This week we're talking to some men and women whose contributions to local restaurants happen largely behind the scenes.
When Jen Doak was looking for a location for her upcoming pub, Brimmer and Heeltap, her broker, Laura Miller, urged her to take a look at the Le Gourmand space. It had been years since Doak had been inside the storied French restaurant, but the shiny white interior and walled off Sambar next door had never crossed her mind as a potential home for the gastropubby spot she’s planning with business partner Mike Whisenhunt, the longtime kitchen lieutenant for Revel and Joule.
Miller pointed out the building's character, its patio, ways to connect the Sambar space to the main dining room, and even surveyed the overhead crawl space to note the wood-slatted ceilings and brick walls hiding behind the lathe and plaster interior.
Then, recalls Doak, she thought, “oh my god, this is it.” Miller helped her secure owner Bruce Naftaly’s blessing, and the space will open in its new incarnation, hopefully before the holiday.
If you want to get all Harry Potter about it, Miller is the sorting hat of Seattle’s restaurateurs. Her phone buzzes constantly and her rolodex is deep—she recently helped secure locations for big name chefs like Jason Stratton (Aragona), Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi (Joule and Revel), Maria Hines (all three of her restaurants) and up and comers like Li'l Woody's, Ballard Ave spots Percy's and Bitterroot, and Juicebox's forthcoming brick-and-mortar cafe.
I have heard many a local restaurateur and bar owner speak of Miller with a mix of devotion, awe, and maybe a dash of intimidation, in part because she’s insanely fit. She wields great power within Seattle’s close-knit restaurant community because she helps chefs navigate the abstrusely touchy process of securing a restaurant space. But mostly because she also works with building owners in search of desirable restaurant occupants (Miller doesn’t generally do national chains).
For a chef with a little money and a big idea, finding the right location isn’t a matter of tooling around the city exclaiming over countertop finishes and exposed brick. Virtually any new restaurant announcement is the happy ending to an oddly tedious suspense novel. Leases in the most desirable locations are tough to secure, and even tougher to understand. Then there are myriad things to consider about the space itself.
Miller considers herself a sort of partner. She helps clients understand the costs that go into quaint, old spaces, and ensivion a concept's possibilities in affordable, yet seemingly less exciting square footage. If someone falls in love with an address possessing a cool industrial vibe and zoning to match, she can foresee the extra hundreds of thosuands of dollars involved in bringing it up to code.
But those stages are easy compared with what happens when a chef finds the right space. The byzantine wrangling of your typical restaurant lease can be a 45-day process. The first hurdle: convincing the landlord to take a chance on an independent restaurant when leasing to a Subway franchise or froyo outlet poses much less financial risk, even in this town. That’s why Miller likes getting on board with clients early, so she can help shape a business plan and make a proposal as appealing as possible.
“So many times, people here point to things Tom Douglas has been able to achieve,” she says of T-Doug's primo locations. “Yeah that’s Tom Douglas.”
Perhaps the oddest part of Miller’s job: urging her clients to negotiate their lease with a firm exit strategy in mind. Imagine if the person who performs your wedding ceremony insists you draw up divorce plans first, or if a car salesman wanted to see you change a flat tire before letting you drive something off the lot. Nobody wants to think about this, Miller allows, but you never know what your personal life might bring, she says (plus restaurant margins are narrow and the economy fickle) and thinking these dark thoughts on the front end can make life much easier.
Miller managed Flying Fish years ago and even had her own restaurant on the top of Queen Anne. The process of finding a space and negotiating the terms proved so baffling that when she went into real estate a dozen years ago, she figured someone should really make a specialty out of sheperding aspiring restaurant owners through this process. When she meet with clients, she usually asks them to bring an idea of how many seats they want in their restaurant, and photos of spaces they like. And yes, she fields a lot of requests for exposed brick and Pike/Pine and Ballard Avenue addresses.
"That whole process is fun for me," she says. "It's a whole lot more than jumping in the car and looking at spaces."