“It was mostly no.” That was Renee Erickson and Jeremy Price’s initial reaction when their business partner, Chad Dale, floated the idea of acquiring most of Josh Henderson’s restaurants, and folding them into the trio’s Sea Creatures restaurant group.
Then, says Erickson, she "kept having glimmers of 'this could be really cool.'”
While they never set out to run a restaurant empire, the thing that fuels both of them, says Price, is the opportunity to create cool spaces. Of looking at a building, imagining the food and drink and interiors that could be, and then making that happen. “We’re fed by that,” he says. For Price and Erickson, a prominent chef in Seattle as well as the national food scene, taking on properties that bear someone else's stamp rather than inserting their own aesthetic from day one seemed counterintuitive.
Then again, Erickson was also skeptical the first time she donned a hard hat and toured the stark construction site that grew into the Amazon Spheres, where this conversation is taking place. Now, Sea Creatures is readying an Italian restaurant called Wilmott’s Ghost and a yet-unnamed cocktail bar (their trio of counter spots exclusively for Amazon employees opened this spring) amidst these waterfalls and jungle plants. As the idea sunk in, any time Price or Erickson expressed a wish for something prosaic—more accounting support for their finance director, someone who handles all the preventive maintenance in their restaurants—Dale would point out how having a larger restaurant group would make that possible.
That, says the duo, is how they came to embrace the idea. Last week Sea Creatures announced its plans to take on most of the restaurants in Henderson’s restaurant group, Huxley Wallace Collective. Dale was a partner in both ventures, so it made perfect sense for him to buy out and bring over the Lake Union oyster destination Westward, Saint Helens bistro in Laurelhurst, and the entire Great State Burger chain (Huxley Wallace’s other partner, Ira Gerlich, will come along and become part of Sea Creatures, too). There were a few other things team Sea Creatures wanted to make sure were addressed before they committed; Huxley Wallace just settled a lawsuit brought by employees who alleged the restaurants didn't disclose that it retained part of customers' service charges, and that they received insufficient breaks.
Price, Dale, and Erickson have heard a lot of jokes about showing up at the Huxley Wallace establishments with buckets of white paint to enforce their signature airy vibe, but right now, the Sea Creatures team has no plans other than getting to know their new restaurants. “We want them to trust that’s what we’re doing,” says Erickson. While some changes will surely be in store down the road, Westward, with its dock and watery allure and oyster menu, is perhaps the most natural fit for Sea Creatures, while Saint Helens has some of the French-inspired charm that’s in Erickson’s restaurant DNA. The piece that seemed like the strangest fit was Great State, the burger chain, until I remembered that Sea Creatures raises its own cattle on Whidbey Island; while they don’t have nearly enough beef to supply all of Great State, Price says, it should make life easier for Bateau chef Taylor Thornhill, who often gets creative in his efforts to use up all that cow. And no, it's not mandatory that all their restaurants have nautical monikers.
Even without adding the Huxley Wallace locations, Sea Creatures is growing like mad. Erickson, Dale, and Price have some busy months ahead of them. In addition to the pair of forthcoming projects inside the Spheres, they're opening a General Porpoise outpost in Laurelhurst, and another in LA. Once all those are open and Sea Creatures takes on all the Huxley Wallace restaurants, they will have 21 properties, not counting the Great State outposts in the stadiums. Technically that's more than Tom Douglas or Ethan Stowell, though Erickson points out that a General Porpoise coffee and doughnut shop exists on a very different operational scale than, say, Stowell's new 130-seat Cortina.
When I asked how this union could affect a customer's experience, Erickson and Price shied away from any use of the word “better.” Again, their reasons aren't very glamorous; they'd like to have more management positions, both to give great employees a chance to grow, and let them focus on their actual jobs without being sidetracked by things like, say, fixing a toilet. "We have to offer someone more than just a salary," says Erickson. From a diner's perspective, though, a staff with fewer distractions from the business of making food and serving customers should translate, in subtle ways, to a better more enjoyable meal.