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Seattle's Josh Henderson on His Rapid Pace of Expansion

Photo: S. Pratt

It's been a busy few months for Seattle restaurateur Josh Henderson. His Skillet Street Food empire opened a second brick-and-mortar location back in August, followed shortly thereafter by sister concepts Westward and Little Gull opening on the shores of Lake Union. Not to mention the whiskey-fueled tavern he's opening in Woodinville in October. In this first part of an interview conducted at the newly opened Westward, Henderson explains the many projects he's got in the works right now — including a grocery and pastry shop that lie ahead. He also talks about the unique possibilities of opening a restaurant with its own dock, not wanting Westward to be "another classic seafood joint," and finding the middle ground between micromanaging and a rudderless ship.

So you said you guys opened Westward just a couple weeks ago?
We officially opened on the 3rd, but we'd been open prior to that. It's been great. We've had some pretty nice weather, which obviously helps in this location to have a little bit more sun. It's been a great reception. But it's so early to tell. [A few] days open in a restaurant, you know nothing. You just know that you've been busy and there's a lot of things you've got to fix.

We're pleased with where we're at, not only from a service and food perspective — every day I've seen small improvements in things — but also from a financial perspective. Obviously, you want to make sure you're not hemorrhaging cash constantly. It's nice to know that we have a handle on things. Overall, I'm really pleased. It's just nice to see us trending in the right direction, you know what I mean? Just kind of getting to know the kitchen, getting to know the staff, getting to know our capabilities, getting to know what our customers are expecting us to be in a way. That's a two-way conversation. A lot of times you don't really know who you are until you open the door.

So what do you think your customers are expecting?
They want a place that they can lounge and enjoy the water. Sit in a place that has a great view of the city. Take their friends to. And we want them to probably move a little bit faster out the door. (laughs)

Yeah, if I got one of those Adirondack chairs, I'm not moving.
Yeah, you're going to camp in that spot. That's okay. I think our customers are expecting a place that is a beautiful space that serves exceptional food. And I think we're moving in that direction every day. The space is beautiful and I think that the food is exceptional. But it's a matter of sort of tweaking that and [figuring out] how we price things, do we need more variety, where do we serve this menu, where do we not serve this menu? This is a unique space. We have the oyster bar here, which is technically separate, but in a way it's not at all. Then you have the Adirondack chairs, which are another section. Then you have the deck. It's trying to figure out what you do in each of those spaces. Because if it were me, I'd love to sit out here and eat a full meal.

Can you?
No. Right now we're just doing little nibbles. At some point we will be, but that's a matter of getting the kitchen up to speed and making sure we can handle it. More than anything, we wouldn't want to bite off more than we can chew, which you do in any restaurant. It's like drinking through a fire hose, but still you want to make sure that you're doing it right as much as possible.

Westward, Seattle. [Photo: S. Pratt]

When did you come up with the concept?
I know the landlord, so we ended up talking about six months ago [about whether] I know anybody that wants the space. And I came down and saw a few people eating here and I was like, wait a second, I don't want anybody else taking this space. I want this space. And I had known that [chef] Zoi [Antonitsas] was looking for something, and so we got to talking. We fleshed it out over a month or so.

I didn't want to be another classic seafood joint. I would love for tourists to want to come by Westward. But those tourists are probably going to be people who read Bon Appétit or food magazines. Not tourists that stopped at the Chamber of Commerce in Seattle and decide to hit all the classic seafood spots. That's not necessarily us. But at the same time, you still have to embrace and also accentuate the fact that this is a Seattle restaurant. We want to celebrate that.

So how do you marry all those? That's what we've been kind of working [on] over the last couple months and redefining the menu. I think we've got a good mix. I love the fact that you come here and we are a water-inspired restaurant that serves amazing seafood, but you're not going to get a basket of fish and chips. Even though we have an oyster bar, you're going to get smoked clam dip. Those are the things that I think are really special. So we're different from anybody else. I love that. I just hope that it resonates with folks. I think it will. I hope it will.

And so boats can pull up here, too?
Yeah, we've got 60 feet of dock right now. They can come up and dock right there on the right and stop and eat or grab some beer and some cheese and head back out on the boat. That's the idea of this is to kind of have a spot for sundries.

That's a great idea.
It's a little bit of a work in progress right now. It's more of a wine shop than anything, but I really want it to be a place that you can get like a Swiss Army knife, a bottle of wine, a baguette, amazing salami from Olympic Provisions, and then head out on the boat. Maybe we have some fishing lures, too. I don't know. I don't want it to be too precious. I want it to be something that's practical as well as really cool. We want to sell a line of cutting boards.

It feels kind of dumb to say this on a beautiful day, but since it is the end of the Summer, I assume you were trying to open earlier?
Yeah. (laughs) We were hoping to be open by July 5, so we were two months late. I wouldn't even call it late. It's just the nature of doing this, you're always going to be later than you think. It would have been nice to have sales from those months, but it just gives us more time to figure out who we are and how we want to go about it.

