focused predominantly on the menu.

“While many people enjoyed the new concept, most of my regulars were offended that I took `their Olives’ away from them,” said the chef. “How could I explain that as much as I valued their business and cherished their support, that the old Olives had been a financial pit for years?”

And as May came to an end, the pit hit the fan.

“After years of pulling rabbits out of my hat, it finally hit home that I couldn’t justify opening the doors at the beginning of the month,” Young said Tuesday. “There were too many bills, too many debts and not enough income.” About a dozen employees lost their jobs. “They took it well,” he said. “I felt so bad about not giving them much notice, but since I’ve told them, they just felt bad for me — and that was really heart-wrenching.”

On the restaurant’s last night, he and his manager took turns crying in the office. And as he roamed the dining room one last time, chatting-up guests between working the stove and the dish-room, he said nothing about the closure to his customers, many of whom have been regulars for years. “Perhaps it was selfish of me, but I couldn’t handle a whole night of questions about what happened, and what would happen next.”

So, what will happen next? For one thing, he’ll try to keep The Winged Pig, the fun and funky watering hole he opened last fall walking distance from Olives (it’s being run by a capable team of managers). For another, he’ll be back home next week, looking for a job.

The bar at The Winged Pig, tucked away in Edmonds’ Old Milltown.

“I hope to spend some time in Seattle working with some of my friends and acquaintances, honing some old skills and learning what’s new in the culinary world after my years in the outskirts of the big city,” Young said. “But mostly, I just want to do what I love to do most — and that is cook.”

Hey, Michael Mina! Remember this guy? He’s Michael Young. Worked for years at Aqua, alongside RN74 Seattle’s hotshot chef Michelle Retallack. He needs a job. And he’s a hell of a cook. You should know: you were responsible, I hear, for his fanatical passion for technique and product.

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