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Adapt or Die: What Chef Eric Rivera Learned About Seattle Restaurant Survival

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Banking on a single concept for an extended period of time is risky

Profile shot of chef Eric Rivera against a black background.
Chef Eric Rivera of Addo.
Courtesy of Eric RIvera

In this op-ed, Seattle chef Eric Rivera describes his experiences opening Addo in Ballard and discusses recent concerns that the local restaurant scene is contracting.

I have seen the restaurant scene bloom over the past 38 years here in Seattle. I grew up in Olympia, Washington, attended culinary school at the Art Institute in Seattle (now closed), and worked at Chicago’s famous fine dining establishment Alinea before coming back to establish my career here more than a decade ago. After bouncing around in a few different roles, including as head chef at Bookstore Bar, I started two-seat pop-up dinners inside my apartment in 2017, which grew into what Addo is today: an incubator in Ballard for all my ideas, whether they are one-off nerdy dinner pop-ups or high-end chef-counter experiences. Addo is my route to being independent. For years, I worked for others, and while some of those experiences were really good, and some were very bad, I always knew Addo was what I needed to create.

During my career, I have seen Tom Douglas and Ethan Stowell grow single restaurants into restaurant empires. I’ve watched the ethos behind Seattle’s cuisine morph more and more toward local, sustainable, and organic ingredients, spearheaded by the likes of Matt Dillon, Jerry Traunfeld, Maria Hines, and more. These chefs paved the way for the scene to evolve in Seattle with dining destinations such as Hines’s organic dining trailblazer Tilth and the departed Poppy, Traunfeld’s acclaimed seasonal hit. And so new restaurants saturated more and more neighborhoods. When Dillon first opened Sitka & Spruce more than 14 years ago, it was considered groundbreaking for its refined use of simple ingredients and the way it showcased Pacific Northwest fare; when it closed late last year, it was just one of many with a similar approach. Like others who found success in Seattle, though, Dillon opened other restaurants, such as the London Plane, which showcases his range of talents with Mediterranean dishes.

But as recent articles in the Seattle Times and the Stranger have pointed out, rising costs — due to rapid development in the city and a wave of gentrification — are hurting Seattle restaurants overall and slowing growth, affecting established names and newcomers alike. While some chefs are warning of even deeper issues to come (Dillon said there would be a “reckoning”), there hasn’t been much discussion about what the restaurant industry itself can do to survive amid these conditions.

Restaurants aren’t community centers. They are not nonprofits. As with any business, there are taxes, bills, and unexpected issues that always pop up. Those who can best address these issues stand a better chance at lasting longer. What I keep telling myself, and what I say to my friends in the industry, is that we need to evolve or die.

Adaptability in today’s restaurant world is key to keeping a restaurant afloat. When the lease for a new restaurant is signed, it’s hard enough to predict what a Seattle diner will want now, let alone five years from now. But I do know this: Banking on a single concept for an extended period of time is risky — if not impossible. There has to be a larger look to what exciting new things are happening in other cities and some consideration of how the same forces of innovation could play out in Seattle.

Meanwhile, if you aren’t doing enough to continually execute service and hospitality at a high level day in and day out — all while making sure that the food you serve can delight and surprise in equal measure — it’s unlikely that guests will continue to return.

Guests who are relatively new to the Seattle area often tell me that the local food scene doesn’t live up to the prices being charged. They also say that the service at many restaurants doesn’t come close to other cities that are dialed in, like New York, LA, and Chicago. Our growing legion of tech transplant workers have lived all over the world and are often seeking something different from what’s currently offered around town. Do we just ignore them? Or do we realize that they are part of the ecosystem?

Often I look at Seattle restaurants and consider which ones would stand alone in a different metropolitan area. For instance, places like Kedai Makan, which serves innovative Malaysian street food in a lively environment; Pho Bac, with its classic pho bowls; and Kamonegi, a soba destination helmed by young star chef Mutsuko Soma, do an excellent job at offering an experience that is hard to find anywhere else.

But, of course, it’s not enough to stand out. What about those prohibitive costs the Seattle Times detailed, including rents for retail spaces that have increased 36 percent in 10 years? Though this particular model may not be useful for everyone, I’m going to share how I worked my way to a profitable restaurant within the financial constraints of the Seattle food world. When I started small at my apartment, I did dinners, pop-ups, business catering, weddings, consulting, events, and just about anything that made sense to help Addo and myself continue forward. Then, after working for different restaurateurs and a hotel in Seattle, I felt ready to rent a space during the night, before taking over a full-time restaurant space. The incremental approach helped a lot. When I was in my apartment and in the first Addo space on Capitol Hill, there wasn’t a prep team, dishwasher, or full-time front-of-house staff. I was all those things. Over time, I was able to add employees. We are still a really slim staff, but my team knows this means we run on a more efficient financial model, which affords them more room for growth and creates transparency.

And while one chef quoted in the Seattle Times piece suggested Instagram was hurting the food scene because it’s causing diners to be more concerned with looks than taste, it should be noted that social media is also a useful promotional and communication tool that’s very low in cost, if not entirely free. Thanks to around 200,000 impressions for Addo across Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, people fly in from all over the country to see what we’re doing. When I ask my repeat guests why they return, they often say that they like the experience, they like that we are always focused on new things, they like how different each experience feels, and they like that we treat them like gold and know them by name.

My goal has never been to open 10-plus restaurants — it was always to open one good one and, within that, maximize the opportunity to do anything I wanted in order to be successful. Paying rent on a space 24/7 and only being open for a short time each night doesn’t play into that idea necessarily, so we do just about everything in order to make the financial model work to offset that: from catering to businesses to personal cheffing, retail sales, merchandising, trips, weddings, and so much more. Yes, rents are high in Ballard (as they are across the city), but I’ve tried to find a way to make the numbers add up, while still keeping quality and service at a premium.

Then there are the questions about labor costs. Look at any restaurant closing. Whenever an article is written about the closure, within minutes someone will post that it’s the minimum wage that’s killing restaurants. But I argue that chefs and owners in this city aren’t doing enough to make sure their employees are being paid more. And if certain restaurants can’t figure out how to pay their employees the minimum wage of at least $15 an hour (which applies to companies of fewer than 500 employees), my argument is that they shouldn’t be in business. It took new laws in the state for larger employers to raise the minimum wage. If those laws were never passed, then wages for cooks and other back-of-house workers never would have adjusted to match the current times and current standard of living. The shift to ticketed-only restaurants and eliminating tips completely is here and growing, evidenced at chains like Ivar’s and smaller restaurants like Watson’s Counter in Ballard. Transparency in pay is key, and there will be leaders. There already are: people like restaurateur Renee Erickson, who embraced the new minimum wage policy from the get-go, and Molly Moon Neitzel from Molly Moon’s. But a minimum is just a minimum. People should be paid more, and that’s what we do at Addo. Part of the ability to do that is staying small — I don’t have an investor or management team outside of the restaurant that I’m beholden to, so I am able to pass profits more generously to the team.

Despite all this, I question and panic plenty of times about what is happening at Addo. Is it too far? Is it far enough? Did we really just do that? We will continue to evolve what we are doing and figure out a way to stay afloat. Because I don’t want to be yet another cautionary tale about why Seattle is bad for restaurants.


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