Little things like do we want like a VHF channel on the end [of the dock so that] someone can call in and say, hey, I'm coming in, and [we can say] "Okay give us 20 minutes, we've got somebody leaving" or "We'll make a spot for you." That kind of thing. Those are the little things that, when you've never done a restaurant on a dock before, you just can't anticipate.

Sorry, I keep getting distracted by the view.
It's beautiful, especially when the sun at night hits the city and there's sea planes landing. Are you kidding me? Someone sitting out there with white wine and some oysters, it's a little slice of perfection. It's pretty cool, for sure.

And you also have Hollywood Tavern in the works.
That one is equally as exciting in the sense that I would consider it an experience restaurant where it's not just four walls and some cooks serving food. Hollywood is going to have a patio and this little spot up in the woods that's going to have a fireplace next to it. We're going to have a distillery next door and there's a lot of great pieces of that puzzle that make it really fun.

What's the deal with the distillery next door?
Woodinville Whiskey is going to be next door to us. We'll have access to the building for catering, but you're going to see a lot of interplay between the two with, obviously, the whiskey and the spirits they make. We're going to be able to do things like whiskey-barrel-aged maple syrup for the pancakes. Without getting too kitschy and concept-y. I think there's some great overlap there, which is cool.

How do you walk that line to keep it from being kitschy?
First of all, making sure that it's authentic. If you are doing a maple-barrel-aged whiskey whatever, [making sure] that you're doing it because it makes a better product as opposed to doing it just because you can say you can do it. I'm not looking for any branding opportunities; I'm looking to make a better product. If there's a way that we can do that with some sort of overlap, then that's great.

So where are you guys with the development of that?
We will be open the second week of October probably, so that's a month and a half away. It's going to be a beautiful space as well. We'd love to sponsor a bike ride or something, Hollywood to Westward, because there's a trail that goes all the way there right outside the door here. It's 18 miles, so it's a good bike ride.

Oh that sounds fun.
Totally. But yeah, it's going to be exciting. And that one is completely different from a food perspective. I mean, you're talking a place that's going to serve Scotch eggs or hand cut pasta with whole-roasted meats and definitely more wine country fare. This is more Mediterranean, not as tavern feeling. We're going to have crispy pig ears there. It's a different feel. You do have to latch onto that tavern aspect. There's a great history there. It's been around since 1920, so we want to celebrate that.

That's a lot of expansion.
There's more, too. We've got a couple of other spots. We're going to do a high-end mercantile up on Capitol Hill, just a small little grocery store that we're working on which should be called Cone and Steiner. That would probably be happening in late November-ish. And then a pastry shop that's happening. That name is TBD, but that will probably be happening in the early part of 2014. [Ed: Henderson gave Eater Seattle all the details about the new bakery, named Parchment.]

A sampling of goods at Little Gull. [Photo: S. Pratt]

So why all this now?
There are opportunities in front of me and I've got great people around me and I feel like we can do it. I'd like to do this right now. I'd like to really push for the next six to eight months. They're all things that are exciting. It's not like I'm doing them just to do them.

And they're so different.
Yeah, they're all different. We're very aware of not being ahead of our skis. We're very aware of all the perils that could be in front of us. As we grow, we understand the idea of needing to have eyes on everything. But each of our stores are going to be autonomous in the sense that you have to be able to let people do what they do. Micromanaging doesn't get anybody anywhere. This is Zoi's restaurant in a way here. She's going to make an exceptional name for herself because of this, I truly believe that. She's treating it like it is hers. Giving people ownership, not only literally but also figuratively, works. At least that's the theory.

They're exciting projects. I think the city will embrace them. I just want Seattle to be an amazing food city, and I think we need to take some steps to get the Zois of the world the ability to make a name for themselves, you know?

So I read I guess a little over a year ago you stepped away from Skillet?
Not really. More from a day-to-day operational thing. But I'm still the founder, I'm still very involved in the brand. We have a CEO and president that is our day-to-day guy. So, I mean, I'm not as involved as I used to be when I was on the truck, obviously. I've let somebody else handle that as long as I can still effect the brand, even things like what kind of silverware are we using at the diner. I still have a strong opinion on those things.

All part of the not-micromanaging theory.
Yeah, there's a balance. There's micromanaging and there's completely hands-off and it's a rudderless ship. You find that middle ground in there that you still are who you said you were as a company. People need that. People want to see — at least, I think they want to see me around and giving my thoughts on things and giving opinions and cooking right next to them and showing up at events and helping out. Those are the things they want to see. I think it's crucially important that happens.

Stay tuned tomorrow for part two of the interview in which Henderson explains his motivations for all this expansion, as well as his thoughts on the development of Seattle's dining and food truck scenes. He also weighs in on how to be a good manager, the cost of culinary school, and how "you have to make people angry in order to get change."

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