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The team that makes restaurateur Tom Douglas run
He casts the crew for his Seattle restaurants in his own image: creative, hardworking, ambitious risk-takers.
Seattle Times food writer
HIS SIGNATURE is everywhere. On a long list of restaurants and a short stack of cookbooks. On “Rub with Love” sauces and spice rubs and snack mixes.
That’s his radio show. His recipe in Bon Appétit. His face in the Macy’s ads. His menu on the Amtrak train. He’s king of the Palace. Fixture at Food Lifeline. Fixer of Fourth of July fireworks.
He’s Tom. Tommy D. Tom Douglas — standing tall in Seattle as the fir that shares his name.
He’s been called a lot of names: Mover. Shaker. Foul-mouthed mischief maker. Mentor. Empire builder.
Locally, he’s the Puget Sound Business Journal’s 2012 Executive of the Year. Nationally, the James Beard Foundation’s 2012 Outstanding Restaurateur.
How does one man do so much and succeed at it all?
He’s got people. Trusted people. And he’ll tell you straight out: They don’t work for him, they work with him. They’re the premium oil in his well-run machine.
And he couldn’t be Tom Douglas without them.
The Soul Brother
Eric Tanaka stands before an audience at the Palace Ballroom at Fifth and Lenora, walking distance from 12 Tom Douglas restaurants. He and Douglas are cooking side-by-side, squabbling like siblings — about fried rice.
“He thinks just because he looks Asian, he should have the say,” cracks Douglas.
These days, Tanaka has plenty of say at Tom Douglas Restaurants, where he’s climbed in 20 years from line cook to business partner.
Raised in a Los Angeles melting pot to parents born in Japanese internment camps, Tanaka, 48, grew up to be “hyperly American.” Unless his great-grandmother was doing the cooking, “we ate American food at home,” says the company’s executive chef. He’s also namesake at TanakaSan, the Amerasian dining spot anchoring Douglas’ ambitious new Sixth Avenue marketplace, Assembly Hall, featuring 10,000 square feet of Douglas-branded meals and merchandise.
Tanaka arrived in Seattle on vacation in 1993 and liked what he saw: Pike Place Market. Clear skies. He’d been working in Manhattan and had a bead on a chef’s job at a San Francisco hot spot. Seattle changed his mind.
Back then, Douglas ran a single restaurant that defined contemporary dining in Seattle: Dahlia Lounge.
Though it was beneath Tanaka’s expertise, he took a line-cook’s position there, telling his new boss, “If you like what I do, move me up. If you don’t like me, no big deal.”
It was a crowded line. Tanaka shared that galley with friendly competitors who’d later open places of their own: Holly Smith (Café Juanita), John Sundstrom (Lark), Phil Mihalski (Nell’s). Steven Steinbock, now the spicemeister behind Rub with Love, a business that brings in $1.5 million a year, was there, too.
“Tom and I really hit it off,” Tanaka remembers. Both were self-taught, inspired by the creative process, in love with the business and its opportunities. “We’ve always understood each other without having to have a lot of conversation.”
When the Palace Kitchen opened to a packed house in 1996 — quick on the heels of Etta’s — Tanaka was in charge. And as Douglas continued to play marketing magician — traveling frequently and churning with ideas that would result in explosive expansion — Tanaka had an idea of his own:
“I asked Tom if I could take over all three restaurants. He said yes.”
Like Douglas, Tanaka eschews the “old-school armylike hierarchy” in his kitchens. Instead, “We try to maintain more humanity, and build on that.”
In Tanaka’s view, collaboration and creativity have long been key to the company’s success. And that success comes from the top. “It has always been Tom’s great talent to cultivate talented people,” he says. Wrangling that talent, investing in their interests, keeping them “relevant and impassioned to do what they like to do,” is his job now. Douglas did it for him, and he proudly pays it forward.
Like Tanaka, company CEO Pamela Hinckley spends much of her days in meetings, sharing ways in which she can use her executive skills to rally their “collaborators.”
There’s fun stuff: galvanizing 85 employees (in white and gold tutus) to garnish the Tom Douglas coconut cream pie float in Seattle’s Gay Pride parade. There’s dry stuff, too: writing policy on employee relations, restaurant management, tipping.
