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January 14, 2014 at 11:54 AM

Belle Clementine restaurant experiment ends; Silicon Valley job awaits

David Sanford file photo by Nancy Leson

David Sanford file photo by Nancy Leson

On Feb. 8, after a few more weeks of communal meals, David Sanford is closing the doors at Belle Clementine, his experimental Ballard business that felt like a dinner party as much as a restaurant.

The chef-restaurateur is heading down to a new job in California — as chief of staff for entrepreneur Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, the online network for professional connections. The businessman “is incredibly generous and he aspires to do great things with his resources. He is starting to formulate (plans) and think more deeply about that,” creating an opening for someone with Sanford’s bent. (Sanford will be working for Hoffman himself, not for LinkedIn or his Greylock Partners venture capital firm.)

It’s not as much of a jump as it might seem.

“I recognize it looks kind of odd from the outside. For me, of course, it’s consistent. I’ve done things I’m passionate about that I view also to be good for the world,” Sanford said.

The Mercer Island High School graduate opened Belle Clementine a little more than 2 years ago at age 28, advancing a career that lept around from technology to food — one of the world’s “universal languages,” as he puts it — and back again. He moved from medical research at UW to a degree in entrepreneurial management from Stanford University, worked for Hoffman at LinkedIn, did tech consulting and non-profit volunteering and Internet startup work. He was attracted to communal dining projects like Outstanding in the Field and working with Matt Dillon as part of the opening team of The Corson Building.

Belle Clementine was his own contribution to bringing people together through meals. The seasonal multi-course, family-service dinners at communal tables were available through a “subscription service,” along the lines of sports or symphony season tickets. Diners would “pick a date, show up and enjoy” the pre-paid dinners, acquiring other perks like a no-tip policy and subscriber-only events. The restaurant was also open to non-subscribers, though reservations were required. He called it a “Community Supported Restaurant,” like the “Community Supported Agriculture” produce boxes delivered by farmers.

Sanford named the spot for his artist grandmother, and worked hands-on to create the space, which featured  an open kitchen and reclaimed fir tables. He thought briefly about whether he could replace himself and keep Belle Clementine going while he worked in California, but ruled no, realizing “how intertwined I am with the restaurant and the restaurant with me.”

He’s working on selling the business, though it almost certainly wouldn’t continue under the current setup. “There are plenty of great folks out here that can do great things, and I hope one of those things happens in that space,” he said.

Leaving was a tough decision, he said, but the restaurant has thrived, and that made it paradoxically easier to go.

He appreciated experiences that brought hundreds of people out to local farms, and collaborations like a Sustainable Seafood dinner with Town Hall where guests discussed ocean conservation and seafood sustainability. He recalled the couple from the Bay Area who wound up at the end of the communal dinner with an invitation to watch Fourth of July fireworks on another couple’s boat, and the guest on a recent Saturday who bought dinner for another guest — a stranger when the evening began — who was celebrating a birthday.

“It was exactly those kinds of experiences that happened often around our tables that are what I feel great about, and what tell me that this has worked.”

Not only did diners get to know each other, but Sanford and his staff forged those relationships as well. He can think of one couple whose wedding he catered, who came to the restaurant to celebrate anniversaries, and who most recently had a baby naming ceremony.

“It’s been wonderful getting to know people at a level that, I think, is unusual for most restaurant operations. It’s more than a transaction, it really is an opportunity to share a meal together and host them essentially in our home.”

Hoffman himself was a diner at the restaurant, as well as an investor. He said in an email that, when Sanford worked for him after graduating from Stanford in 2006, he “demonstrated great abilities to take on a variety of entrepreneurial projects. Those same skills magnified apply to the work that my organizations and I need from my chief of staff — from Greylock to Linkedin to various portfolio companies and non-profits.”

Sanford said he’s glad for the opportunity to work with Hoffman, a man he respects, which will allow him to do motivating work on a large scale.

But he’ll miss his hometown and his own place, where the goal was “essentially improving the world on a very micro scale, one relationship, one interaction at a time.”

The final Belle Clementine meal will be served Feb. 8. Reservations for that night and other remaining dinners are available online at belleclementine.com.

Edited Jan. 14 to say that Sanford did medical research at UW

Comments | Topics: Belle Clementine, David Sanford


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