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Friday, November 11, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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BluWater Bistro/Belltown Bistro

Belltown: 2322 First Ave., Seattle, 206-728-2000

Green Lake: 7900 E. Green Lake Dr. N., Seattle, 206-524-3985

Lake Union: 1001 Fairview Ave. N., Seattle, 206-447-0769

Leschi: 102 Lakeside Ave., Seattle, 206-328-2233

Web site: www.bluwaterbistro.com

Tom Douglas Restaurants

Dahlia Lounge: 2001 Fourth Ave., Seattle, 206-682-4142

Dahlia Bakery: 2001 Fourth Ave., Seattle, 206-441-4540

Etta's Seafood: 2020 Western Ave., Seattle, 206-443-6000

Lola: 2000B Fourth Ave., Seattle, 206-441-1430

Palace Kitchen: 2030 Fifth Ave., Seattle, 206-448-2001

Palace Ballroom: 2100 Fifth Ave., Seattle, 206-448-2001

Web site: www.tomdouglas.com

Than Brothers Restaurants Seattle

Aurora: 7714 Aurora Ave. N., Seattle, 206-527-5973

Ballard: 2021 N.W. Market St., Seattle, 206-782-5715

Broadway: 516 Broadway E., Seattle, 206-568-7218

University District: 4207 University Way, Seattle, 206-633-1735

West Seattle: 4822 California Ave. S.W., Seattle, newly opening, check listings

Edmonds: 2268 Highway 99, Edmonds, 425-744-0212

Everett: 500 S.E. Everett Mall, Everett, 425-353-8906

Redmond: 7844 Leary Way N.E., Redmond, 425-881-3299

Tacoma: 10435 Pacific Ave., 253-548-8886

Columbia City Ale House/Hilltop Ale House/74th Street Ale House

Columbia City Ale House: 4914 Rainier Ave. S., Seattle, 206-723-5123

Hilltop Ale House: 2129 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle, 206-285-3877

74th Street Ale House: 7401 Greenwood Ave. N., Seattle, 206-784-2955

Web site: www.seattlealehouses.com

JaK's Grill

Issaquah: 14 Front St. N., Issaquah, 425-837-8834

Laurelhurst/Sandpoint: 3701 N.E. 45th St., Seattle, 206-985-8545

West Seattle: 4548 California Ave. S.W., Seattle, 206-937-7809

Matt's Gourmet Hot Dogs

Ballard: 2325 N.W. Market St., Seattle, 206-789-1144

Lynnwood: 7600 196th St. S.W., Lynnwood, 425-776-3220

Pier 52: 801 Alaskan Way, Colman Ferry Terminal (second floor), Seattle, 206-264-0446

Sodo: 6615 E. Marginal Way S., Seattle, 206-768-0418

U District: 1301 N.E. 45th St., Seattle, 206-545-4490

Renton: 101 S.W. 41st Place (newly opening, a block from IKEA), see listings for phone

Totem Lake: 12561 116th Ave. N.E., Seattle, 425-814-3760

Web site: www.mattsfamouschilidogs.com

Chow Foods

Atlas Foods: 2675 N.E. Village Lane (University Village), Seattle, 206-522-6025

Coastal Kitchen: 429 15th Ave. E., Seattle, 206-322-1145

Endolyne Joe's: 9261 45th Ave. S.W., Seattle, 206-937-5637

5 Spot: 1502 Queen Anne Ave. N., Seattle, 206-285-7768

Hi-Life: 5425 Russell Ave. N.W., Seattle, 206-784-7272

Web site: www.chowfoods.com

Taqueria Guaymas/Tacos Guaymas/Guaymas Cantina

20 outlets along the I-5 corridor from Smokey Point to Lakewood, including:

