Pamela Hinckley is surrounded by bakers and pastry makers who are shaping thin loaves of ficelle, seasoning homemade croutons and shaping pie crusts and pizza dough. From her spot on the production floor of the Dahlia Workshop, the CEO of Tom Douglas Restaurants (TDR) gestures to the second level, where pizzas are being served at Serious Pie. Guests sitting at long communal tables have a full perspective on the action below and a view into the wine shop and the new Dahlia Workshop Biscuit Bar, which occupy the front of the building’s first floor.
“Because we have a mezzanine for the second floor open to the bakery, we knew we had to be careful about what we put up there,” Hinckley says. “Serious Pie is related to the dough and the bakers below and our desire to demonstrate our efforts and commitment. People can smell the fermentation of the dough and see the bread rising and baking—it was a darn good fit.”
Serious Pie Westlake, which opened in February and seats 49 patrons, is one of five new South Lake Union restaurants celebrated chef Tom Douglas is opening this year, a move that doubles the size of his restaurant empire to 10—not counting bakeries—in a mere three months. Only Serious Pie is a repeat; the others are new concepts.
Giving customers a peek into the kitchen to see the chef’s magic has been a hallmark of Tom Douglas establishments, but the company is elevating the practice at the new restaurants as an important marketing strategy—to show customers how much effort goes into preparing food from scratch.
“Part of our mission is to celebrate culinary arts,” Douglas says. “Every day it gets cheapened by the mass of chain restaurants taking over America. When you can spend $10 at Olive Garden, I need to give you a good reason to spend $17 at Cuoco.”
At Cuoco, Tom Douglas’s first Italian restaurant, part of that reason is hand-rolled pasta created by pasta maker Martha Francis, who will perform her magic in an open station adjacent to the kitchen. “Martha has been making pasta for us for 15 years,” Douglas says. “She rolls the pasta rather than using an extruder. When you watch Martha make the pasta, you see the spectacular effort that goes into it.”
Such effort, Hinckley says, is often discounted. For years, unseen by patrons, Francis has rolled pasta in the back of Douglas’ Palace Kitchen downtown. “While there is a small group of food-source fanatics, we need to get the bigger part of the population to become engaged in what it means to make everything from scratch and what we’re doing as a company,” Hinckley says. “Every loaf of bread, every dessert, every crouton is made from scratch. We’re trying to show the customer that.”
At Ting Momo, 10-year Tom Douglas veteran Deyki Thonden, a Tibetan chef who cooks for the Dalai Lama when he comes to North America, is the star attraction. She makes her famous dumplings in an open cooking station similar to Cuoco’s, so all can watch. And just a dumpling’s toss away, guests at the Brave Horse Tavern can see pretzels baking in what Douglas says may be the first wood-fired pretzel oven in the country.
Ting Momo, Cuoco and Brave Horse Tavern occupy the historic Terry Building, with the 100-seat Cuoco on the first floor and Brave Horse (120 seats) and Ting Momo (25 seats) sharing the second. The three are a block away from the building housing Serious Pie and Dahlia Workshop Biscuit Bar, as well as Soul Wine, which is run by Hinckley’s husband, Michael Teer.
While customer demand inspired Douglas to open a second Serious Pie on his foray into South Lake Union, he was loath to duplicate his other successes: Dahlia Lounge, Etta’s Seafood, Palace Kitchen, Lola and, his most recent endeavor, Seatown Seabar & Rotisserie.
“Why do something twice?” asks Douglas, who says he has a never-ending supply of restaurant ideas. Still, he didn’t actually plan to add five new restaurants so quickly, but when Vulcan Inc. came knocking with several options and the carrot of 10,000 Amazon.com employees in the neighborhood as potential customers, Douglas couldn’t turn down the opportunities.
The expansion means 200 additional employees are joining TDR’s existing staff of 550. Revenues for the reconfigured company in 2011 are projected to be $35 million.
Douglas started positioning the company for growth two years ago when he hired Hinckley. The two are longtime friends—Hinckley is godmother to Douglas and Jackie Cross’s daughter, Loretta (namesake of Etta’s Seafood)—but Douglas wasn’t really looking for help or to expand so rapidly.
Hinckley had just left Theo Chocolate as head of marketing and asked Douglas for help with her résumé.
Douglas says, “I was struggling as we were growing bigger and felt we needed a different skill set [to get to the next level]. So I wrote up a job description for TDR and asked her to consider it.” Hinckley hesitated at first because she valued a close friendship. Years ago, Jackie Cross worked for Hinckley’s husband at the Pike & Western Wine Shop, where Douglas was an occasional driver for its wine distribution business. Douglas later worked for Hinckley, pouring beer at Redhook Brewery’s Fremont tavern to earn money to open his first restaurant, Dahlia Lounge.
“I still remember when Tom catered the Woodinville [Redhook] brewery opening,” Hinckley says. “He did the catering and delivered the food by cab—by himself.” While at Theo, Hinckley brought in Douglas and others as investors, and when she had her own marketing firm, she helped Douglas with his marketing efforts.
Hinckley brings much-needed structure, controls and organization to the 22-year-old company. “She has a good, bubbly quality and she’s much more of a wonk than I even knew,” Douglas says. “She’s really comfortable dealing with the infrastructure of who we are and how we do it.”
