One day several years ago, Avery Hardin came home from work more burned out than usual, looked at his wife, Ashley Hardin, and said, “I just want to open a sandwich shop.”
“Let’s do it,” she said.
That’s how the idea for Layers was born. Until recently, it was a cult favorite sandwich truck. This summer it will open a brick-and-mortar location at Green Lake, one of the more anticipated restaurant launches of the season. But before all that, it was just a dream, and that dream took a lot of work.
At the moment of Layers’s conception, Ashley was a food photographer who worked at Lark, and Avery was a chef at Renee Erickson’s Bar Melusine (now Boat Bar); the couple had moved up from California to Seattle in 2016 because Avery was a huge fan of Erickson and wanted to work with her.
Ashley compares Avery to an artist, the way he’s constantly tinkering with recipes, never quite satisfied. Only his medium is sandwiches. When he cooked family meal at Bar Melusine, he says, “I made all these ridiculous sandwiches, like, whole fried smelt on long baguettes with the heads and tails sticking out… I was really taking all the mise en place from our dinner menu and putting it between two pieces of bread.”
The sandwiches the couple serves at Layers are works of art. Or works of gourmet dining, at least, with each flavor and texture carefully considered. Like their “I’d Date a Jalapeño,” which is a grilled cheese with cheddar, Deglet Noor dates, and jalapenos, a smokey-sweet sandwich that you could almost have for dessert. Or “Sebastian’s Sunset,” crab cake with pickled fennel, arugula, and remoulade.
Layers’s first service ever was a pop-up the Hardins hosted at their tiny Capitol Hill apartment. They took reservations mostly from people they knew, though “some randoms did show up,” Avery says. “It was supposed to be like a grab-and-go situation,” he continues, but some customers decided that it felt so much like a sandwich shop they might as well sit down to eat. “People were hanging around, sitting on our couch watching us make a huge mess in our kitchen.”
By 2019 they had decided to fully strike out on their own. Armed with a business plan and a “small gift” from Avery’s family, they had a food truck built (they named it Regina), and officially opened that October. “Our first night was amazing,” Avery says. “After that it was like a roller coaster.”
Seattle’s food truck scene is a competitive place, and as newcomers they couldn’t score a slot at the more popular breweries, instead settling for out-of-the way locations with little foot traffic. On their worst day, they parked at an Amazon Fulfillment Center and did about $100 in a day — and the truck had to do $1,000 a day in order to be sustainable.
One problem was that while they believed in their mission of the sandwich as a culinary art form rather than a cheap lunch, they hadn’t found customers who believed in paying $13 for their sandwiches.
Then the truck broke down.
Then the pandemic hit.
At that point they were cooking in a commissary kitchen and using their car to deliver sandwiches direct to customers. “I set up a system where it’s like, we’re gonna cater to this neighborhood on Monday and this neighborhood on Tuesday, and we would blast that on Instagram. And then people would call in their orders for that day. And we put together a list and mapped it all out,” Ashley says. “We would make the food at the commissary kitchen in the morning, get in the car, pack it all up, and go deliver it.” They were making 10 to 14 deliveries a day — not much, but better than nothing.
They caught a break after their truck was repaired. With lockdowns in effect, restaurants and bars were closed, but some breweries were able to reopen to take to-go orders. Not many other food trucks were open for business, so Layers was able to secure spots at popular breweries. When lines for cans formed, they were the only window to turn to.
The couple also credits Instagram for being a marketing tool — Ashley’s photography helped draw in customers, and by talking about the ingredients they used on social media they were able to persuade potential customers that their sandwiches were worth the price point.
The truck became so popular that it had regulars Ashley knew by name and some she knew by order. It had a constant line, and regularly sold out (no more $100 days). But the dream was never to have a sandwich truck, it was to have a sandwich shop. So goodbye Regina, hello a new Green Lake permanent location, which will open July 5, as long as everything goes according to plan. (One measure of Layers’s popularity is that their Kickstarter campaign raised over $78,000, with three donors giving more than $2,500 each.)
There will be sandwiches, of course, but also small plates and salads. Ellary Collins, formerly of London Plane, has come aboard and will be baking bread as well as sweet and savory pastries and her famous biscuits. And they’ll offer breakfast for the first time, which means breakfast sandwiches.
As they’re describing this, Avery shares one of his ideas, called the Duck Norris. “It would be like a kind of a play on like a Lyonnaise salad. So duck confit, chicories, a grainy-mustard sort of vinaigrette, a fried duck egg, on brioche.” He talks for a moment more, then has an addendum: For the vinaigrette, shouldn’t they use duck fat instead of oil?
“I’m a big believer that we’re always in search of perfection,” he says.