Holy guacamole! Niches, quality help sustain an abundance of Mexican restaurants
Seattle has its coffee shops on every corner. Greater Wenatchee has its Mexican restaurants. Lots of ’em.
From sizzle to spreadsheet: Needed know-how makes restaurant business tough
Was your restaurant the first thing you thought about this morning when you woke up?
The heat was on last month as restaurateurs Richard and Ashley Kitos prepared for their next big phase in the food business.
Lulu’s Kitchen, their new restaurant in East Wenatchee, took three decades of dreaming, a year of planning and six months of construction to reach its first day of serving an eclectic menu of charbroiled meats and vegetables with a hint of Cuban, Mediterranean and Asian flavors.
“Here we go,” grinned Chef Richard, 53, who’s chopped, mixed and cooked his own recipes since age 15. Flames rose around an inch-thick piece of cod, seared with onions and peppers on a grill the size of a truck bed. “Our future is taking shape right here.”
The Kitoses said they see themselves as part of a food revolution sweeping through Chelan and Douglas counties as westside urban dwellers relocate to the Wenatchee Valley, the local wine industry flourishes, menus become more sophisticated and customers more adventurous.
Two years of record apple harvests, a recovering home market and strengthening tourism have all helped heal a stumbling economy and reinvigorated discretionary spending, including going out to eat, said the Kitoses and others in the food industry.
The result, they said, is that local restaurant owners now seem to take more chances and have expanded local dining choices — fresher ingredients, healthier recipes, bolder flavors, flashier presentations, more Asian, more Mexican, more European, more ethnic all ’round. Wenatchee’s India House, serving dishes from the Punjab region of Northwestern India, fills nearly every table nightly even six months after it opened earlier this year.
“Change is part of survival,” said Michael Bendtsen, owner of McGlinn’s Public House in Wenatchee. “But it also makes life in the restaurant business an interesting and creative process.”
That change, restaurant owners noted, started in earnest a few years ago with the growth of local farmers markets and the quickening trend to “eat local.” Longtime favorite restaurants — Shakti’s, Visconti’s, Garlini’s, Tastebuds, Rebecca’s, the Cellar Cafe, the Cottage Inn, The Windmill, the now-closed Smokeblossom and others — began incorporating more local produce into traditional dishes and even building menus around seasonal vegetables and locally raised meats.
But the opening this year of Pybus Public Market, the retail-and-restaurant development on Wenatchee’s waterfront, has helped kick the Wenatchee Valley’s “foodie movement” into high gear, said Ashley Kitos. The market’s Latin restaurant South and French-leaning Pybus Bistro have created ethnic dishes using regionally raised foods “that are different and exciting,” she said.
Plus, Pybus has brought together in one location some of the key players who are helping transform the area’s food scene — the Wenatchee Valley Farmers Market, Auvil Fruit, Mike’s Meats & Seafood and shops for olive oil, bread, imported teas, gelato, gourmet pizza and other specialty products.
Pybus’ food outlets are just part of a reinvigorated restaurant industry in Chelan and Douglas counties, officials have noted. “The numbers are anecdotal so far for this year, but we feel recovery is under way with more restaurants and more workers,” said Mary Small, spokeswoman for the Chelan-Douglas Health District, which conducts food service inspections in the two-county area.
Last year, the Health District reported that the number of food establishments (which goes beyond restaurants to include anywhere food is prepared for the public) in Chelan and Douglas counties grew to 699 in 2012, up from 671 in 2009. The total food service workforce during the same period grew by 682 employees to 6,192 in 2012 from 5,506 in 2009. And temporary food service permits, which covers food booths at events and seasonal food businesses (such as some taco trucks), jumped to 458 in 2012, an increase of 100 over 2009.
One longtime restaurant owner — Bendtsen at McGlinn’s — has helped cultivate the “eat local” movement for more than two decades at his popular eatery on Orondo Avenue. “We push hard to use produce grown right here in the Wenatchee Valley,” he said. “We have a garden where we grow our own tomatoes, herbs and other vegetables and also buy from local growers. Customers appreciate it, that’s for sure.”
Bendtsen said his restaurant’s fresh-and-local approach is part of an overall business strategy that includes finding the right employees — some have worked there nearly 20 years — “who enjoy taking care of customers” and offering fine food at fair prices.
“It all comes down to a positive attitude that, in the end, affects everything — menu planning, food preparation, customer service and the atmosphere of the restaurant itself,” he said. “My philosophy? Give as much good as we can, and it’ll pay off in the end.”