Welcome back to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Jeremy Price, Renee Erickson [Photo: S. Pratt]
A little more than one year ago, Renee Erickson welcomed her third restaurant to the world, The Whale Wins, which easily adapted to life as the youngest sibling to Boat Street Cafe and Walrus and the Carpenter. This past year, Bon Appetit named it one of the 10 best new restaurants of 2013.
In this edition of One Year In, Renee and business partner Jeremy Price (co-owner in the above mentioned trifecta) give us a status update on the Whale's first anniversary. Here, the two talk about what's to come, why they'll never own a ton of restaurants, and how their roles have changed now that a fourth spot, Barnacle, has opened.
How has your life changed this past year?
Renee Erickson: It's a lot busier (laughs). I guess going from two to three (restaurants) was a big jump in terms of scheduling and running and trying to add 30 employees to our group of employees to help and manage — that was a big jump for us. But fun.
Jeremy Price: Whale in particular, because we do both lunch and dinner here. It's more logistics, more scheduling and trying to figure out how it's all going to work.
Were you expecting that big of a change with just one restaurant?
RE: I think we, for good or bad, don't think about that so much (laughs). There's so much excitement in the planning and the organizing and the thinking of it — all the dirty details we don't, at least I don't, spend a lot of time thinking, "What if?" So, no. I didn't.
JP: It's a little like having a baby. When you're in it, you're like, "We're never doing this again" and then you kind of forget about all that and you're like, "Let's have another baby!" If there wasn't some kind of forgetting of how hard it is and how long the hours are and how grueling it is, you'd never open more than one. But you do forget and then it's, "Hey, let's do another one, it'll be fun!"
[Photo: S. Pratt]
RE: It's also, I think having gone from Boat Street to Walrus, having a bigger staff and being really invested in them and trying to promote them and give them opportunities, it gets to a place where you're like, "Hmmm...where am I going to put this person now? How are they going to stay with us and grow and become more involved and satisfied working for us? "So, sometimes there's that, too. Not that we're opening restaurants for employees, but it's nice to have new places where they can go and learn a new skill and be not so stagnant. That part of it is pretty fun. The creative part of it is really satisfying.
Is the vision you initially had when you set out to open Whale still intact a year later?
RE: Yeah, I think we've stayed pretty true to what we wanted. I think sometimes the biggest challenge in opening a restaurant is opening the doors and then all of the sudden there's all this feedback and you're like, "Is it wrong? Should we switch it? Should we adjust it?"
Especially with the shared plates and room temperature stuff, sadly, I think what we learned was that talking about it made it worse, because if you go to Boat Street, if you go to Walrus, more than half their menus are served at room temperature as well, but because it wasn't talked about, nobody paid attention to it. But here, there are people who think we have no hot food at all! Fortunately, having Jeremy and Chad [Dale] as partners, we can sit around and say, "No, it's good. We should keep doing it." There's a little bit of a beat down in the beginning where you're just like, "Ah, shit."
Did you pull anything because it just wasn't working?
JP: Not really. When you open a restaurant, as Renee was saying, you get into negotiation with the public about wanting to do what you're excited about, but also wanting to meet people where they are, too. Menu-wise, we've tried really hard to be like, "No, this really is good." We're not doing something so radical that people...
RE: It's not challenging.
JP: We've maybe changed how we market it a little bit. The wording on the menu has kind of evolved over time, but in terms of the breakdown of dishes and things, I think that's pretty much constant.
[Photo: S. Pratt]
RE: Conceptually, it was really like...I think if we were to go back two years or so, it was originally [going to be] a sausage house, which quickly we were like, "Yeah, we really don't want to do that." It was one of those ideas where it sounds great, but it's not...I think for me in particular, and I'm pretty sure Jeremy feels the same way, we both want to be and work in places that are places we'd want to go to or have the style of food we crave. This one for sure was that.
I certainly eat a lot at home and in traveling would go to places like Ottolenghi in London, where they're not changing the world of food, they're just being really honest about it and cooking things that they love and that are traditional to them and their life. That felt really good to me and still does.
