Tom Douglas, the big-name Seattle restaurateur, loves food and loves business. He’s combined the two to create a successful brand and many thriving ventures.
Douglas has played a big part in defining Northwest cuisine, starting with his first restaurant, Dahlia Lounge, which opened in 1989. Since then, there have been five more restaurants, a James Beard award (often referred to as the Oscars of the food world), three cookbooks, a radio show, and many TV appearances. This, Douglas hopes, is just the start.
Douglas has always loved food and cooking. His favorite class in high school was home economics—that was the extent of his official culinary training. At 19, Douglas left his hometown in Delaware to see the country in his station wagon. In Seattle, he ran out of money. He felt at home there, and he's lived in Seattle ever since.
Since Douglas loved to cook he found jobs in restaurants but quickly learned that working in the back of the house was not lucrative. Waiters made decent money; chefs and managers made better money. But the best money of all, and the most exciting endeavor, in Douglas's eyes, was in opening your own place.
His first restaurant, Dahlia Lounge, was not an immediate success. When Douglas opened Dahlia with his wife, Jackie Cross, they were undercapitalized. It took two years to get on their feet. They stopped taking credit from their purveyors and paid in cash. Slowly, they learned fundamental business lessons and paid off their debt. They kept the purveyors' trust. "Relationships are the most important thing," Douglas says.
It wasn’t long before Dahlia Lounge became a raging success. Critics and crowds loved the place, and Douglas and Cross were starting to make some money. Opening another Dahlia Lounge might have been someone else’s next step. "But I had no desire to repeat the same thing over and over," Douglas says. "It’s a personality quirk. Repeating a concept never appealed to me. I'd rather open a new restaurant."
"It’s a magic time right now," says Douglas, whose six restaurants are soon to number 11. "Leases, rents, great spaces are out there more than ever. We're setting ourselves up for the next 10 years."
Douglas plans to add five more restaurants to his portfolio in the next year, nearly doubling the size of his empire.
"The best thing about opening a restaurant is the opening," he says, and every aspect is a thrill for him—from talking ideas with friends, rallying investors, finding the perfect space, and detailing a business plan. He enjoys picking out china and choosing tables, chairs, and decorations. The process that starts with blueprints and ends in opening night is the most fun and exciting part of being a restaurateur, he says.
Dahlia Lounge, for the last 20-plus years, has paid homage to Pacific Northwest ingredients. It played a starring roll in Seattle's—and the country’s—burgeoning pursuit of local, organic, and sustainable food. Just across the street, in the lobby of the Hotel Andra, Douglas's restaurant Lola features those same local products on its Greek and Mediterranean menu: wild pacific prawns and king salmon become kebabs. Douglas's Serious Pie, also on the same street, sells some of Seattle’s best pizza. His Dahlia Bakery is famous for its triple coconut cream pie and supplies the other restaurants with daily baked breads.
But Douglas is not only focused on opening new spots—in the restaurant world, restaurants 10 and 20 years old are senior citizens. Keeping these locations innovative and relevant is constant work. "It’s about marketing," he says. It’s about "keeping the chefs fresh and focused." People love novelty, he says, but "they also love a good restaurant they trust." It’s about details. If the bathrooms are clean, the value is good, and the service is on point, people will respond.
Still, Douglas rotates his chefs and general managers among his different restaurants. A change of management brings "fresh ideas and fresh eyes." Little changes are always in the works: new logos, new matchbooks, new lights, and new china. The menus are written daily. "Never take the business for granted," he says. "You can’t get a good review and sit back. You have to work to keep a full house every night."
Douglas is a businessman as much as he is a restaurant man. And like any good businessman, he has made sure to diversify. His different restaurants are in different neighborhoods, with different price points, and attract different crowds. Tom hosts a radio show, appears on TV every chance he gets, cooks at food festivals, and teams with Amazon to sell a line of house ware and kitchen tools. "Other chefs ask 'How do you get so much free press?' I get up every day and work for it."
These also constitute other channels of revenue. In this shaky economic climate, they helped Douglas to keep making a profit. Douglas loves every aspect—he’s creating a brand for himself. "I’m a fan, I love the biz, I eat in new restaurants every day. I’m passionate about food and cooking and business. I’m passionate about asking, 'Did my team pay the rent?'"
What’s Douglas’s advice? "Many people think about it forever. Just do it."
Douglas makes it sound, and seem, so easy.