Marysville: 1400 State Ave., 360-658-9711

Renton: 530 Rainier Ave. S., 425-235-2152

West Seattle: 4719 California Ave. S.W., Seattle 206-935-8970

Web site: www.tacosguaymas.com

Mackay Restaurant Group

El Gaucho Portland: 319 S.W. Broadway, 503-227-8794

El Gaucho Seattle: 2505 First Ave., 206-728-1337

El Gaucho Tacoma: 2119 Pacific Ave., 253-272-1510

Sea Grill: 1498 Pacific Ave., Suite 300, Tacoma, 253-272-5656

Troiani: 1001 Third Ave., Seattle, 206-624-4060

Waterfront Seafood Grill: Pier 70, 2801 Alaskan Way, Seattle, 206-956-9171

Web site: www.mackayrestaurants.com

Jones Barbeque

Rainier Valley: 3216 S. Hudson St., Seattle, 206-725-2728

Sodo: 2454 Occidental Ave. S., No. 3A, Seattle, 206-625-1339

Columbia City: 3810 S. Ferdinand St., Seattle, 206-722-4414

Bellevue: 15600 N.E. Eighth St., Crossroads Mall, 425-746-3955

Web site: www.jonesbarbeque.net

Budd Gould opened Mad Anthony's in 1973. Today, his Anthony's Restaurants number 23, extending throughout Washington and into Oregon and employing 1,150 people.

Greater Seattle is home to a wealth of such successes — single ideas that spawned restaurant empires large and small. These include familiar favorites launched by locals with names like Ivar, Duke, Schwartz, Firnstahl and McHugh. Some are corporate constructs such as Restaurants Unlimited (whose holdings include Palomino restaurants nationwide) and Consolidated Restaurants (which brings us the Metropolitan Grill). Others are Seattle-born franchises such as Red Robin, with nearly 200 outlets now, and Taco del Mar with 180.

But look around the Sound and you'll find a new generation of entrepreneurial souls capitalizing on creativity, embracing ethnic influences and establishing brands. Some are doing it for family, others for fame, a few just for fun. Fortune, if it comes, is always a welcome side dish.

Ask and they'll tell you: Most of these ventures started with little more than a dream, and success still brings the occasional nightmare. These entrepreneurs have learned the hard way what it means to sign a bad lease, expand too quickly or aim too high. Each insists that the key to long-term success is consistency, and that consistency depends on systems and controls for managing everything from creeping costs to creative cooks. Maybe that's why so many have business or economic degrees on their resumes.

The problems that face every restaurateur are compounded with the choice to go forth and multiply. The trick, says Bart Evans, co-owner of Seattle's BluWater Bistros, is to have each place run as if you're there even when you're not.

Looking to the future, Evans echoes any number of his confreres. "We could open another 10, or we could not open another one. That decision is based on a weird mixture of timing, location, energy — and your gut feeling about whether a place will work out or not. Statistics will tell you, if you keep going, eventually you're going to make a bad choice." But for Evans and others profiled here, the rewards have so far outweighed the risks.

As diners, their good fortune is our good fortune. Their hard work puts us on easy street — if only for the time it takes to enjoy a meal. If you had a chance to sit down and grab a cup of coffee with one of these success stories (go grab one now), what secrets might they share? Why do their restaurants work? Where are they headed and — despite the difficulties — why do they so obviously love heading there? Read on.

 

| BluWater Bistro | Tom Douglas Restaurants | Than Brothers Restaurant |
| Ale Houses | JaK's Grill | Matt's Gourmet Hot Dogs | Chow Foods |
| Taqueria Guaymas | Mackay Restaurant Group | Jones Barbeque |

 

BluWater Bistro/Belltown Bistro

Owners: Bart Evans and Dan Anderson

Established: 1997

Employees: 110, up to 160 in summer

Back story: Bistro boys

When Mick McHugh was ready to sell his long-lived Leschi Lakecafe, he called former employees Bart Evans and Dan Anderson. This wasn't the first time the young restaurateurs had won a chance to take on a big waterfront location. The first BluWater Bistro, on Lake Union, fell into their laps, too.

Back in 1997, Evans and Anderson were "living the life," explains Evans: tending bar, waiting tables and scraping together a few extra bucks one New Year's Eve by renting catering space from a guy named Dan Sandal, founder of Daniel's Broiler. It was Sandal who gave them the gift that keeps on giving.

