Coffee with Guppy: Raising the Bar

A chat with musician/restaurateur Val Kiossovski.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Val Kiossovski co-owns the Solo Bar on Lower Queen Anne and Saint John’s Bar and Eatery on Capitol Hill. Since 2000, he has played lead guitar in the “gypsy punk” band Kultur Shock, which mixes rock, metal and punk with traditional music of the Balkans. 

Nancy: Describe your philosophy of running a bar. Val: My priorities are simple: It’s my employees, it’s my customers and it’s my investors, in exactly that order. From there, it’s about creating a space that feels comfortable, safe and welcoming, staffed with professionals who know what the hell they’re doing.

What was the No. 1 mistake you saw when working in other establishments? Owners becoming disconnected from the day-to-day running of the business. I’ve been behind the bar for 10 years and I don’t have any intention of stopping. The only thing that will prevent me from being on the ground, in the trenches with my crew, is age!

Solo Bar serves excellent food. Why not just offer stale pretzels and pickled eggs? Because it’s against my beliefs. I’m a Balkan guy, so for me it’s totally uncivilized not to have good food while you’re drinking. Ever since we opened Solo and Saint John’s, food has been a focal point and it’s now a significant part of our business. 

As a customer, what do you want n a neighborhood watering hole? Depends on my particular needs. Sometimes, I need a chill-out space to hang with friends and have good conversation; sometimes, I’m after a party and want to let loose and be stupid. Every place has its purpose and its function.

Does your musical background affect your bar-running skills? For sure, and mostly in how we select music. I like to switch the mood during the night as my mood changes or the vibe in the room changes or because a customer is egging me on to explore stuff I’ve never heard before.

TODAY'S DRAFT: Val Kiossovski sees running a restaurant as a creative process somewhat akin to songwriting.

What’s the biggest challenge in dealing with the public? When I first started my bar training [at the Off Ramp in 1991], my main question was how many cocktails I needed to know and I was told that bartending wasn’t about drinks, it was about psychology. You have to be able to read people, communicate with people, relate to people and you must always be in control of your environment. You are the boss of your bar. 

Do you ever cut people off if they’ve had too much to drink? Oh, yeah. I don’t believe in getting people wasted for an extra buck. I want everyone to go home safe and sane.

What makes you happy or joyful? When it comes to music, it’s a sad/happy thing. The sadder the tune, the happier it makes me. Sometimes, I’ll hear something and it will create such an outburst of internal happy energy that I cannot fit into my skin.

Ever want to throw in the towel? I don’t even know what that means. As long as I can play music or run a business, I will do it.

Finish this sentence: “Val Kiossovski is …” “… a fighter and a lover.”

What has been your scariest creative moment? When I left Bulgaria in 1991, I left an up-and-coming band and got thrown into the midst of the Seattle music scene without really understanding what it was and I stopped playing for about seven years. That was scary because I abandoned myself, artistically.

Name a person, alive or dead, whom you admire. Winston Churchill is an amazing public figure. A great intellect, a great communicator and an incredibly interesting human being who singlehandedly led the fight to save the world from the perils of authoritarianism, totalitarianism, fascism and Nazism. I can’t fathom how much internal strength and conviction he had in the early years of World War II.

Whom would you like to invite to dinner? Barack Obama. I’m fascinated with his sense of humor and comedic timing. Plus, he’s extremely smart.

You’re stuck on a desert island and can have one book, one food and one record. Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream because it’s so ambiguous. Food would be drob sarma, a Balkan dish of chopped liver and lung with a bunch of spices, smothered with a béchamel sauce and topped with yogurt. And the record … that’s difficult. Maybe Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here.”

What law or rule would you most like to enforce? Don’t lie. The precursor to every malicious act is a lie.

As a musician, is there a part of the creative process that you like the best? Performing. I’m an adrenaline junkie and the connection with the audience, the energy that flows back and forth, is just ridiculously good.

What’s your best quality? The ability to organize people around certain causes. I’ve always been able to get people in the same space, focus them on the same goal and make them move toward it. 

Do you ever get jealous? Jealously is a very destructive thing. When I was a kid, I remember my parents telling me, “Son, mind your own bowl of soup. Never look into another person’s bowl.”

For more on artists, entertainers and entrepreneurs, tune in Art Zone with Nancy Guppy on the Seattle Channel (seattlechannel.org/artzone). 

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