Surviving & Thriving in Seattle: A Q&A With Restaurateur Brian Canlis
Peter Canlis opened his namesake restaurant on December 11, 1950, in Seattle, Washington, following the success of his first restaurant, The Broiler, which he had opened three years earlier on a little-known (at the time) beach named Waikiki in Hawaii. With Canlis, Peter shook up the Seattle dining scene by designing a restaurant that looked and felt like a luxury home and confounded guest expectations by banishing the tuxedoed pretension of European-style fine dining, employing Japanese-American women recently released from internment, clad in stunning kimonos. It was an immediate hit.
Seventy years later, it is a beloved Seattle landmark that has been run by two of Peter’s grandsons, Brian and Mark Canlis, since 2007. I had the opportunity to speak at length with Brian, who, with his brother, has been navigating the most challenging and uncertain year of business in the restaurant’s long history. Brian credits the restaurant’s survival so far to the Seattle community’s support and their personal commitment to live by the restaurant’s mission statement: “To inspire all people to turn toward each other.”
When we took over the restaurant from our parents, we knew that a restaurant must be of its time, and that the role of a restaurant in a community is to restore—and not by simply offering food and drink. Once COVID-19 hit Seattle hard in late February, we knew that we had to do something. The need for restoration became greater than ever, and fine dining wasn’t the way to do it.
The rules had changed, and the needs of our staff, our guests, and ourselves were very different. Mark and I, and a bottle or two of scotch, spent some very late nights brainstorming what to do. Finally we decided that whatever we did had to help us achieve the following goals:
Keep our staff employed and safe
Restore our community
Pay the rent
Q. With indoor dining banned, your parking lot immediately became the key to creating new experiences and driving revenue. What worked, what didn’t?
In mid-March we launched three new businesses in three days: our burger concept, Drive On Thru; our breakfast concept, The Bagel Shed; and our home meal delivery, Family Meal. The first two were located in our parking lot and were immediately successful—too successful, actually. The demand was huge especially for a burger at the city’s fanciest restaurant, but it was impossible to keep everyone six feet apart and we pissed off our neighbors because of the mile-long traffic jams to get into our parking lot. Within a week it quickly became clear we weren’t making money on these concepts and failing at all three goals that we had set for them, so we shut both down.
Family Meal, however, was successful at every level, and it kept our dining room staff safe and employed delivering up to 1,000 meals, CSA [community-supported agriculture] boxes, cocktail kits, and wine pairings on a busy night. But everything changed on May 29 with George Floyd’s tragic murder. It was an abrupt end to quarantine innocence and the sense that we could all be in this together just by staying home and ordering food. It was time to get up off the couch.
Q. What did you try next?
We hosted a drive-in movie series for two weeks in our parking lot to raise money for the Black Farmers Collective and then we constructed The Crab Shack in the same parking lot. We built the walls, 24 tables, and all the chairs from shipping pallets. We trucked in seven tons of sand to build a beach. We were really hitting our stride when the smoke drifted in from the forest fires in California and Oregon and we had to shut down due to the poor air quality. Once the smoke cleared, we were able to run The Crab Shack for a couple more weeks before the rains started.
Q. How did you come up with the idea to launch Canlis Community College?
We needed a break. We were worn out and knew that we had to try something different—use an entirely different muscle group. We have run Canlis U, a new-hire training program, complete with Canlis U tee shirts, every fall for seven years. A number of our guests knew about it and over the years had asked if they could audit it. Recalling those requests was the spark we needed.
It had to be a community college. It had to be fun, affordable, and accessible.
As Mark and I started to list all of our ideas for classes, we realized that we were falling back in love with Seattle, after a long summer in which the national press had shit all over our city because of the marches and protests for racial equity. We knew that our curriculum had to be as much about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest as Canlis.
Q. Why Canlis Community College and not Canlis U?
It had to be a community college. It had to be fun, affordable, and accessible. We charged $25 for tuition and signed up over 12,000 students for a six-week “semester.” We kept our staff employed and donated over $50,000 in profits to Fare Start, an organization that has for 30 years provided solutions to poverty, homelessness, and hunger in Seattle. It checked all of our boxes and was really fun.
Q. What were your favorite classes and activities?
We partnered with Seattle cultural institutions and collaborated on efforts like classes on Seattle history—Black and Asian American experiences in Seattle; aerobic Zoom classes in our dining room with the Pacific Northwest Ballet; and Seattle music theory with KEXP, a non-profit radio station. We also offered practical classes like “Home Haircuts with Rudy’s,” “Boxed and Canned Wine,” “Canning and Pickling 101” and fun classes like my favorites, “Dad Jokes & Dad Magic” and “Canlis Kids: Animal Adventure.”
One of our more popular classes, since everyone at this point was looking to celebrate any good news, was our “Champagne and Oysters Class,” which signed up 200 students. For a limited number who wanted to splurge, they were able purchase a class prep box for $225 that included three types of oysters and three different champagnes.
But the coolest moment caught me totally by surprise. I had completely forgotten that we were also hosting intramural sports and was stunned one morning as I pulled into our parking lot to find it taken over by a pickle ball tournament, complete with our staff in referee uniforms serving mimosas. School has now come to an end but all of our live classes and more are available on our YouTube channel.
We were all a bit rusty at the start. But it feels great to pour wine into fine glassware, plate our food on hand-made Japanese plates, and see the tables filled with guests—even if I have to almost yell at them through my mask from over six feet away to say hello.
We have 11 yurts, the cost of which was partly subsidized by American Express and Resy, but we couldn’t help ourselves and went quite a bit over the budget they gave us. That’s the curse and blessing of fine dining. To do it right, we brought in 50 trees, upped our electrical service, and had a number of custom-made service pieces made. But we’re sold out every night, serving 80–85 people and running an average check of $185 per person with the food set at $145 per head. We’re having a blast doing it, are sold out through February, and currently are in talks to extend its run.
Q. What’s next?
Other than more scotch, I can’t say, since who the hell knows where we’ll be in a few months. It’s impossible to plan when the rules keep changing. We’ll keep living our mission statement and stay focused on our three goals whatever we do. I can’t say what comes after Yurt Village. But we are enormously grateful for the support we’ve received from our guests and our community.
Q. What are you looking forward to most post-pandemic?
I miss people. I want to be able to get near someone and shake his or her hand. I want to give my chef a high five after a busy service. Most of all I want to see my kids hug their grandparents. As humans, we’re clearly not designed for six feet apart.