Welcome back to One Year In, a feature in which Eater chats with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
[Tough (L) and McCracken. Photos: S. Pratt]
Seattle chef and restaurateur Dana Tough says that when a new restaurant opened years ago, its "window of relevance" used to last six to eight months. Now, he's says that due to the number of projects opening across town the buzz surrounding a new eatery or bar lasts two or three months, and that the window is shrinking. Tough and his business partner chef Brian McCracken launched The Old Sage in Capitol Hill in 2013 next to their acclaimed cocktail bar Tavern Law.
One year in at The Old Sage, Tough spoke candidly with Eater about creating a third place, keeping staff healthy, and staking a claim in Seattle's crowded restaurant scene.
Tough and McCracken worked together at the W Hotel with Maria Hines in the early 2000s. When Hines opened her first restaurant Tilth Tough went with her, serving as chef de cuisine while McCracken spent time on the East Coast. McCracken opened a small catering company after returning to Seattle. Soon after he found a restaurant space, called Tough, and the pair started planning their first project. "From the beginning we both shook on the concept of not just going after one restaurant but really building a brand, cautiously of course," Tough says. "We've had somewhat rapid growth in the last six years." Spur opened in 2008, followed by Tavern Law, Coterie Room, and The Old Sage.
"We both had sons this year so we've been taking it a little bit easy. We stepped out of the public eye a little bit and we're kind of noticing that," Tough says. "So this year we're making a driving force to do as many events as possible and build relationships to get back out there."
Both your and Brian's sons are about a year old. Has parenting changed the way you approach your professional life?
Being a parent gives you a different type of fire in your belly to really shoot for the stars and go for it. Both Brian and I feel that the risks we've taken so far have been a little less scary. We're refreshed and ready to go again.
What are your thoughts about the number of restaurants opening on Capitol Hill, near The Old Sage and Tavern Law?
We're absolutely experiencing a bubble in Seattle proper. Period. It's a full-time job to try to stay relevant, but it's a healthy competition, too, because there's a lot of cool concepts coming out that are fully themed and put together. I know Josh (Henderson) is really doing a good job at that at Huxley Wallace. There's a lot of cool stuff coming to Seattle, but it makes for a harder job, I will say that.
Has the first year at The Old Sage surprised you?
With the growth that's happening in Seattle is has been pretty difficult to stay busy. The [Old Sage's] initial concept went above people's heads; we've actually scaled back the food a little bit and made it more approachable and equally delicious: We have a burger on the menu now. It's good to be approachable, you want your customers to understand it and get it so they can sell it to other people. For whatever reason it took us a really long time to figure that out. We're fully on board at this point for making really thoughtful food like we do but trying to be approachable and honest with our pricing. I know a lot of people say that we're expensive, but I say we kind of just stick to our guns, we feel like we're appropriate.
What's coming up next with the restaurant?
We want to build a few more pockets so it feels a little more intimate. What we want is to be a living room away from people's apartments or condos. Because it's so open in the floorplan and there's not those little nooks, it puts a lot of pressure on the service staff to create the show, and that's a hard job to execute. We want our service staff to be very attentive and personable if the customer wants that, but it's good to have bookshelves, tvs, little visual points to draw your attention towards other things. We're really focusing on that and also making it comfortable.
Do you have plans to launch any new concepts in 2014?
We're focusing on growing what we have, making it the best we can, and from there we'll probably have more projects coming. We're focusing on keeping our culture happy and healthy and really want industry folks to see our company as a lifetime career opportunity and build the infrastructure to back that up.