Remembering Rachel’s Ginger Beer Founder Rachel Marshall
Rachel Marshall, the founder of Rachel’s Ginger Beer and co-owner of bars Montana and Nacho Borracho, died unexpectedly on April 24. She was 42 years old.
Marshall and her partner, Adam Peters, founded her ginger beer business in 2011 in the Licorous kitchen, borrowed from chef John Sundstrom. Over the years, she parlayed the business into a singular influence in Seattle’s food and beverage scene.
Peters asked if I might share news of Rachel’s death to the public. And I need to admit, it’s raw and personal. In my 12 years of writing about food and drink in Seattle, Rachel is the only “source” who crossed over into becoming a genuine friend. Ten years ago, I called to interview her about Nacho Borracho, the bar she planned to open with her bar business partner, Kate Opatz. At the end of our conversation, Rachel told me she was pregnant. I responded, “so am I.” Our sons have a three-month age difference; now they’re classmates who get up to mischief together. Our second kids were born barely a month apart.
Because of that personal connection, I seldom wrote about Rachel or her businesses. But here I’ll write about our conversations, which could wind from King County politics to New Yorker articles to discussions on the definition of hospitality; about how she was a low-key prolific home cook, whipping up rhubarb cake and vegetarian soup on weekend afternoons; about how she and her dear friend and business partner, Kate Opatz, always threw each other dinner parties on their birthdays. Rachel broadened my horizons. She had fierce mama bear energy and was protective of people in her orbit. She reserved special ire for anyone who shortchanged (or opened a competing business near) any member of her band of friends. As someone who keeps my emotions measured, at least on the outside, being the recipient of this gale force love was uncharted territory.
“You’ve been quiet lately,” she might text. “Everything okay?” Her years waiting tables—at Lark, Oddfellows, Delancey—gave her a bionic vision for hospitality. She told me once that Kelly Ronan at Lark makes sure her staff greets customers when they walk through the door, and bids them farewell when they leave. She instilled that at her own businesses. I genuinely forget the restaurant, but once we went out to dinner and Rachel was scandalized that the place had dusty HVAC vents. Once she had pointed out the details that made a restaurant great—or less great—I couldn’t unsee them.
Rachel mostly grew up on Whidbey Island; she and Adam met while living in Germany. That’s also where she became inspired by British-style ginger beer—bracing stuff that truly tastes of ginger and lemon. I remember buying cups of it from her stall at the Broadway Farmers Market back in its bootstrapped days, before I really knew her. Today, Rachel’s Ginger Beer has four storefront bars—on Capitol Hill, in University Village, near the Spheres, and at Pike Place Market—and ships to people across the country.
Rachel was a connector, engaging easily in conversation with everyone from CEOs to random customers at her bars. I used to observe her making chitchat at school events and ponder how much better she was than I—an actual journalist—at asking people questions. Her curiosity and pragmatism prompted creative solutions that in hindsight were deeply entrepreneurial. She and Opatz were the first in the city to pour cocktails on draft. Later, when she wanted to give customers food without getting into the restaurant business herself, she turned over her kitchen spaces to chefs like Kevin Burzell and Alysson Wilson of Kedai Makan, Taylor Cheney of Yalla, and Mark Fuller’s Ma'ono.
Rachel had a warm heart, savvy mind, and big, squishy emotions. I cannot believe I’m writing those things in the past tense.
There’s no word yet on a memorial. For now, I keep asking myself how I can help ensure that my friend remains alive in Seattle’s collective memory. That her sons know their mom was a formidable woman with a generous heart and wicked sense of humor. As one friend put it when we shared our mutual pain and disbelief yesterday, “I’m so glad I knew Rachel. Not just Rachel’s Ginger Beer.”
Editor’s note: To avoid misinformation, we removed a mention of the preliminary cause of death from this piece once the King County Medical Examiner released its official findings. Capitol Hill Seattle blog has a statement from Rachel's family that offers more context.