When it comes to Seattle’s hometown successes, you could describe Tom Douglas as the Amazon of fine dining. Over the last ten years, this serial restaurateur has rolled out a dozen competition-crushing eateries spanning cuisines from Greece to Tibet. If his spectacular Serious Pie micro-chain in particular grows any larger, expect media hang-wringing over the demise of the independent pizza joint.
But the connection between Douglas and Amazon goes deeper than that, as I discovered when I sat down with him at his HQ above the Palace Kitchen. Douglas cites the online retailer as a key reason behind his choice of Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood for his first restaurants outside the downtown tourist area.
“All those business travelers coming to Amazon have to eat somewhere,” he says. “And they were moving thousands of workers over from Chinatown.”
The problem was that those Amazonians were used to the International District’s cheap, exotic eats, a tough act to follow in the fancy, high-priced warehouse spaces of SLU. “I pay a living wage, I believe in healthcare, I declare all my income and I don’t cut corners,” he says. “So how we were going to open Chinatown in South Lake Union and still pay the bills, with everything above the table, was a big concern for me.”
Douglas also had worries about dining options for an audience of hard-working geeks. “I know Jeff Bezos because I cater at his home,” he says. “But I didn’t know about the workers. So we sent out a survey to 600 Amazonians asking them what their dream restaurant and bar would be, fully expecting sushi, Italian food or a deli.”
The results were a surprise. The top response by a landslide was simply “cheap.” The second was that coders wanted reservations as they tended to travel in packs.
“It absolutely freaked me out,” admits Douglas. “I thought: when are we going to get to the food part?” His solution was the Brave Horse Tavern: discount pitchers of craft beers, bare bones burgers and massive pretzels. As a nod to his fine dining roots, the burgers, buns and pretzels are all made on the premises. Even the condiments have a Tom Douglas touch (that means the ketchup is house-smoked).
“I could save 50 cents a bun on every burger if brought them in,” says Douglas. “Hell, I could save 50 cents a burger on every burger if I just bought pre-ground beef. But one of the things I can’t do is just open a shitty restaurant.”
Not all Douglas’s interactions with Amazon have such a happy ending. In 2009, Amazon introduced “Tom Douglas by Pinzon,” a collection of “urban-Asian” kitchen utensils, cutlery and cookware endorsed by the chef. “We spent three years on the project and they had my picture on all these boxes of 100 different items,” says Douglas.
Earlier this year, Douglas went in for one of his regular meetings at Amazon and saw a new face opposite him. “They had come from CDs and audiobooks to take over cookware. They literally sat with me the next day and said they don’t believe in private labels,” he remembers. “My cookware was gone. That’s what it’s like dealing with Amazon. It’s a totally different way of doing business.” (If you hurry, you can still shop the Pinzon range here).
Looking to the future, both Amazon and Douglas have big plans for the Denny Triangle neighborhood, on the northern edge of downtown Seattle. Next spring, the multi-use Grange Hall will open in a new apartment building on Sixth and Lenora, offering a Tom Douglas restaurant, cake shop, espresso bar and a market serving produce from his farm in Prosser, Eastern Washington. Its nearest neighbors just across the street will, if they get final approval from the city, be the towers of Amazon’s new campus.
“Grange Hall was decided before Amazon announced its new development,” says Douglas, happily. “But you know what? The more the merrier.” With 3 million square feet of hungry workers right next door, the future for Douglas looks very merry indeed.
Mark Harris is a freelance science and technology reporter based in Seattle. He writes regularly for The Economist and The Sunday Times in London, and tweets from @meharris.