"One day he called and said, 'Let's go for a ride,' " Evans recalls. Sandal drove to a shuttered Lake Union restaurant whose owner, Chuck Quinn, was looking to offload it. "You should open a place here," Sandal said. Broke and in their 20s, the two thought the idea was lunacy.

Sandal told them not to worry, they'd figure it out. Soon after, Evans and Anderson signed a killer lease: zero down and six months before they'd have to pay back a cent. "Those two put a lot of faith in us and gave us our start," Evans says.

The odd couple

Evans sees his partnership with Anderson as Ad-man meets Add-man: "When people get to know us, we're the farthest opposites that you can get. Dan's much more of the mayor, baby-kisser type. He's got our company decals on the side of his car, and I'm like, no way! I gravitate more toward the staff and the in-house numbers."

Good help is hard to find

"We try to stay away from the cattle-call interviews. We just go out and find the best people we can. Great servers already have great jobs," he says, so how do you get them to come into a new, unknown job?

How, indeed? Health insurance, for starters; plus a 401K, signing bonuses, clothing and parking allowances, gym memberships and lavish all-staff vacations. Sun Valley, anyone?

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Tom Douglas Restaurants

Owners: Tom Douglas and Jackie Cross

Established: 1989

Employees: 350

Back story: Unchained melody

Before he quit as chef and general manager of Café Sport, Tom Douglas could do no wrong. Not with the corporate outfit he worked for; not with his crew. Not with those of us who knew him as the self-taught Delaware whiz kid whose Asian-accented culinary sensibility brought a brave new world of excitement to the Seattle food scene.

But as much as Douglas loved Café Sport, he had no interest in overseeing a chain of them, which is what the company was planning when he quit. "I never wanted to open my own restaurant," Douglas says. "I did it because no one would hire me."

So he cobbled together a livelihood by dabbling in restaurant consulting, pulling beers at Redhook in Fremont and writing an occasional newspaper food column. His wife, Jackie, was pregnant, and they were broke when they took her uncle up on an offer to bankroll a restaurant. Its original concept? Oodles of Noodles: a worldwide noodle joint. "I thought at the time that fine dining had run its course," Douglas recalls.

So Douglas found a new footing for fine dining: fun dining. But before it became the set for a scene in "Sleepless in Seattle" and earned Douglas a James Beard Award for best chef, before it moved up the block, the Dahlia Lounge was in the doldrums. Born on the cusp of a recession, it went from 42 employees in November to 25 in June 1990. But with an upturn in the economy and some national exposure, Douglas made it, and made it big. When Café Sport was faltering several years later, guess who transformed the place into Etta's Seafood.

Don't rain on my parade

Today, Douglas has four popular restaurants, a bakery, catering company and a special-events house, the Palace Ballroom — all within walking distance. He's got a line of signature spice rubs and sauces, has authored a pair of cookbooks and hosts a popular weekly radio show. Still, he gets no respect.

"One of the problems with being an entrepreneur is that, publicly, people want to pigeonhole you. People in the business want to tell you how to run your life. I've diversified because I didn't want to be doing the same thing for the rest of my life."

It's an every-day commitment

"I like my job. And that job is hanging with this group of 350 people, making sure they're enthused, and making sure everyone gets paid at the end of the day — including myself. I completely depend on my employees' creativity. Everyone's got a similar vision, and I think it's a mistake to think it's all my vision. My biggest failures? Staff conflict: when I can't get a staff member to see the same kind of vision I see."

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Than Brothers Restaurant

Owner: Quang Than

Established: 1996

Employees: 30

Back story: From soup to — cream puffs?

Once upon a time in Greater Seattle, you probably didn't even know what pho was, let alone how to pronounce it (say "fuh"). Back then, in 1996 when it opened near Green Lake, Than Brothers was a small café that did a brisk business but was still a curiosity to most folks. Today it's a local phenomenon.

