“This is a business for crazy people,” says Jay Blackinton, a three-time James Beard Award semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year and one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs of 2017. “This isn’t a place to make money. Up here it’s even worse.” The business is running a restaurant, but “up here” refers to Orcas Island, a picturesque member of the San Juan Islands off the northwest coast of Washington.
Blackinton is describing the unique challenges, including seasonality, of operating a restaurant accessible from Seattle only after a few hours’ ride by car and ferry. “Starting right now, we will be slammed until mid-September when the weather starts to turn. Then it just turns off and gets really slow,” he says. “You want full-time employees all the time, but you can’t have that, so we try to make work for people.”
Blackinton owns Hogstone’s Wood Oven, which started as a rustic pizzeria in 2013 but quickly added more creative and ambitious tasting menu options as the chef was inspired by his ingredients. The islands are amazingly fertile, and almost all of Hogstone’s food comes from local farms, like Maple Rock, where Blackinton also works. These tasting menu experiences thrilled the intrepid restaurant elite, who’ll happily go off-grid for unique experiences and a taste of true terroir, but stymied many unsuspecting tourists. “What a lot of people do on the islands is they make places that are — I’m gonna get mobbed for saying this — pretty mediocre. Because that’s what most people expect, want, and are willing to pay for. We’re mostly not the pizza place people are looking for,” he deadpans.
Now, Blackinton is trying to ease confusion by moving the casual Hogstone’s to the lovely backyard, currently being revamped, and opening Aelder in the dining room, offering four-, seven-, and 12-course experimental menus almost exclusively by prepaid reservation through the online ticketing system Tock. When Aelder opens on July 7, walk-ins will be allowed to order the four-course menu, or be directed to Hogstone’s out back.
Seattle, generally, has been slow to embrace this kind of strict reservation policy. But most restaurateurs, certainly ones who work with limited ingredients, dream of having diners locked in, eliminating one major variable affecting service — and the bottom line. “We get a lot of people who come up here just to eat here,” he says. “So why wouldn’t people be willing to do that? I think it’s going to work well.”
Aelder is part of a growing trend of hyper-local high-concept restaurants separated from Washington’s coast by a stretch of water. It joins the ranks of the revered Willows Inn on Lummi Island and Ursa Minor on neighboring Lopez Island. Chef Nick Coffey, who previously pushed boundaries in the tiny kitchen of Seattle’s Barjot then helped award-winning chef Matt Dillon open Ciudad last year, opened Ursa Minor in April after years of visiting the island and feeling awed at the natural beauty and bountiful harvest.
Coffey, recognizing the importance of balancing local and tourist business, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $30,000 based on his desire to fully support Lopez Island’s many artisan producers and growers with menus that will rotate frequently. “Like many businesses on the island, we need the visitors to help sustain us through the slower times,” he says. “But we want to build a restaurant here that the residents are proud of and dine in as often as they’d like.” And, as many entrepreneurs have discovered since crowdfunding exploded, the support can be as valuable as the influx of cash. “Kickstarter does create a network around you of people that are vested in the business and interested in it succeeding,” Coffey says. “They’re telling their friends; it’s a great networking tool as well as fundraising.”
As a first-time restaurateur, Coffey’s doing his best to prepare for the highs and lows of island living. “There’s about two months of really busy season so you’re trying to fill the restaurant during those two months then scaling back on the rest of the year until you’re a little more established,” he says. Ursa Minor is only open Thursday to Sunday right now, and might drop Thursdays after September. Coffey also plans to close in January and February, typically the slowest months of the year.
Even the Willows Inn, despite its reputation as a “fine-dining astonishment” with two-time James Beard Award-winner Blaine Wetzel at the helm, still has an off-season. “We’re fully booked most of the year, but we still definitely feel the effect of a seasonal fluctuation in business levels,” says Wetzel, who apprenticed at Denmark’s two-Michelin-starred Noma and seems to have brought a bit of that restaurant’s magic with him when he took over the inn’s kitchen on Lummi Island. “That’s why we’re open just four days of the week in the winter and early spring.”
Wetzel, who helps run the company’s farm — yes, another restaurant with a farm — and forages regularly with his staff, admits that the pickings get slimmer in the winter, since it’s so windy that no locals are fishing or diving for shellfish. But he says it’s not sourcing food that’s challenging — “The ingredients here are amazing, way more than enough” — it’s the mundane things.
Lummi is just five to 10 minutes from the mainland by ferry, but the ferry is too small for deliveries, which means the inn can’t operate the way most restaurants do, relying on regular deliveries of fresh linens and cleaning chemicals. There’s not even a dumpster out back — what garbage truck would empty it? To underscore the isolation, Wetzel’s phone keeps cutting out during an interview. “Another challenge you have to deal with: Half the time you have no signal,” he says. “The internet’s so bad we have to have like four satellites to have decent speed for guests.”
Naturally, staffing is a challenge, but not for lack of interest. “I’ve had many people reach out over the years who wanted to work here, and I’d love to have them in the kitchen,” Blackinton says. “But it’s impossible to find places for people to live. It is and isn’t my responsibility to make sure people have a place, but I have to keep looking for those resources if I want to continue to have staff in the future. I’m short a cook right now, but I have no idea where they would go, because everything’s pretty filled up here.” One of his long-term goals is to add rooms to his operation.
Coffey agrees finding housing for employees is difficult. “On my staff, there’s one guy still looking for a place, basically couch-surfing right now,” he says. “But for the most motivated people, it eventually works out.” More accommodations would certainly make people’s transition to the island easier. “People want to come from further away to work in the restaurant,” he says, “and even some kind of hostel or shared bedding situation would be much appreciated. It’s a constant concern in the community.”
In its favor, the Willows Inn does have rooms, and plenty of people are willing to come from all over the world and intern for little to nothing to gain experience at such a highly regarded restaurant. The Willows Inn recently shut down its stage program, though, and has been ordered by the Department of Labor to pay $149,000 in unpaid wages and damages to 19 former stages. “As soon as I learned that this, something that was common practice in the industry, is technically not legal, then we discontinued it,” says Wetzel, who himself staged in his career. He also says ending the stage program wouldn’t affect payroll or quality. “It’s not like we were relying on free labor for the restaurant to operate,” he says. “These were young, aspiring chefs and cooks from around the country who wanted exposure to what we were doing and an opportunity to learn. We’d often just have one extra hand in the kitchen to show what’s going on.”
Wetzel says his staff — which can include 15 cooks for 30 diners on a given night — are compensated competitively, and consider the limited schedule and significant off-season bonuses. “This type of restaurant is usually combined with a strenuous schedule,” he says. “I think us having the time off every year is a real benefit in that it offers some balance in a field [where] that’s rarely the case.”
When asked why they stick it out on the islands, all of these chefs agree: It’s worth the challenge. “It’s hard to answer this question because it sounds so dumb, ‘Oh, it’s just a beautiful place.’ But it’s home,” Blackinton says. “If you have the opportunity to do something like this in a place that feels like home, then it’s a no-brainer, as far as fulfillment of your spirit goes.”
As for visitors, they can stop in and reap the reward as they please. “You figure it out and you get access to some of the best products in one of the most beautiful and wild areas in the country,” Wetzel says. “These islands are so abundant, with small farms, old farms, native tribes that fish, kind of eccentric or artisanal people and producers. And it’s not just a new thing, it’s been that way a long time.”