The job is more than professional to Hinckley, whose background includes sales and marketing at DeLaurenti, Red Hook Brewery and Theo Chocolate. She also happens to be best friend to Douglas’ wife and business partner, Jackie Cross, and godmother to their 23-year-old daughter, Loretta.
It was taking a risk with their friendship in 2009 when Douglas persuaded her to come aboard. But it’s worked.
“She’s nothing but energy and optimism; she’s smart, and you couldn’t work harder than her if you tried. We needed that kind of personality,” Cross says. A will strong enough to match Douglas’ didn’t hurt. “She’s one of the few people he’ll actually concede to if she thinks something’s a bad idea.”
They tested their mettle with Assembly Hall, rolled out in June.
Douglas “wanted it perfect,” says Hinckley, and was on hand throughout. Finding fault, he strove to fix it: Too little crab in the crab foo young! Too much clutter in the storage area! He was dissatisfied with the chefs’ timing; disappointed with the dearth on display at the project’s haute mini mart, Home Remedy.
One morning, he drove to six grocery stores looking for products missing from its shelves and emailed Hinckley photos, one at a time — 120 of them.
Then the CEO received a note from the head of HR. “The week’s payroll was over $800,000,” Hinckley recalls. Well, then, she thought, “We’d better start making money.”
Her job, she says, is to execute Douglas’ vision. “He’s got a wonderful brain,” and when they put their brains together there’s a synergy that comes from a well of respect and common knowledge. “He watched me grow up, I watched him grow up, and we both approach finessing the business so that customers are a priority.” But more importantly, “he never takes the success of the business for granted, and every day wakes up thinking about what we’re doing today to market this company.”
She’s deep into that now, planning a center for cooking classes at the Hotel Andra, a move toward wholesale bread production, and a line of packaged foods branded under a new name: Rainhouse.
The empire they oversee has 800 employees and climbing.
“I really feel like there is a team working on this. One person can’t pull it off,” Hinckley says. “That’s what motivates us to try to build such strong bonds with our employees. You need their buy-in.”
Sean Hartley buys into project management. He is the company’s director of operations.
His projects change daily, and include taking charge of two full-time delivery drivers who distribute the breads, pastries and pastas made at the Dahlia Workshop and at Cuoco in South Lake Union.
He’s also the company handyman.
“If it’s the weekend, 7 p.m., and the lights go out in part of the Dahlia, what are you going to do?” Hartley asks.
Hartley handles permitting and works with architects, general contractors and subcontractors. He makes certain their sites turn out the way Douglas envisioned them.
“Our restaurants change a lot as they’re being built,” says Hartley. The process is “nonlinear and organic, and it drives the people who are trying to build them crazy.”
Though widely known for his generosity, “Tom has a very frugal nature, and he rolls his eyes when someone thinks every solution is an expensive solution.”
It’s been 19 years since Hartley showed up at the Dahlia’s back door. Like so many, he rose in the ranks; first sous chef there, then lead chef at Palace Kitchen — where he was quick to fix a malfunctioning heat lamp or take a wrench to a leaking faucet.
Being a chef is grueling, Hartley admits. “Especially when you’re at the Palace till 2 a.m.” As a family man, he was looking for a life change when he was offered a job change.
As operations manager, he still maintains an everyday connection to food and cooking.
The opportunity to grow into a new position, while working with a company that’s become like family and honors real-life families, is why he, like so many others, stays on. “I like the culture. It’s a liberal, empowering group of people,” led by a man who freely, insistently, cedes that power.
The Market Queen
As GM of three tourist-centric properties — Etta’s, Seatown Seabar & Rotisserie and the Rub with Love Shack — Gretchen Geisness commands a powerful perch in view of Pike Place Market.
While diners dawdle over a breakfast at Seatown, Geisness punts a pitch from an office-supply saleswoman, interviews a prospective hire and confers with a colleague about inscribing the takeout specials on the rub shack blackboard.
Before Etta’s opens for lunch, she huddles with her staff, going over the week’s news from corporate and the day’s details: reminders that with sunny skies and an open patio, they’ll need 50 napkin rollups — plus descriptions of the Bristol Bay salmon and why its provenance is an important selling point.
Meetings like these are repeated by crews like them day after day, companywide, to increase communication between management and staff.