Than Brothers specializes in two things: Vietnamese noodle soup and cream puffs, the latter served first because life is too short. The cream puffs were originally made in-house, by Nhat-le Nguyen, whose husband, Quang Than, oversees this growing company with the help of their children, brothers Dat and Vu and their sister, Le-uyen. These days, more than 3,000 cream puffs are made daily by machine at Than Brothers in Everett.

Keeping secrets

"The cooks don't really cook, they just prepare the soup," says Dat. We have all the formulas set: the amount of bones we need to make the broth, the amount of water that goes into it, the amount of spice." And those spices are? "It's a secret recipe. We pre-wrap those. Even the recipe for the cream in the cream puffs is a secret."

Making it fast

"Some people go to fast-food restaurants and they still have to wait. Now you can go into a full-service restaurant like ours and it takes about two minutes to get your food."

Father knows best

"My dad works 365 days a year," Dat says. "Everything has to go through him, and he does everything. On Thanksgiving, people pre-order lots of cream puffs, and even though we're closed that day, my dad will go in so that they can pick them up."

The usual suspects

"I see customers who eat here every day," says Dat, who runs the University District shop. "I say, 'The usual?' and we just bring the food out to them. And that's why in the past eight or nine years we raised our price only one time — by 30 cents."

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74th Street Ale House/Hilltop Ale House/Columbia City Ale House

Owners: Jeff Eagan and Jeff Reich

Established: 1991

Employees: 45

Back story: Merry Olde Greenwood

When Jeff Eagan lived in England, he was fascinated by pub culture. There, he says, "people of all ages feel comfortable coming down to a pub. It's a very community-oriented establishment. But in the early '90s in Seattle, there wasn't much of that going on."

His fascination, coupled with the local trend toward micro-brewed beer and a shift in the public's perception of taverns, led Eagan, who'd worked in several local taverns, to join forces with chef Jeff Reich to create the 74th Street Ale House. Their goal: Pay homage to the British pub, do it with Northwest flair and appeal to neighborhood customers.

Talented do-it-yourselfers, the Jeffs built their pub with their own hands, on their own dime, rising to the forefront of the upscale pub-grub movement.

The big four

"Quality, service, cleanliness and consistency have been our theme," says Eagan. "A good restaurant will hit on two or three of those things. We keep emphasizing with our staff that if we hit on all four, that's what people will notice — and they'll come back."

Righting wrongs

"We keep a log book in each bar, so we know everything that goes on every day. Every staff member, when they come on shift, has to look at that book. The idea is to get through the night without customers noticing we have a problem. The log book is not for personal gripes, it's for taking care of business."

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JaK's Grill

Owners: Ken Hughes, John Dotson (principals), plus "employee-owners" Darren (Emmett) Smith, Mary Robbins, Sean Miller, Dan Baker

Established: 1996

Employees: 70

Back story: University of RUI

There is no "Jak" at JaK's Grill: The name is an acronym for J(eff) Page and K(en) Hughes, two guys who opened a tiny steakhouse in West Seattle's Admiral District in 1996: 32 seats. Five bar stools.

"It was (J)eff," says (K)en, who got a job working for Restaurants Unlimited, Inc., where the pair met, to learn from the pros before going into business himself. Jeff envisioned the neighborhood-steakhouse concept, convinced that all they needed was "a roof, some seats and really good food" to find success. And it was Jeff who sold his share in the partnership to former employees when family obligations warranted a move to California.

"What we tried to take from RUI was the idea of hitting it on all cylinders," says Hughes. "They hire well, train people well, attract good employees with their busy restaurants and move them up from within." Three of JaK's present "owner-employees" are graduates of the University of RUI.

Gold in them thar' hills

"Our Issaquah restaurant is a gold mine," says Hughes. "It's a destination-type place for people in Fall City, Sammamish and the surrounding area. These customers are willing to wait a long time, since we don't take reservations. In our Seattle restaurants, if it's an hour wait and they're hungry, they've got lots of other options."

