Ethan Stowell is growing a small restaurant empire in Seattle based on a simple principal he feels passionately about: Get diners in the door often, and not just for special occasions.
Stowell does that, he says, by creating neighborhood restaurants that offer great food, a fun atmosphere and professional service, all at an affordable price that invites frequent visits.
Last month, Stowell opened his fifth full-service restaurant operated by Ethan Stowell Restaurants, the multi-concept company he owns with his wife Angela Stowell. The newest venue is Rione XIII, offering Roman-inspired dishes with a Pacific Northwest twist.
Other concepts include Tavolata, How to Cook a Wolf, Anchovies & Olives, and Staple & Fancy Mercantile. Stowell also operates Lagana Foods, an artisan pasta line available in some retail stores.
Last April, he launched Ballard Pizza Company, his first fast-casual concept, which is operated by a second company called Grubb Brothers Productions.
Stowell’s goal is to reach diners at various price points with concepts designed for specific neighborhoods, all in his hometown of Seattle, which he contends is an increasingly passionate food town.
Stowell spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News this week about his company’s growth.
Can you tell me about Rione XIII?
All of our restaurants at this point are family-style Italian/ Northwest, meaning we take the fundamentals of Italian family-style cooking and apply them to Northwest products.
Rione is our most in-depth version of an Italian restaurant. We’re going with all traditional dishes that originated from the city of Rome. In Rome, they call different neighborhood Riones. The 13th district is called Trastevere.
So, we’re doing things like carbonara and amatriciana [pasta] sauces. Bruschetta is linked to Roman origin, and some organ meats, like sweetbread. And we’re doing oxtails cooked in tomato sauce, and Jewish-style fried artichokes and squash blossoms. We have a Roman-style pizza that’s almost like a flatbread without the traditional tomato sauce and cheese. It has good olive oil and vegetables, and might be seasoned with anchovies or something like that.
What is the best seller so far?
The tonnarelli cacio e pepe ($14), which is like a thick spaghetti with butter, a Pecorino cheese sauce we make, coarse black pepper and more freshly grated cheese on top.
What is the average check?
About $35 per person, including food and beverage. Our whole goal is to deliver a superior product, more along the lines of fine dining than not, but not necessarily with all the bells and whistles. No front waiters, back waiters or formal wine service. It’s a good, solid, educated wine service, but it’s not a sommelier going over the whole wine list. It’s a place where people can go and get really good service and hang out in their neighborhood and have a good time.
Are you thinking of multiplying any of the five concepts?
I’m not sure. If we came across one that was multipliable, we probably would. That’s not really what we’re looking for. We’re looking to cultivate a solid following in Seattle where people know the food will be good, the service will be good, and value will be strong. I don’t necessarily want to own a bunch of chains.
What about Grubb Brothers? Are you planning to do more Ballard Pizza locations?
I’m not sure if there will be more Ballard Pizza Companies, but there will be more pizza companies. Grubb Brothers will do restaurants that will be very casual, family oriented, lower price points, quicker service. We’re taking the idea of very casual foods, like pizza, and putting our twist on it, using local ingredients and high quality products.
We’ll do more, as locations become available. We’re always looking at spaces. We look for interesting locations where we can do something. Sometimes it fits with Grubb Brothers, and sometimes it fits with Ethan Stowell Restaurants. I can’t say I’m determined to do my next four restaurants as Grubb Brothers. It will happen more organically than that. We’re letting the location, the space, the size and what we feel the neighborhood wants dictate what we do.
How are sales trending for Ethan Stowell Restaurants?
I can say they’re trending in the right direction. We’re looking at solid, conservative, consistent growth. It’s a trend we’re hoping will continue.
Will you take any of your concepts out of Seattle?
We have talked about moving out of Seattle, but there would have to be a very strong reason for me to go outside my neighborhood. I like serving people in Seattle. I know the market. I like having our taxes and our money going to our community here.
Is Seattle growing as a food town?
What I’ve seen in the last 10 years here has really been a cultural shift. There are so many options for people to dine out on a regular basis at a good price point that it’s become part of the culture here to be a consistent diner. That’s partly why we did Grubb Brothers, because we wanted to have different price points to offer our guests.
I want all restaurants to keep their prices down now to keep feeding that cultural shift and excitement that’s getting people out to eat a couple times a week. I’m not raising my prices one nickel. I’d much rather have my customers coming in twice a week instead of once a month.
You don’t want to be a special occasion restaurant?
In our coaching, I say we’re between casual and fine dining, and the phrase I use is non-special-occasion fine dining, or NSO fine dining.
People want the pluses of fine dining, like the name recognizable, quality products, local sourcing, a nice environment and professional service. But they’re willing to give up some of the stuff you get at more formal restaurants, like maybe they don’t get the reservation time they want, or maybe the restaurant doesn’t even take reservations. Maybe the table won’t be 55-inches wide, so it’s a little bit tighter. We’re just trying to make things work for the customer to be able to come out more often.