In July 2010, Seattle restaurateurs Renee Erickson and Jeremy Price opened a small oyster bar, the Walrus and the Carpenter, in the city's Ballard neighborhood. Three years and countless accolades from outlets as far away as the New York Times later, the duo have opened another lauded restaurant, the Whale Wins, launched a food truck named Narwhal, and are on the verge of opening the Barnacle, a wine bar going in adjacent to the Walrus. Erickson is also working on a cookbook that should come out in about a year. In the following interview, Erickson and Price discuss their approach to expansion, adapting to the media attention, and the growth of Seattle's dining scene.
So you guys were just in New York?
Jeremy Price: Bon Appétit put Whale Wins in their Top 10 Best New Restaurants, so they flew us out there for a party. It was really great. Each of the 10 restaurants was invited and they got to bring their people, chefs, friends, family. Each restaurant prepared a dish and then they just invited...
Renee Erickson: 800 other people. (laughs)
JP: It was chaotic but fun. A nice little New York break for three or four days.
Do you get to travel much now?
JP: Not as much as we like. Probably like three or four times per year.
RE: I think it's the only way to not work. I've been doing this for 17 years, so you kind of have to check out in a way where it's like, okay, I can't do anything because I'm in France. It's a needed break because you're constantly working. Without it, I think we'd all lose our minds a little bit. Or a lot. Probably a lot.
Is it really vacation or for work events?
RE: Kind of both. Depends. We're going to France in a month. I'm writing a cookbook and the last photo shoot is going to be in Normandy. And then we're going to go out to the beaches and go to the oyster farm. So somehow it's related to what we do, but it's pretty decadent as well. I mean, I think that's a good thing about our job is that it's stuff that we love. It's not like we're selling technical equipment or anything like that. It's what we live for.
Tell me about your cookbook.
RE: We haven't really announced it technically. I think it's out there in the world, but we haven't done any PR or anything. We don't have a name yet for it. It's a seasonal menu cookbook. So obviously there are four seasons and within each season there are three menus. Within each menu, there's a profile and a story and all the recipes and photos. The profile is anyone from my family to coworkers to farmers. Characters that have been part of my growing up in the restaurant business, people that have influenced or kind of defined me.
It should be out in a year from now. Our written deadline is actually in a few weeks, which is terrifying. But other than the Normandy section, everything else is pretty much shot. We've been working on it non-stop since the beginning of May. It's been crazy.
No kidding. Sounds like you have a lot of projects going.
RE: Yeah, the summer has been rough, for sure. It's been really fun, but I think we're both sort of feeling the result of it.
You've been through a lot of expansion lately. What's your philosophy on expansion?
RE: That we're done.
JP: I think what we're feeling is that we're at the point where it would be hard to do more and have it still be how we want it. The other thing that we've done — which hopefully will keep us from losing our minds — is that when we've been opening new places we're bringing on new partners. For example, Kristin Coker worked with us at Boat Street and at the Walrus and the Carpenter and she's the owner and full partner in Narwhal. Same with Barnacle. David Little — who worked with us at Walrus and Boat Street and Whale Wins — he's taking that on and it's going to be his baby. He's an owner.
RE: I guess if there is a philosophy, that probably would be it. When I was thinking of opening Walrus, other chefs were like, "Why are you going to give away ownership?" and I was like, "I can't do it on my own." It didn't make sense to me to be like, oh, here you can work for me and do so much of the work and not participate in the benefits of it. I feel like I really lucked into my career, and if [other] people want to be in it, it's a great opportunity without having to do it all on your own. Because that's daunting. Especially now in the food climate. The pressure is so much higher. When I opened Boat Street, there was no such thing as Yelp. So you have to be on your game. I think that's hard your first time, sometimes.
The Walrus and the Carpenter. [Photo: Official Site]
So you can kind of help people get started and work with them.
RE: Yeah, we've been through it now. This will be our fourth time. We've gotten a little better. (laughs) But we still make mistakes. Daily.
RE: I don't even know. I think we underestimate — I'm sure we're doing this with Barnacle — we underestimate the volume and what we can do in the space. We did it at Walrus, too. Part of it's great because I think if we were to like throw enough space at what the potential is, it would just be kind of like a Disneyland restaurant. It wouldn't maintain the same sort of charm.