Lessons learned

"Good restaurants close for bad reasons," Hughes says. "For small restaurateurs, it's tempting to use your quarterly taxes to meet payroll. Bad idea! Sometimes you've got a good concept but don't recognize how much it takes to make it work on a day-to-day basis. Not getting burned out is the secret. If you don't have the people to support you, you'll just overwork yourself."

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Matt's Gourmet Hot Dogs

Owner: Matt Jones

Established: 1992

Employees: about 60

Back story: Dog bites man

Armed with a degree in finance and a master's in business administration, Matt Jones spent five years working for a banking firm in Los Angeles. But despite success, all he could think about was, "When am I going to open my hot-dog stand?"

The answer? 1992. The location? A little shop on an industrial stretch of East Marginal Way.

Today, Jones is tasting success at seven locations throughout Greater Seattle, and you can, too. It's served on a warm, soft, poppy-seed bun and comes every which way, including "Chicago-style": topped with mustard, onions, neon-green relish, tomato, dill pickle, sport pepper and celery salt.

The name game

Jones first named his business Matt's Famous Chili Dogs; now it's Matt's Gourmet Hot Dogs because too many people thought all he had was chili dogs, Jones explains. "I'm pretty narrow as it is, and I don't want to be narrow on top of narrow."

Not so easy street

Having grown the business slowly, Jones looks to outfits like Seattle's Red Mill Burgers with awe, and not a little envy: "Two years after they opened, they were slammed and so successful. Sure they were great, but their success was the combination of locations, style and marketing — and it's very difficult to nail that. Most of us really have to slug it out to pick up that following, that loyalty. But if it was easy, everybody would do it."

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Chow Foods

Owners: Peter Levy and Jeremy Hardy

Established: 1988

Employees: 250

Endolyne Joe's West Seattle

Back story: Boys in the 'hoods

Peter Levy was an ice-toting bar-back at TGI Friday's when he met bartender Jeremy Hardy. In the thousand-plus Fridays since, their resumes intersected elsewhere before they made their mark at a brassy 35-seat joint called the Beeliner Diner in 1988.

As Levy tells it, several months after he opened the Beeliner, Hardy came in after a hard night's work elsewhere, "saw how much fun I was having sassing people," and quit his job to join the fun, urging customers to "Eat it and beat it!"

Since then, they've opened six restaurants, closed one, sold another and expect to debut their latest venture, in Mount Baker, early next year.

Buoyed by their neighborhood successes in Wallingford, Queen Anne and Capitol Hill, the Chow boys opened Luncheonette No. 1, in the heart of Seattle's business district, in 1994. "We thought that since we were the self-appointed 'Kings of Breakfast,' we were what the downtown business sector needed. Big mistake."

Constant comments

"Since we got our Web site up and made our e-mail addresses available, we hear a lot from customers. We respond to every complaint, and we've gotten a lot better because of it."

Four on the floor

The two have split the restaurants up and act as district managers. Working the floor is an imperative, says Levy, so the customer sees you, but more importantly so the employees do. "You can observe them, know what needs tuning up. Clearing plates, I can see what people are or aren't eating."

Oh, won't you staaaaay

Besides providing good medical and dental insurance, the two offer continuing education and the chance to travel. Says Levy, "We fully expect that 75 percent of our chefs and general managers will be owning and operating their own restaurants in the next five to seven years. We say, 'Open a restaurant across the street from us and kick our ass; we deserve it!' "

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Taqueria Guaymas/Tacos Guaymas/Guaymas Cantina

Owners: Sal Sahagun and Lorenzo Ramos

Established: 1992

Employees: approximately 300

Back story: Movin' on up

Best friends Sal Sahagun and Lorenzo Ramos were working in a Mexican restaurant in California when they decided to head north to open a taqueria. Scouring Oregon and Washington, they settled on a 45-seat space in West Seattle, and in 1992 introduced us to Taqueria Guaymas.

Today they're selling tacos — among other quick-to-fix Mexican fare — at shops up and down the I-5 corridor. While they co-own the White Center store, the majority (16) are now owned by Sahagun.

