Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson
At your service: A salute to Seattle restaurant long-timers
Who said there's no job security in the restaurant business? Say hello to a handful of Seattle restaurant long-timers, among a surprising number of local workers who take on a restaurant job and stay put for decades. These friendly folks make themselves happy by making us happy: pouring our drinks, bringing us dinner, sweeping up our French fries and even parking our cars. In a business where chefs get all the glory — and respect is often in short supply — we salute these familiar faces from familiar places. Get to know them better:
Fusae “Okasan” Yokoyama
Job: Bartender at Maneki (304 Sixth Ave. S., Seattle; 206-622-2631)
Tenure: So long she can’t remember (“sometime in the ’60s, I think”)
Spend a little time with me: “I was a waitress here for 25 to 30 years, but at my age, going up and down in the tatami rooms, well, my knees are giving out. You need to bend to serve, so I’d rather bartend.”
What’ll it be?: Okasan’s best-selling cocktail is ichiko (“it’s like a Japanese vodka”) mixed with oolong tea, served on the rocks. And no, she’s never made a cosmopolitan. “We don’t get those downtown exotic drinks here.”
Family ties: They don’t call her “Okasan” (translation: Mom) for nothing. “(Owner) Jeanne (Nakayama) is like my daughter. I help her out as much as I can. I work on Sunday and Tuesday nights and any other time the girls want to have a day off, I pitch in.” Okasan raised six sons — all of whom worked as busboys at Maneki before growing up and gifting their mother with 16 grandchildren.
What it’s like being a septuagenarian bartender at the city’s oldest Japanese restaurant: “I’m not the oldest bartender in town. My girlfriend is going to be 80 this year, and she waits tables and bartends at Bush Garden. We both like working. It’s better than staying home and doing nothing!”
The boss speaks: Jeanne Nakayama owner (since 1974) of Maneki: “ ‘Mom’ is very dear to me. When I was a little girl, my family used to come to Maneki, as customers, so she has probably known me since I was seven or eight years old. She’s like your mama: If there’s something I need, or the customer needs, we can go to her just to talk, or for help. She’s really dedicated to her family, to her customers and to us. You just don’t find that kind of work ethic anymore.”
Job: Lead server at Canlis (2576 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle; 206-283-3313)
Tenure: 22 years
Yes I Can(lis): "My first day here was very intimidating. Canlis was so big and overwhelming. I had to learn a lot. It was a whole different serving style. Also, I had to learn how to wear a kimono with an obi."
About that kimono: "It took about 20 minutes to put it on, and there was special underwear that we had to wear.
We also wore zori (slip-on sandals). First we'd tie the underwear. Then we'd put the kimono on and tie that. Then a sash under the obi — it was a lot of layering.
"When we were serving tables, we had to hold the sleeves. Sometimes my sleeve got caught on the rail along the north lanai of the restaurant.
My sleeve would rip, I would trip, and I had to catch myself.
"When we did the remodel (in 1997) we changed the uniform. I thought that day would never come!"
Brush with fame: Waited on Roy Rogers (who, to the disappointment of the valets, had left Trigger at home).
The boss speaks: Chris Canlis, owner Canlis Restaurant: "Keiko is a rock on our staff. To be the head waitress requires the wisdom of a judge: She decides who works and when, who gets a vacation and who works a Sunday party.
"No one can bend, bribe or wheedle her — she's just fair. She'd be a great poker player."
Case in point: "Keiko fell in love with Arne Stangeland, who was a cook at Canlis at the time. Not a single person knew they were involved until we got the wedding invitations. Everyone was shocked. We thought it was a joke!"
Job: Wine coordinator for Daniel's Broiler Restaurants (Home base: Daniel's Broiler Lake Union, 809 Fairview Ave. N., Seattle; 206-621-8262)
Tenure: 22 years
Valet to viognier: When the first customers pulled up out front of the original Daniel's Broiler in Leschi, Michael was there to greet them — as valet. After a stint in college he returned to Daniel's in 1981 to work for new owners Bill and John Schwartz, and until 1994, he ran the restaurant's valet team. "I had a big following and tried to emulate Dick Sprinkle (who ran the parking lot at Canlis for 40 years). He was the god of valets."
After a dozen years, Michael went off-road and indoors as assistant manager at Daniel's Leschi. "I lost 10 pounds the first week. I didn't know anything!" But he was a quick study, one whose gifted palate, passion for wine, and sommelier certification helped put him in his present position: overseeing the wine program for all three Daniel's Broilers.
Favorite car parked: "Steve Miller (of the Steve Miller Band) used to come in a silver Rolls Royce. I loved that car. Actually I saw him here last fall (at the Lake Union Daniel's) and we talked about the car."
Biggest valet tip: $1,000 from the Sultan of Brunei.
The boss speaks: Lindsey Schwartz, president of Schwartz Brothers Restaurants :
"Michael loves making people feel good, taking care of them, helping them celebrate special occasions.
