How chef Tom Douglas learned to cater to Amazon’s culture, and its tightwad workers

Tom Douglas

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.

  • Guest

    Ever been to one of those places, in Chinatown or in your local food court, where you walk up to a steam tray, order an entree to be scooped out of it, pay, and walk to a giant open table? That’s the dream restaurant for engineers looking for a quick lunch. I’m amazed how few of those places are in SLU. That probably explains why food trucks have been so numerous and successful in the neighborhood.

    • C W

      That’s not what Douglas was referring to, though. (There’s plenty of that at Microsoft’s cafeterias, certainly.) Have you been to Chinatown? Dozens of restaurants, most of them decent to stellar, offering you a huge $7 entree that’ll take you a few meals to finish.

      • Guest

        I don’t know, C.W. According to Tom, those restaurants are run by criminals who don’t pay living wages and who settle things “under the table.” They just don’t seem as morally enlightening as Tom Douglas restaurants do, and as a result, I must advise against dining there.

    • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

      Amazon’s internal cafeterias are closer to that approach.

      • pbtad

        Not as far as price goes. The internal cafeterias are as pricey as the upscale SLU restaurants. That’s why the food trucks are so popular.

    • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

      If we’re talking about food optimized by engineers for engineers, I think the Dilberito needs to be mentioned. :)

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dilberito

  • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

    Very interesting article, thanks for it.

  • Mike George

    Not cool Tom.

  • Call e mr x

    Bunch of cheapos. We all want great food but are they willing to pay for it. No! Worse than the ‘softies

    • Guest

      Many people are totally willing to pay the cost for great food. However, that doesn’t mean they want to pay that cost for lunch five days a week. More often we’re willing to accept just good food (not great) for a reasonable price.

  • Forrest Corbett

    Unfortunately, service at his SLU restaurants is poor. Glad to see they finally allow reservations, as for a while they specifically denied these. And if you showed up in a group, you’d be lucky to get any service at all. Mr. Douglas could learn a thing or two about service from the Portage Bay Cafe.

  • Mike

    The Brave Horse? Actually it is the LOUD Horse. Good luck trying to think or talk in there. And as far as discounts go? Really…discount beer at $6? Since when?

  • http://twitter.com/SeattleEntrep SeattleEntrepreneurs

    Great take away for entrepreneurs: Talk to your future customers! Good article.

  • Bob Crimmins

    Very cool that Tom acted as a true startup entrepreneur. He clearly realizes that location, location, location is key. But he also applied the lean and entrepreneurial behaviors of:

    1) Customer development (600 customer surveys BEFORE building)
    2) Innovation (fat handmade pretzels, smoked ketchup and cheap pitchers)

    I doubt there are many restaurateurs who could have pulled off the location part (which may just be the biggest success factor) but the second two options are available to any restaurateur who cares to improve their chances of success… especially the customer development approach.

  • nwcitychick

    Well, there is an old country western song that says for every lonely heart there is another one waiting. Tom and the Amazon employees may not be a match made in heaven. That said I completely agree with his scruples, think he should stick by them, and be a responsible and healthy food purveyor. The times are changing.