Right, if you were to move Walrus to a bigger space, would it...
RE: It would dilute it. It's turned into — at least for me — sort of that same sort of odd use of space that you find in Europe a lot where it's these really limited quirky yet beautiful worn spaces that, yeah, if you were to rebuild them they would not be the same. Part of its magic, I think, is how it's evolved and kind of the oddness of it, which we liked in the beginning. We definitely wanted the back end to have the patio and have it hidden. It wasn't like we were trying to be clever about it. It just felt right. And the actual bones of the space that we picked just felt right. And it had the best light in the building.
JP: Yeah. For us anyway, there's sort of a sweet spot for how big a restaurant should be and how many seats it can be. We're really good at a little smaller restaurants and maybe not so comfortable with really large restaurants. Walrus is a great size for us. I think the 40-seat restaurant is a really great place to be in terms of what that means for the size of the staff and all that kind of stuff. For us, it feels like the perfect amount of space and bodies and equipment. Walrus is so much fun because it's small and there's so many people in there and it creates an energy that would be hard to replicate in a larger space. And the fact that you have one person working each station, it's easier to manage the quality in that environment. And then the front of the house staff can be a lot smaller and then it becomes a tighter-knit group that has almost like a family vibe. It makes it a better atmosphere to work in and have a career in, I think. At least for us.
You didn't anticipate Walrus blowing up so quickly, right?
JP: No, we didn't at all. We have lots of funny anecdotes about what we thought it was going to be like and how we staffed and how we organized the space, how the space was structured around this idea that it was going to be this bar.
RE: A bar that people just strolled in and out of. Not this madhouse.
JP: We didn't think it was going to be sleepy, but we didn't think we'd be getting written up in GQ or Bon Appétit or Food & Wine or whatever. That was a surprise for sure.
So how long did it take you to adapt?
RE: We still are. It's not done. Every year it's busier, so every year we make changes. Right now we're adjusting what the manager's duties are to make it less stressful. Adjusting everything down to how we clean, how often we clean, who cleans. As we grow, we take tasks away from people and create a new position because I think we're just getting smarter, too. There was some point we both thought it would level out and it hasn't yet. So I think we're kind of, okay, we'll adjust. And getting feedback from employees, trying to make it so that it's as good of a place to work that we can make it. It's a really hard place to work. It's fun and rewarding, but it's like going to battle every night.
JP: Yeah, and I would say with all the restaurants, you're constantly tinkering with them. You're never really like, "Okay, mission accomplished. We've got this all figured out, it's perfect." There's always something that's like, "Hey, this thing happened the other night. What can we do to not have it happen again or could we do better next time?" So it's sort of constant. It's one of the appeals of working in a restaurant because it is dynamic and changing.
[Photo: S. Pratt]
What's the split at Walrus between locals and tourists? Do you have any sense of that?
JP: We have a wait list at the door so we're taking people's numbers. Just guessing by area code, I would say it's maybe 50/50 during the Summer and the other three seasons it's probably like a quarter tourist and three-quarters local. During the Summer we get a ton of tourists.
RE: A lot of foreign numbers.
JP: It's funny, it sort of has come in waves. The early press with just newspapers, we started seeing a lot of east side area codes so like people from Bellevue and Kirkland and Woodinville. When we started to get national press, especially the New York Times, we started to see New York, obviously, but like Florida and Connecticut and other East Coast numbers. And now I've been noticing lately a lot of people that come that have international numbers. We have a lot of people from the UK.
RE: We had a big run of Aussies, too, which was funny. I think there's like weird little magazine blurbs that show up in the world. We were in that cool London magazine about the oyster shucking two years ago. It just reaches places that you wouldn't even consider as a client base.
That's kind of wild.
RE: Yeah, it's fun.
JP: We're lucky to be in Seattle. People want to come here otherwise, especially in the Summer when it's so beautiful here.
And it's already such a good food city.
RE: Great food city. Yeah, love it.
JP: And getting better all the time. It's really cool.
How have you seen the food scene in Seattle evolve?
JP: People are definitely dining out more and are getting more sophisticated about their dining out in terms of the things that they want to try, the places they want to go to, the experiences that they want to have. The type of restaurants I think that we had 15 years ago versus the type of restaurants we have now... I don't know how Walrus would have done in 2000.
