Expansion Mode

Ethan Stowell Restaurants Acquires Kigo Kitchen

The merger finalized this week; meanwhile, Stowell readies his first NYC project.

By Allecia Vermillion May 24, 2019

These fast-casual bowls aren't going anywhere.

In a transaction that becomes final this week, the city's eminent Northwest-Italian restaurateur will acquire, kinda, the fast-casual chainlet that specializes in Asian-flavored bowls.

Actually, "It's more of a merger," says Ethan Stowell of this move, which adds a new continent of flavors to his professional universe. I'm tempted to make so many lame fusion jokes about Ethan Stowell bento, or wokked bowls of rigatoni and prosciutto, but theoretically customers at Kigo's five counters, or Stowell's 13-ish restaurants, won't notice much difference in this new era of alliance.

Kigo cofounder and CEO Steve Hooper is a Seattle native who developed this vegetable-laden, healthy-ish fast-casual concept as an MBA student at Dartmouth. Hence the company has an inaugural location to the east, in Boston, but has expanded within Seattle's voracious lunch market ever since it arrived in 2013 (he told me years ago the idea had roots in his high school affinity for teriyaki).

Stowell's a food guy who eventually took on more of a business role. He did some menu consulting for Kigo awhile back and hit it off with Hooper—a business guy who subsequently got into food. In short, their strengths and weaknesses are pretty compatible. Stowell says his team can help tighten up recipes and processes and source quality ingredients, while Hooper can redo bonus structures and set up stock options for employees at Ethan Stowell Restaurants—the sorts of tedious things that help retain solid employees. "I know how to run restaurants," says Stowell. "I don't know how to do this."

As in every other prism of this city, growth is the point here. "To grow your business, you need to make sure you're able to afford the quality of employee and quality of product you want," says Stowell. He and Hooper have discussed some potential projects, but Stowell's restaurant group is readying its first project outside of Seattle: A restaurant inside Nordstrom's Manhattan outpost that's essentially the same concept as his enduringly great How to Cook a Wolf atop Queen Anne. The NYC version will be called, simply, Wolf.

This new arrangement seems like a smart move on both ends, and while it may not create any apparent changes in the short-term, I'm definitely curious to see what new directions come of it. 

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