When he started at Daniel's, in the parking lot, he was the first face people saw when they arrived and the last face they saw when they left: He became the face of Daniel's. Over the years there were other managers who have come and gone, but as far as continuity, the regular customers probably relate to Mike more than anyone else in the restaurant."
Debra "Honey" Over
Job: Server at McCormick's Fish House & Bar (722 Fourth Ave., Seattle; 206-682-3900); corporate trainer.
Tenure: 30 years with McCormick & Schmick's (1973); 13 years at the Fish House.
First job with the company: Cocktail waitress at Bill McCormick's Bellevue restaurant, The Refectory.
I am woman, hear me roar: Honey was the first female server for McCormick & Schmick's — a fast-growing Portland-based company with 39 restaurants nationwide and 3,700 employees, including 563 female servers. "I started as a cocktail waitress because I couldn't be a server. Back then, 'girls didn't do that.' They could cocktail or hostess; that was it. My oldest child (of five) was the first born to the working staff of the company. I remember when I was at McCormick & Schmick's Oak Street (in Portland) and we had six working women pregnant at (the same) time. Customers would come in and say, 'Don't drink the water!' "
Family tradition: "My three oldest kids all worked at McCormick & Schmick's, busing tables or hosting. It was better than working at Burger King!" Now all three work at area restaurants.
Still a man's world: "To this day, when I'm training a male server, working behind him, 90 percent of the time he gets a larger tip than a female would. It's the 'old standard' — where people still think men are 'more professional' — but it's just so irritating! I know so much more than most of the gentlemen who work here."
The boss speaks: Bill McCormick, chairman of the board of McCormick & Schmick's seafood restaurants: "We consider Honey more 'family' than employee. She's known all our kids, and we've known hers. It's refreshing to come back (to Seattle) and see her; it's like revisiting friends rather than looking in on the restaurant."
Taneko "Kay" Felder
Job: Server at Louie's Cuisine of China (5100 15th Ave. N.W., Seattle; 206-782-8855)
Tenure: 37 years
First day on the job: "I'll never forget that day. It was March 16, 1965. Because I was new they put me in the slow section, but I made very good tips that night: $16. I remember going into the grocery store after work. I spent $8 on two bags of groceries and I still had $8 cash to bring home. I had eight kids: five sons and three daughters. My oldest was 13, and my baby was only six months old. That money was a really big deal."
Get a job!: "My husband used to say, 'Why don't you go back to school and get a different job?' and I told him (she shouts): 'What for? I enjoy working at Louie's. I like what I'm doing. I make good money. I'm good at it! I'm good at it because I like the people I work for and I like the people I work with.' "
Home away from home: "I just love to be here. I'd rather be here than home. My husband passed away, and I sold my house. Now I live with my daughter and two grandkids. I don't like to sit home and watch TV, and if I'm home, all I do is clean the house. This is my number second home. I'll never retire. If I did, what am I supposed to do, sit around waiting to die? I'm not even thinking about it, not as long as I can be here. I'll be at Louie's till my boss kicks me out."
The boss speaks: Rose Louie, owner of Louie's Cuisine of China: "Kay runs circles around the young people. She's never idle. If she has nothing to do, she finds something to do. Having her here is a very comforting thing. She's reliable and she's a good worker: She never even takes vacations. We close each year around July Fourth to clean the place. When we opened after a week I said to her, 'I bet you hated to come back to work,' and she said, 'I couldn't wait to come back!' "
Job: Janitor/DeLuxe Bar & Grill (625 Broadway E., Seattle; 206-324-9697)
Tenure: 26 years
Eat at Joe's: "I've been in the janitorial business in Seattle since 1955. I had my own business, Art's Janitorial Service. I started small and kept going till I got large. We cleaned five Black Angus restaurants, Ivar's Salmon House, the Bellevue Holiday Inn and others.
"I met Joe Rogel (longtime owner of the DeLuxe, now owned and operated by his son, Barry) and began working for him in 1977. I've been with him ever since. At one time I had 14 or 15 people working for me. Mostly I worked (managing) my crew, but I always took Joe's place by myself. In 1999 I stopped the big thing: I got rid of all the other work and just went with Joe."
Have it my way: Long known for its bodacious burgers, the DeLuxe has a big-seller that pays respects to Art Davis — native son of Eunice, La., — and maker of the barbecue sauce slathered on "Art's Looziana Burger". Proudly doused with Art's garlic-laden barbecue sauce, it also wears grilled onions, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and red onion. "They do a nice job on it, too!" Davis says.
The boss speaks: Barry Rogel, owner DeLuxe Bar & Grill: "Art was here when I got into (my father's) business. I just assumed he came with the place. He was the place. He takes care of it. His signature, if you will, is here at the DeLuxe as much as my signature, or my father's signature.
"He's as protective of this place as he is of his own house — and it shows.
"He and my dad are Mutt and Jeff: they're hilarious. They sit down and talk about everything. They shop together for clothes and for cars. It's much more than an employer-employee relationship: it's two men who have a lot of love for each other."