Hinckley joined the company in 2009 and immersed herself in the business that first year, soaking up the nuances of the different restaurants and learning how each operates. Douglas knew he couldn’t be at each restaurant every day and make all the decisions, and he wanted structural help to ensure each restaurant carried out and executed his vision.
Previously, Douglas would tell general managers and chefs: “You keep these places clean and beautiful and serve delicious food and I’ll put butts in the seats.” Says Hinckley: “He’s brilliant at the marketing piece and it’s something he loves, but it was also something he wanted help with.”
After studying the business, Hinckley and Douglas decided to give every restaurant more autonomy and an identity based upon what the team in each restaurant wanted to accomplish.
“We’re always thinking about positioning and branding between Tom and restaurants, and although they are all linked, we wanted each general manger and chef to be visible in that organization and make the decisions about it,” Hinckley says.
It was difficult at first for the staff to grab ownership. “It is a new idea for them to be held responsible for breathing life into the restaurants,” Hinckley says. “We expect them to tell us what they need to achieve it.”
TDR executive chef Eric Tanaka, who oversees menu development and purchasing, has a bigger voice as part of the changes. With his input, the company stepped up its education efforts, taking more field trips and making written materials more available.
Rather than top-level managers getting directives through a newsletter and by meeting every Wednesday, each restaurant now holds daily pre-service meetings so all team members know what’s expected and what needs to change. “We’re now more focused and concrete about sharing best practices,” Hinckley says. “Before, there was a big disconnect after those meetings.”
One well-known operational practice hasn’t changed: TDR’s 75-plus managers continue to dine out at least once a month on the company’s dime at any Tom Douglas restaurant of their choice. In return, they are required to fill out a detailed questionnaire, giving feedback and suggestions.
“There’s a lot of peer pressure because every chef and manager has to eat in each other’s restaurant, and, in a funny way, we’re encouraging them to be better chefs,” Douglas says. “It’s really 25 percent about the food and 75 percent running the restaurant like a top.”
“Just keeping up with the manager evaluation forms is getting to be a full-time job,” Hinckley says. “Tom reads them all and so do Eric and I.”
They have tweaked the evaluation form, adding questions that ask evaluators who is responsible for taking corrective action and what has already been accomplished. “Previously, Tom would read something and say, ‘We have to do something about that soup!’” Hinckley says. “Now, we expect any corrective action to be taken by managers, who read them first, and for them to tell us what action has been taken.”
Douglas, who has always homegrown his own chefs, has also continued the practice of shifting chefs and general managers around every so often in the organization, which allows them to gain experience at various levels.
The new openings in South Lake Union mark some milestones. The Terry Building restaurants are the first to be built with help from an architect and builder. Previously, Douglas and Cross did the work with a small crew. And Cuoco’s chef, Stuart Lane, is the first to be hired from outside the organization.
“We didn’t have the [chef] experience we needed in-house for Cuoco,” Douglas says. “Stuart lived in Italy, cooked in Italy and has a passion for Italian food.”
One of the biggest changes outsiders may have noticed are the additional events TDR is holding so customers can connect with Douglas, his chefs and restaurants. “That was always one of my favorite things at Redhook and Theo Chocolate,” Hinckley says. “I love to create events that draw customers in more so they get intimate contact with you and your brand. There’s nothing more valuable than spending time with people who care about your company.”
The company has added more programs at its Palace Ballroom event space, it hosts a Wine Press Club and it launched a family cooking series on Sundays. It has partnered with Kim Ricketts Book Events to host authors, sponsored Keren Brown’s Foodportunity networking events and created events around holidays and specific foods, such as Baconopolis.
“We have a really dedicated group of ambassadors as a result of our Culinary Summer Camp,” says Hinckley of the company’s annual $2,500-per-person, five-day experience. “But it’s a small band of warriors. The camp’s capacity is only 35, so we’re trying to expand that base.”
To make sure every employee executes at the high standard of service Douglas expects, everyone attends an annual Global Graciousness Day focused on teamwork. “It’s the belief that if we don’t work together well as a team and respect everyone’s contribution, then we can’t graciously serve our customers,” Hinckley says. “It sounds like common sense, but, in the heat of action during service, the memory of that can fall away.”
Adds Douglas: “We can’t compete as a top-10 restaurant group if we’re not a well-oiled machine with front- and back-of-the-house protocols.”
TDR’S Bill of Fare
Tom Douglas Restaurants projects revenues of $35 million in 2011 and expects total employment to reach 750. CEO Pamela Hinckley’s job is to supervise this ever-expanding menu.
Dahlia Lounge, opened in 1989
Etta’s Seafood, 1995
Palace Kitchen, 1996
Dahlia Bakery, 2001
Serious Pie Virginia, 2006
Seatown Seabar & Rotisserie, 2010
Serious Pie Westlake, 2011
Dahlia Workshop Biscuit Bar, 2011
Brave Horse Tavern, 2011
Ting Momo, 2011
Tom Douglas’ Seattle Kitchen, 2000
Tom’s Big Dinners, 2003
I Love Crab Cakes, 2006
Chef Walks with Tom Douglas (e-book), 2011
Rub with Love (spice rubs and sauces), 1999
Tom Douglas by Pinzon (kitchenware and accessories), 2009
Tom Douglas Catering and Events, 2002
Palace Ballroom (event space), 2004