RE: I think that's the double edge of social media. It makes it that much more successful, but it can also make it that much more detrimental, depending on where you fall on the swing. But yeah, Boat Street was [opened], I don't even know, 17 years ago. It was still this very corporate restaurant world. And then there were all these mom-and-pop kind of places, but there was not this small high-caliber restaurant. It didn't really exist. Part of it I think now, too, is just how the food scene has changed as far as farmers. What you can buy and how you can buy it and their involvement in talking to you twice a week about what they're growing and wanting to know what you want. That didn't exist. There wasn't this web of connectivity and farmers markets and people relying on each other for us to get the best and most interesting locally grown delicious vegetables or fish.
So was it that changed landscape that made it easier to expand as quickly as you have?
RE: I don't know, I think traveling made me want to open an oyster bar. Leaving here, which is where we have so many amazing oysters, and going to a place where they do, too, but they also respected them more. Here it was like no one ate oysters. Tourists ate them. Restaurants would serve them, but there was no place to go eat oysters other than bigger, more tourist-driven places. That just seemed so weird when I would go to France and on every corner there were places to get oysters. It was just an extreme difference. We are not as sophisticated [as Europe] even now as far as dining. Culturally, we're just new babies at this whole living out in the world in that way. But I think we're learning really fast. Some of the best places in the world are here [in America], for sure.
The Whale Wins. [Photo: S. Pratt]
So switching gears, you recently opened your food truck Narwhal. How is it going?
JP: Narwhal is going well. We always had this vision that it would be the thing that comes up at the start of your wedding reception or whatever and serves you oysters and champagne while the bride and groom get their pictures taken. So that's kind of how we want to position it. We've been at it for maybe three months now and we've been doing farmers markets, we're at a brewery and we're actually at a coffee shop one night a week. We've been busy and the response has been really great. But ultimately I don't think that's where we see it.
There's all these interesting juxtapositions that get created where you're serving like cucumber gazpacho and crab salad and tarragon oil next to the guy who's doing fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It's one of the things I think that Renee and I are both excited by. Even at our restaurants, we like the high things and the low things. We like the idea of someone having a Rainier with something that's considered high-brow food. Rainier beer and some oysters. Not bad. But I think our romantic notion of what the Narwhal is in the world, we're still kind of moving toward it.
So how is everything at Barnacle going right now?
RE: Just construction and unpacking and organizing and moving in.
JP: Move-in time, totally. We've got one or two inspections to get through and loose end-y sort of things to wrap up.
RE: It's really pretty. I'm really excited.
That should help with the waits at Walrus, huh?
RE: That's the plan. We'll see.
JP: As it's evolved more and more, I think it's taking on its own character and it's going to be a pretty cool place in its own right, not just as a waiting area for Walrus. I think the spillover will happen both ways. I think it's just as likely that people will be coming to Barnacle and waiting at Walrus as people coming to Walrus and waiting at Barnacle. It's cool. We're excited.
RE: We never know until it happens and then it evolves.
But you said it could open as soon as next week?
JP: Yeah. We might be using like handwritten checks and cash only. But I think we'll probably be able to start doing some invite-only events to stretch our legs in the space. To continue on what Renee was saying earlier, we try really hard to get it right as much as we can out the door. No restaurant is as good on the first night as it is six months down the road. But we try to work through the ugliness behind closed doors for a little while with our friends and family. When we opened Whale, we did almost a full week of it. And I think it's important, especially having learned from Whale that we don't have the runway that we did with Walrus. Walrus was never slow, but there were definitely quiet times in the beginning whereas Whale was full and we had a wait pretty much right away. There wasn't really a chance to tinker. So yeah, we're taking our time with Barnacle, and we'll open when it's right. You never really prepared.
That is really daunting.
RE: It's exciting too. I think especially at Whale we were trying to do a different type of service than was kind of the norm. Not uncommon, but the amount of places that served family-style [in Seattle] was not very many. So I think trying to be good at communicating what we were doing and why and how to implement it took some practice. Still does. I think we're lucky that, obviously we need to get open, but we're not desperate to open. We want it to be as organized as possible.
JP: Yeah, people are not forgiving. They'll come in and something took too long or there's some kind of misstep somewhere along the way and that's it. They're never going to come back. So you are under some pressure to get it right.