Remember when we started seeing the city’s high-end chefs shifting down to more casual fare, as when Eric Banh followed up Monsoon with Baguette Box? Seemed pretty novel, no? Well, what we’re seeing now would have sounded like a crazy dream those few years back. We have Danielle Custer, one of the first chefs to make Seattle’s name in local-organic fine dining, opening a grilled cheese truck. Renee Erickson of Boat Street Cafe and the nationally-‘noted Walrus Bar is going for an oyster wagon. And already open to crowds, we have Ethan Stowell, at one time firmly in the barracuda-swathed-in-Meyer-lemon-emulsion corner, opening up the Ballard Pizza Company. It’s the first in his planned chain of fast-casual restaurants under his new “Grubb Brothers” partnership. The pizza joint is a walk-up-and-order-at-the-counter-and-take-a-seat place, featuring $2.50 basic slices, $15 whole pies ($1.50 more per topping), salads, and pastas that sound like the same quality of his finer-dining Tavolata, but more geared toward families and casual eats. (Guaranteed, he says, you’ll see more strollers at the pizza place than at Staple+Fancy up the street.)
“There are not a lot of kids who want to go and have a morel mushroom agnolotti with crispy sweetbreads. They want to have potato gnocchi,” he said.
(You’ll find it on the current menu at 12 bucks.)
Stowell’s idea for the thin-crust pizza place is “to have that iconic slice of pizza you had as a kid on opening day. It was really crispy on the bottom, and hot, and (you could get) whatever toppings on it you want.”
While he’s still developing higher-end restaurants, he’s going the “redefined fast food” route too because he thinks that is what today’s customers want. Diners want to eat out a couple times a week, he thinks, to grab something quick and good and not too expensive. He’d rather serve them at his restaurants than see them pick up grocery-store takeout while his tables sit empty.
The experiment has been fun for Stowell so far — you’ll find him cooking at the pizza place until it’s running smoothly enough to return to the regular line at Staple+Fancy — but it’s been an education.
“It’s good, and fun, and just different. It’s not necessarily easier or harder” than his other ventures, he said.
Instead of figuring out that an inconvenient booth should be converted to a bread-cutting station, for instance, an early Staple+Fancy rework, he’s figuring out tweaks like how to place an “order here” sign so that people pay attention to it, and how to set up silverware in an attractive but still casual way (he’s thinking ceramic crocks.)
He’s working on a fried chicken joint next, among other ideas, “spending a significant amount of time looking at spaces” and debating as many as 4 or 5 more openings in the coming year.
I had to wonder if it was a risk for him to go this route. Sure, it’s possible to make great inexpensive food, but will people expect something different from Rising-Star-Beard-Finalist-etc.-etc.-Ethan Stowell serving inexpensive fast food?
“The one thing that’s a little bit of a risk for me to go and do this is, the customer expectations are going to be the same going to the pizza place as going to Staple+Fancy,” Stowell said. Not that they’re wrong to have high expectations.
“I think in the context of what the item is, I think they should expect the same level of quality, but as far as the service…it’s very different than what we’ve done. It’s coming down and having a slice of pepperoni, and that’s their lunch, and having a can of Coke, (all) for five bucks,” he said.
And, as a chef now dividing his time between the kitchen and the office, is he happy spending so much time on the business end?
“Your mentality has to shift a little bit,” he said.
“Tom (Douglas) and I have talked about the expectations of people, and how you feel like you’re in some regards being put in a corner. Like, “You’re a cook, and this is what you do! Why are you not cooking every day?” And I love the cooking aspect of it, but I also like seeing a business grow. That’s very enjoyable to me to open a restaurant and figure out that puzzle.
“Having a blend of the two sides, for me, is a great joy.”
Photo by Nancy Leson. Yes, of course she’s out scouting and eating!