I love it here. I love being here. It makes me really happy when people come in and experience it as it is rather than having an expectation and wanting it to be something else, like Walrus. It's not going to be Walrus, ever. People expect oysters. We've put oysters in the oven, but I definitely don't want the same food.
How is it being next door to Joule? What has it done for your success?
RE: They're lovely, of course. I think it's a really good variety of food. We're distinctly different and I think it's nice, but I think caliber wise and intent is the same; we both really...they work crazy hard and care a ton about what they do and the same goes for us. I think it's a good balance. It definitely has a communal feel.
JP: I think especially for where we are in Seattle, on this corner at least, there's not a lot of things going on. So, it's nice to have them next to us because it creates a little bit more of a draw to this part of Fremont or Wallingford or wherever we are down here. It's nice because it brings more people in. I think it's a similar dynamic that we have at Walrus with Staple [&Fancy]. When you're going into areas that have less foot traffic, have less people out and about, it's nice to have more of a draw.
RE: If it's similar, even if it's not, I think it's just better. There's more exposure, people are active, and it just makes for a better community — especially in Seattle where it's hard to get people moving around on foot, it's nice to have a variety of options.
Did you have this partnership with Joule from the get-go?
JP: Pretty early on. I think we were one of the first tenants to look at the space. Joule came on shortly after.
Knowing you were already going to be here?
RE: Yeah, we all sat and talked.
JP: Exactly. And then EVO came on at the end.
RE: We were always hoping they would. It was a great addition. It's fun, especially now with the skate park downstairs. A broad spectrum of ages and that kind of thing makes it feel vibrant and good.
Anything you plan on doing for 2014 with Whale? Big plans?
JP: Boy, we're still kind of developing the patio and the plantings out there. The vision is that it's going to be this lush, urban garden/dining space. We're developing the little strip between the street and the cross-walk — doing a bunch of planting there and benches and things. Hopefully, making more of a gesture towards the community where it's not just this broken-up concrete path, but a real nice kind of cool gardeny-type place.
RE: It's kind of nice just to settle into it, too, and not be like, "Let's change it!"
Do you feel that need to keep up with all the accolades you've accumulated this year?
RE: I think there's definitely that, regardless, because it's the new restaurant phenomenon and that's what everyone pays attention to. I think in Seattle, people are eating out more and I hope they continue to find [the Whale] relevant and exciting.
The lunch to me is really great. We're waiting on the building next door, which will be about 300 people — Brooks Sports is moving in next door, their headquarters, so that was part of why we wanted to do lunch. And I love hanging out at lunch, having wine — it's a meal I really enjoy and it's hard in Seattle to find finer lunches that aren't in hotels. It's definitely a commitment, because it's certainly not very profitable. But, I think it's good for the customer base.
[Photo: S. Pratt]
Do you reach a point where opening more restaurants becomes easier, like a mechanical process of sorts?
JP: I think Renee and I...we don't have that relationship with the restaurants. It's hard to imagine doing more and having them still be authentic and true to...I think what Renee was saying earlier, that we open places that we really want to eat at and go to and be a part of, is really true. I think that kind of authenticity, we are worried we would lose that if we opened a lot of restaurants.
But if you continue to open restaurants that you really want to eat at, isn't it possible that you'll end up with 20 new places in the next 5 years?
RE: It's not going to happen (laughs). I think I would run screaming if that happened.
JP: At some point, I think we'd run out of ideas. I'd like to say we'd do something unique and special every time, but I don't think...I don't know.
RE: Other than Boat Street, which I kind of acquired and grew up in, Walrus and Whale and Barnacle, for that matter, are real experiences that we've had. Walrus was something I dreamt about for years and so it was something that was really clear and focused and deliberate and it took me forever to open it, because I was terrified to do it.
