This week we're talking to some men and women whose contributions to local restaurants happen largely behind the scenes.
I never thought much about the chalkboard menus in bars and restaurants. Though in restrospect it was silly to assume that places like Beecher’s and Hot Cakes and Ballard Annex Oyster House just happen to have someone on staff with perfect, font-like handwriting and a knack for producing cunning food and drink drawings while perched awkwardly on top of a ladder.
Then I met John Rozich, a guy unfamiliar to most restaurantgoers, unless you happen to notice his signature in the corner of one of these chalkboards. Rozich is a full-time chalkboard artist (he also draws in other mediums) and about 70 percent of his business comes from bars, restaurants, and coffee shops.
Myriad technologies could produce a menu more cheaply—and allow for edits, updates, and other luxuries you just don’t have in chalk. That hand-drawn element gives a place a more personal feel, but it demands skills akin to mental typesetting. Rozich has to space out all the menu text (and come up with a font) in his head before committing it to chalk or pastels...often at an awkward angle up on a ladder. Otherwise he could spend days on a lettering project, only to find himself with a single line of extra text that demands the whole board be wiped clean and begun again.
Rozich has been drawing since he was a kid in the Detroit suburbs. He initially studied architecture, and credits those pre-CAD days with honing his ability to draft by hand, but switched his major to drawing and painting after a gig he got with a friend’s dad who owned a bowling alley and lounge. The idea of getting paid to do something he really enjoyed was a revelation.
He moved to Seattle and picked up sign gigs as he studied to be a teacher. It was around 1985; Starbucks wasn’t really on the radar, but espresso was becoming a thing. When Uptown Espresso on Queen Anne asked if he would do an illustrated coffee menu, Rozich, a paint and markers guy, had his first assignment in chalk.
Rather than the standard chalk-drawn menu with illustrations of espresso and juice drinks up and down the sides, Rozich drew a big cup with the menu items taking the forms of tendrils of steam. He had figured out his niche: “The artwork is central with the menu worked in, versus the other way around.” You can still find his handiwork at Uptown Espresso locations.
Over the years, Rozich entwined sign gigs with other, steadier jobs. But since he got laid off from Boeing in 2002, he’s been able to make his very specific niche of the art world a full-time thing. Liquor distributors have sent plenty of business his way—if you see a bar chalkboard of happy hour specials with an especially artful drawing of a Cuervo margarita or Smirnoff vodka drink, it was probably Rozich.
He takes a lot of inspiration from Edward Hopper, but adds, “I know beer labels really well.” He likes to add an image of mountains or waterfront to his boozy projects, to give them a local feel. He also has ready ideas for requests like “I’d like to recreate the Breakfast at Tiffany’s poster, but with cupcakes,” or “I’m going to Las Vegas meets the Pacific Northwest,” or “please include a bike from my motorcycle collection.” He practices his art atop ladders, or brings boards back to his workspace for an overnight overhaul, and even went to SeaTac to do the board at the new Beecher's location. Sometimes clients will commission permanent pastel artwork, which he covers in plexiglass to preserve it.
Rozich's daughter, Stacey, is also an illustrator; you can find her work on covers of the Stranger, and she did the charmingly creepy mural at Rachel's Ginger Beer's new Pike Place Market flagship (her dad, of course, did the chalkboard menu).