GMs can do their jobs better today, says Geisness, who worked with Douglas before he opened his first restaurant. Managers know the modern version of the company — with its training tools, think-tank mentality and ramped-up HR department — has their back. In the old days, “Nobody trained me to be a manager.” Impressed with her get-up-and-go, “They just said, ‘You’re a manager!’ ”
And despite many layers of management, she sometimes turns to the top. “I'll go to Tom with anything where I want to change a system.” And “anything philosophy-wise, you’re going to him. It's important to connect with him so he feels important, too.”
Shelley Lance met Geisness when she was a scrappy bus-girl and Lance was working her first cook’s job at Cafe Sport, “soaking up Tom's sensibilities” — and his instincts, plus creative ways to cook, season and plate a dish — at what was then the hottest restaurant in town.
Today she’s TDR’s quality-control maven and the prized palate who co-wrote his four cookbooks.
“From the beginning, I thought Tom was brilliant,” says Lance. And when Douglas left his post as chef/general manager at Cafe Sport (the prequel to Etta’s), intent on someday having a place of his own, she left with him.
Once he found one, “it wasn’t very clear to me, or to Tom, what the menu would be at the Dahlia,” but this much she knew: “It would be his idea of comfort food” and for dessert, there would be coconut cream pie.
Schooled in the pastry arts, Lance tested umpteen recipes until she hit on one that impressed them both. Then they tweaked it. Today, their Triple Coconut Cream Pie is produced by the hundreds each week.
“Tom has always considered me his quality-control person,” says Lance, and though she fixes her literary lens on pursuits other than cookbooks — finessing the company blog and newsletter, writing recipes for glossy food mags and marketing partners like Macy’s — her No. 1 job is “to have my eyes — and my taste buds — on the food.”
Like all managers, she’s expected to dine out regularly at the company restaurants. The bill is comped, and Douglas expects a detailed, written evaluation in return.
Puzzled, recently, to find the signature spinach and bacon salad at Etta’s cloyingly sweet and lacking punch, Lance alerted head chef Adrienne Chamberlain. Together, they determined a cook had long ago multiplied the written recipe, making a volume error, doubling the amount of honey and oil. “Everybody got used to how it tasted,” not knowing, as Lance did, how it was meant to taste.
Long row to hoe
The other arbiter of taste at Tom Douglas Restaurants lives, for much of the warm season, in a contemporary farmhouse overlooking the Yakima River. Her vast open kitchen is the envy of her chefs, the crops cultivated on these 20 acres grown for their restaurants.
On a summer day at Prosser Farm, Jackie Cross — Douglas’ less visible but most important partner — is entertaining a crowd from Cuoco.
Her overnight guests have come to cook in her kitchen, throw her four-star farmhand Dev Patel into the pool, drink booze in the Bunkhouse and — as laborers-for-a-day — get dirt under their fingernails.
This farm day is duplicated with other restaurant crews throughout the growing season. “It’s a great way for me to get to know our people,” Cross says, seeing as “there are so freaking many of them.” It’s a day for team-building. And for illustrating precisely what Douglas means with his frequent cry that "no one out-efforts us!”
Cross met her future husband when she was working with Hinckley’s husband, Michael Teer, at Pike & Western Wine Merchants. She was with him through the tough 24/7 days of the Dahlia, opened with a $50,000 loan from her uncle — because no one would offer Café Sport’s wunderkind a job. She waited tables the night before Loretta was born.
“We kept her in a little wine box under the table; Tom kept her in a car seat atop the Slim Jim” trash receptacles in the kitchen.
Like so much else, the farm was an unexpected twist. After the years of restaurant work, “It’s really nice to take on a project like this. Farming has a beginning and an end: you plant seeds, you grow things, you pick them and then, at the end of the season, you pull up what’s left and throw it on the compost heap. It’s not like that in the restaurant business; it’s not so tangible.”
And yet, the business is a living organism, too. There’s an ecosystem all around the big name everyone knows.
“It’s all Tom, all the time. And he knows that. We all know that.”
She, better than most, knows what cements his success: “We work on it all the time, work on ways to make it better,” Cross says. “It has to have attention. I think we care — so much.
“And we have the most amazing people. It’s all about them. All about them.”
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times food writer. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.