After a prolific, if tumultuous run of restaurant openings, Josh Henderson is selling all but two of his establishments to his business partners. In a deal worked out over more than half a year, Henderson will hang on to Kiki Ramen and Quality Athletics, and retain the name of his restaurant group, Huxley Wallace Collective—it’s named for his two sons.
Chad Dale and Ira Gerlich, originally the other two partners in Huxley Wallace, will own the growing Great State Burger chain, Saint Helens in Laurelhurst, and Lake Union oyster destination Westward. Here's where things get wild: Dale is also a partner in Renee Erickson's Sea Creatures restaurant group, and all those restaurants (and Gerlich) will ultimately become part of that stable, effectively siblings with places like Walrus and the Carpenter, Whale Wins, Bateau, and the General Porpoise doughnut chain.
“I did a fuckton of restaurants in a short amount of time,” says Henderson, sounding like a man who has done a lot of reflecting lately. “A lot of that is based on ego and a lot of that is based on what you think supposedly will either define you or make you rich, or create opportunities for people, or whatever narrative you have in your head. But for me that wasn’t true.”
Obviously any parting of ways like this indicates circumstances weren’t ideal for both parties, but Henderson and Dale say they had a great run together and approached this decision with plenty of mutual respect. “Maybe we got mired in the weeds sometimes—that’s what happens with negotiations—but at the end we come out with a lot of love,” says Henderson. "I came out great at the end, as did they."
Henderson is eager to be a sole owner, and walks away from this deal with a check that lets him fund future projects entirely under his domain. A new restaurant is already in the works, he says, a casual one. “I can’t stop doing that; I love to create things.”
“But honestly, the number one driver is Huck and Wally,” he says. His two young sons now live on Lopez Island with their mom; Henderson will split his time between Seattle and the San Juans so he can see more of his kids.
The chef who helped define the early days of Seattle street food with his Skillet truck (and the early days of the truck-to-restaurant movement with Skillet Diner) was initially involved with Hollywood Tavern in Woodinville, then went on to open Westward and Quality Athletics. In 2016, Henderson had perhaps the most intense growth spurt in Seattle restaurant history, much of it funded by arrangements with Amazon and the sleek Thompson Seattle hotel downtown (Huxley Wallace and the Thompson also ended their arrangement recently). Henderson spent much of 2017 walking back some of the more ambitious concepts: His avant garde Northwest taco bar became Kiki Ramen; Vestal went from bold and original dining to sandwiches and salads, to closing up shop—all in barely a year.
"If I could give advice to younger chefs, it would be cook what you love," says Henderson. "If you love, I don't know, beef stroganoff, just make that—and make the best beef stroganoff. Don't worry about what you think people will want."
As for Dale, "I’ve had my whole body in both restaurant groups for the last few years," he says. "It becomes really incredible to be able to just focus on Sea Creatures."He, Erickson, and Price will spend the coming months "watching and learning from the existing staff" at the Huxley Wallace transplants. Ultimately there are plans to make these places, in Dale's highly technical restaurant parlance, "more Sea Creature-y." He stresses that those specifics don't yet exist, but changes might include some adjustments to the menu at Saint Helens, and perhaps even a name change. (Presumably an aqueous one?)
Westward, popular beyond all business projections back when it opened, needs more infrastructure—more bathrooms, more kitchen, more storage. There's also the matter of aesthetics; Erickson's establishments all have a distinct feel, as do Henderson's: "In my mind they're both really top of class when it comes to design," says Dale. "But they’re totally different."
If this alliance seems crazy at first glance, you're not alone. Erickson felt the same way, a sentiment even expressed in the release from the Sea Creatures folks, until she considered the idea's many upsides. From a business standpoint, a bigger restaurant group means a lot of operational upsides that can translate to great food and happy employees.
For now, though, the two restaurant group cultures will get to know one another (Sea Creatures is also readying an Italian-inspired restaurant, Wilmott's Ghost, in the Amazon Spheres), and Henderson says he's thrilled to step back from many years of grinding to spend meaningful time with his family and ponder projects that just sound fun.