"One of the reasons we split up the business was so we could take care of them better, focus more," says Sahagun, whose extended family runs most of his shops.

It takes brains

Sahagun credits success, in part, to authenticity. "We try to sell the food as close as you get it to taco stands in Mexico," with filling choices including tongue, tripe and brains. "Our prices are very reasonable, the quality is good, and we stay away from the ground beef and yellow cheese."

My way or the highway

"We don't hire people who've cooked elsewhere. We teach our cooks from scratch, and we do that so all they know how to do is what we do."

Or the fly way

How does Sahagun oversee so many stores over so many miles? "Flying is my passion and my hobby. I have a four-seater Bonanza."

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Mackay Restaurant Group

Owners: Paul Mackay (COO) and Chad Mackay (CEO and president)

Established: 1996

Employees: 370

Back story: On credit and mink

"I remember opening El Gaucho with two credit cards, borrowing $10,000 on each just to buy liquor and wine," says Paul Mackay. The Small Business Administration loan came later. So did solid success built on the reputation of a retro steakhouse known for service, mink-lined booths, tuxedo-clad captains and flaming shish kebabs.

Mackay brought more than 30 years' experience with him when he appropriated the name of a legendary Seattle restaurant and re-created its splashy successor in the bowels of the former Sailor's Union Building. "I learned a lot by taking on other companies' problem restaurants and fixing them," Mackay says.

Mackay speaks candidly of his own failures, including Chez Gus and its Pier 70 replacement, Rippe's. He's seen his share of difficulties at Troiani and at Waterfront Seafood Grill, El Gaucho's surfin' sibling, where they spent a million more dollars on it than they wanted to. El Gaucho kept it afloat.

It's all about romance

"We don't worship at the altar of food," says Paul. "We're not a chef-driven restaurant, we're a concept restaurant. We're about the total experience. The job is to romance the customers and create that experience, to make them feel like king or queen for the day."

To market, to market

"You can have the product, you can have the great service, you can have the great atmosphere, but if you don't market it and market it well, you're going to struggle."

Where to go from here

"We've got a great wheel, and we don't want to reinvent that wheel," says Paul. "I'm 64. I'm sated. I'm stepping out of the day-to-day operations, turning them over to my son, Chad. He's 35, and he's hungry. Dad's not so hungry anymore."

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Jones Barbeque

Owners: William and Joyce Jones

Established: 1988

Employees: 50

Back story: Fight fire with fire

Any firefighter will tell you never to let kids play with an old refrigerator, but William Jones — Seattle firefighter, Pentecostal minister and founding father of Jones Barbeque — might make an exception. "My dad made barbecue pits out of big, huge refrigerators. He made me one, and he taught me how to use it," says the man behind the name that's gaining fame for smoked ribs, beef and chicken prepared, as the slogan says, "The Way Barbecue is Supposed to Be."

The original Jones, opened in 1988, begat a kiosk in the Crossroads Mall and now has slick new sister stores in Sodo and Columbia City. Jones and his family are also keeping busy with a catering business and a line of barbecue sauce. Sides, sauce and dessert all come out of a central commissary.

For the past three years, the Joneses have wooed fans and won first-place awards for barbecue at the Bite of Seattle. And, in a recent profile on the Food Network's "BBQ with Bobby Flay," the Jones family was seen showing the rest of the country how that's done. "We have the smoke, the tender and the sauce that you don't get tired of eating," says Jones.

A family affair

"My kids were brought up doing barbecue," says Jones, who learned the art of pie-making from his grandmother and, at Jones Barbeque, calls that sweet chore his own. Today, all four kids have a hand in the business. Their mother, Joyce, bakes her famous cheesecakes, and grandma Anna Smith stakes her claim with bread pudding.

Did someone say "juicy"?

"No, I never get tired of eating barbecue! I eat it all the time," says Jones. So, who's that guy leaving PCC grasping just-juiced carrot, celery, parsley, ginger and wheat grass? That's right: It's Jones, who says, "You've got to start off the morning healthy."

Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Harley Soltes is a Seattle freelance photographer.

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Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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