SIX YEARS AGO THIS MONTH, I sat in my car outside Boat Street Kitchen and stared into the rearview mirror. My eyes were bloodshot. My husband and I were opening our first restaurant, Delancey, in a few short weeks. We were tired, worried, in over our heads, and one of us was prone to crying. Susan Kaplan, my husband’s boss and the owner of Boat Street, had invited me in to see how a restaurant keeps its books. She met me at the door, and though Susan isn’t a hugger, she looked at my red eyes and put an arm around my shoulder. Then she waved me into the cranny between two file cabinets that she calls her office; while I sniffed and wiped at my eyes, Susan taught me how to process a day’s receipts.
“We wouldn’t have a restaurant if it weren’t for Susan,” Brandon likes to say. In the two years that we worked to open Delancey, Susan joined us in touring every potential location, fielded an untold number of phone calls, and helped Brandon find equipment on the cheap. Even after he’d left her kitchen to work on the project full time, she tossed us money in the form of catering work. Renee Erickson, whose Boat Street Cafe (RIP) was then next door to Susan’s Boat Street Kitchen, also took his every call, recommended vendors and suppliers, and, when Brandon was knee-deep in construction work, stopped by often to cheer him on. Carla Leonardi, the owner of Cafe Lago, taught him how to stretch pizza dough, gave him lessons on her wood-burning oven, and let us store a 30-quart commercial mixer (named Sir Mix-a-Lot) in her garage. None of these people had a real reason to help us aside from a basic human need to eat pizza. None of them had a financial stake in Delancey. Brandon and I were 27 and 30 when Delancey opened, a composer-turned-cook and a food writer, both somewhat clueless, midwifed into restaurant ownership by the generosity of other restaurant owners. It was wonderful and, in an industry known for its hard knocks and machismo, really weird.
In my bare handful of years in Seattle’s restaurant industry, I’ve known close to a dozen stories like ours; stories of food businesses that took root in, were nurtured by, even housed within other food businesses. Susan Kaplan is all for it. She doesn’t like to see good employees go, but even more, she wants them to succeed—“And I want them to do it without risking their entire financial future. My advice is usually about how not to lose money. That’s a good thing to know.”
For Renee Erickson (also the chef behind the Walrus and the Carpenter and The Whale Wins), the experience of launching Boat Street Pickles drove home the importance of an industry mentor. Though putting food in jars and selling it is nothing new, Renee struggled to find information on getting started. Years later, when V Smiley, a cook at the Whale Wins, came to her with questions about starting her own preserves business, Renee saw no reason to hoard her knowledge of how to do this—“This has all happened before.”
In ways large and small, Renee encouraged longtime Boat Street Cafe cook Russell Flint to open his Rain Shadow Meats in 2010; last December, she raised a glass as three of her former employees, Joe Sundberg, Rachel Johnson, and Alex Barkley, opened the sea-inspired Manolin just a block from the Whale Wins.
The next of Renee’s staff to make the transition will be Whale Wins sous chef Kit Schumann. He and his brother Jesse have been baking bread at Boat Street after hours since April 2014, selling it under the name Sea Wolf Bakery. It’s currently only in restaurants—all of Renee’s places as well as a few others around town—but the brothers will open a retail bakery in the spring.
“Renee understands that people don’t want to show up at work and be monkeys, doing the same thing day in and day out,” Kit says. When he pondered opening a bakery, Renee and Susan offered the use of their shared Boat Street space.
Using Boat Street’s two small ovens, they can bake just eight loaves at a time, mostly between midnight and 7am. Space and time constraints limit them to 24 loaves a day and only two types of bread, but the Schumanns will expand into baguettes, focaccia, and pastries when they move to their own place. Susan, Renee, and Renee’s business partners provided, as Kit describes it, a form of training wheels: “They gave us a space to bake in and were our first customers. They believed in us.”
Now that Brandon and I are in a position to offer support rather than receive it, I find it hard not to panic when I learn that a good employee is moving on. (I’ve considered tattooing “What Would Renee Do?” on my arm as a reminder.) But from the day that we opened Delancey, Brandon saw that part of his job—the best part, even—was to pass on the pay-it-forward philosophy that Susan, Renee, and Carla had shown him. When Rachel Marshall was serving at Delancey and, in her spare time, developing the recipe for what is now Rachel’s Ginger Beer, Brandon tasted batches, offered advice, and, every Monday, gave her the run of Delancey to use as her production kitchen. Ricardo Valdes, a longtime Delancey and Essex cook, made small-batch local sea salt under the name Admiralty Salt, and we bought it by the tub. Before Brandi Henderson opened the Pantry, a community kitchen and cooking school located directly behind Delancey, she was our pastry chef. We miss her desserts, but we still share a walk-in, a couple of ovens, a dishwasher, and an office.
Good ones always leave. I’m slowly getting used to it, and I’m starting to believe what our mentors knew before us: that the best thing we can do for the people we hire, especially if we want them to do good work while they’re with us, is to support them as they outgrow us.
Brandon and I were drawn to careers in food because we wanted to create something—a meal, but also an experience. That’s why we opened Delancey. The food business is, of course, about business first. But in this town, it seems, those who work in food share a love for creating great things that supercedes competition. “The more that people here have access to great food,” Kit Schumann says, “the more they want to eat it, the more it becomes part of the culture, and the more room there is for all of us.”
Molly Wizenberg is the author of the award-winning blog Orangette and two books, A Homemade Life and Delancey.