If I'm not like totally 100-percent psyched about it conceptually and feeling like it's right, I don't want to do it. I don't want to open a restaurant just to open a restaurant. It's too much work. Especially now, there's so much judgment and expectation; I want it to be authentic to who I am and what I care about and I think the further you get away from that, for me, the less successful it will feel. What it is financially is not the same as feeling really good and confident about what we're doing. I think there's a way to open a lot of restaurants, but it's not the kind of business I want.
JP: I think our process too, it takes us a long time to collect ideas that relate to each other in order to have a meaningful concept.
[Photo: Whale Wins]
What keeps you busy these days?
RE: Narwhal stuff.
JP: Strategizing about the coming year, we really want to grow inwards and develop and enrich what we already have; make all the stuff we're already doing even better.
RE: Staffing up and that stuff like that.
We have four restaurants, basically — I don't really count Barnacle as one yet, only because it's so small and it's so easy to be there because you're at Walrus already. But it's so much work and it's exciting and fun, but I think on my end, it's like trying to be...it is like having children, where you're trying to give everyone the right amount of attention and inspiration and advice and all of it and at a certain point, even now, I don't do it as well as I used to. It feels bad sometimes, like I'm not doing enough.
JP: We have this friend who used to be a personal chef for a rich lady and she tells this story about a person who had so many assistants — cook, cleaner, etc. — that they almost ceased to exist because they didn't do anything anymore because it was all farmed out to these other people. I think that would be what I would fear if we were to get a lot bigger than we are now. We'd have to hire so many people to take care of all these things, we wouldn't be as involved anymore. We'd kind of fade away from it. I already feel a little bit of that now, and I definitely don't want to feel more of it. It's not a comfortable feeling.
Renee, what is your biggest role with your restaurants on a daily basis?
A lot of it is just meeting with all the mangers and the chefs. This year, it was mostly writing the book — I've been writing a cookbook for a little while, 7 or 8 months now. So, that was my biggest chunk, which made me feel a little out of the loop all year, where I'm running around doing all these things, but not really...I'm not here every Wednesday or Thursday or whatever it used to be, so it felt bad. I felt like I wasn't here. I missed out on all the stories and fun and bad behavior and all the good stuff that I think makes restaurants so awesome — all that kind of junk that goes on in the back and the late night stories.
So, missing out on that was not ideal, but I do a lot of the PR stuff, all the events. I buy all the wine for all the restaurants, so that's a big chunk of time. Jeremy keeps all the balls in the air, which is hard. And all the staffing, all the managing of the mangers and making people happy and trying to accommodate all the needs, desires and wants of all the places. The book is more or less done. It was kind of weird, too, where I was like, "What do I do now?" It's what I've been doing for so long.
Tell me about the book.
It's called A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus. It was an awesome project. We still have a good amount of stuff to do, but it's more a collection of all my favorite menus and events that I've done over the last 15 years and stories about farmers and people who have been influential and inspirational to me and family stuff and just kind of people over the years who've been important [to me] — artists and all that. Now that it's going to be out there in the world, that terrifies me. That's my new fear. It's like, "Oh, shit. People are going to read this now?"
When does it come out?
September of next year.
Did someone approach you to write it?
Yeah, Sasquatch. I've had people ask me to write a book or ask when I was going to write one, and it's sort of the same as the restaurants, I didn't really...there's so many books, it's like a "who cares about my book?" kind of thing. So, it felt like it had to be...I felt like I really needed to be really behind it and confident that it was original and interesting and valid. I could easily write a Boat Street book or whatever book and it felt a little redundant maybe. But this one is fun. It's good. It's got lots of stories. I think it'll be great. I'm looking forward to it. And I'm also terrified of it!
It became more personal than I thought it would, and I guess that makes sense because it's about the restaurants. One of my greatest successes I think in the business is just how personal the restaurants have been and people who've worked there and all the influences. I shouldn't have been that surprised that the book ended up that way, but you don't really think about it everyday, so it becomes normal to you, and then all of the sudden now, people are going to read it (laughs), which is good, but it's a weird thing.
· The Whale Wins [Official Site]
· All Whale Wins Coverage [~ESEA~]
· All Renee Erickson Coverage [~ESEA~]