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October 25, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Final days for Emmer & Rye restaurant

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Another landmark restaurant — in philosophy, if not in years — is closing down. emmer&rye on Queen Anne will serve its last meals on Sunday, Oct. 28.

Chef-owner Seth Caswell founded the “locally derived, seasonally inspired” restaurant in 2010 as his first solo venture after earning fine-dining acclaim at Stumbling Goat Bistro in Greenwood and after cooking and farming with the organic garden at Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton. This paper called emmer&rye good enough to become a city destination, with “versatile” and “affordable” food that “takes you by surprise with every bite because the locally sourced raw materials are so fresh, the cooking so carefully calibrated.”

The local-seasonal leanings were no surprise, because Caswell has been deeply involved in sustainable (and soulfully good) food throughout his years in Seattle, making it a way of life rather than a trend-hopping notion. A constant supporter of area farmers markets and small farms, he was president of the local branch of the non-profit Chef’s Collaborative for years and is now on its national board of directors. He’s regularly lent his talents to non-profits like Fare Start and the Cascade Harvest Coalition.

He searched for more than a year for his own restaurant space, finally teaming up with the owners of the former Julia’s restaurant on Queen Anne in a century-old Victorian house. In the end, it just didn’t work.

The speed of the closure “was not entirely my decision,” he said, but it did become clear that either he had to shut down or fatally compromise his standards of what made for a sustainable business.

“I still enjoy cooking. I love it,” he said. “There’s no bitterness about not being able to cook on Monday, it’s just incredibly sad to have to let something go that you’ve put so much into.”

Why the closure?

For one thing, restaurants run on notoriously tight profit margins. Caswell’s bills have gone up 150% since the restaurant opened, he wrote in a farewell letter to customers, but check averages have stayed level. Sales were down during a particularly rough patch this summer. Some long-term employees quit because he could no longer give them the hours they needed — a blow to an employer who considered keeping long-time workers happy its own form of sustainability.

The restaurant’s large size, Caswell thinks, worked against it in the end. “I used to argue about this, that if you have a 30- or 40-seat restaurant, you need to do three turns (a night) in order to make money on it, and you’re killing yourself if you do that,” he said. He thought it made more sense to have a larger place, which would only require a marginally larger staff, but he found “people in Seattle really do like the small, intimate spaces.”

He liked the “quaint” neighborhood of the Julia’s spot, but Upper Queen Anne has been a generally tough market for restaurants — and he hasn’t seen residents particularly drawn in by local-sustainable food, despite the success of the neighborhood farmers market.

Ironically, it also took a national summit meeting of the Chef’s Collaborative in Seattle earlier this month to “humbly remind” Caswell that “I focused so much on the food aspect of things that I feel there were a lot of things I overlooked” when it came to sustainability.

For instance, “it’s good and PC to take over an old space instead of building something from scratch…but in reality the place is a creaky old house. It has heating issues. It has old equipment. It has old house issues,” with lots of extra space to heat and extra rooms to light. (He’s also learned a lot about do-it-yourself plumbing.)

Caswell doesn’t have firm plans for what to do next. An “emmer & rye 2.0” isn’t out of the question, incorporating the lessons he’s learned — but for starters he’s looking forward to spending more time with his “lovely wife” after the brutal pace of daily restaurant life. He’ll also have more time for pursuits like cooking farm dinners and contributing to more local organizations, where “I could directly see the impact for myself and my community.”

He thanked customers in the letter for all their support, and vendors for the literal fruits of their labor.

“For the mission of emmer&rye to become second nature not only to my staff, but to the dining public at large, it will take varied efforts and more soldiers to fight the battle against corporate food groups, GMOs, chemical additives and the large roster of “un”sustainable products and companies we are fighting against,” he wrote.

“I will continue to be on the front line and advocate for what I truly believe is the only solution to our impending food crisis – eat it to save it.”

Photo of an emmer&rye plate by Jim Bates/The Seattle Times

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