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So you want to start a bistro? 

by Sheri Boggs


Ever have those fantasies of fleeing your day job and opening your own restaurant? Of course you do. While the work is certainly hard, haven't you ever wanted to find a cozy little nook you could paint in the colors of a Lane Smith picture book, where you could serve bowls of homemade soup or steaming cups of espresso? Where you could control everything from the music to your own hours? Where your friends and neighbors would come and hang out for hours on end?


We wanted to find out what it's really like, so we set out to talk


to the proprietors of three local neighborhood eateries: Kammy


Magnuson of the Rockwood Bakery, William and Marcia Bond of


Luna and John Grollmus, Brad Fosseen and Jeff Meagher of the Elk


and Moon Time. Of course there are many more locally owned and operated restaurants worthy of such attention, but we thought these


four were representative of the region. Through these popular joints,


we hoped to discover both the secrets of their success and the truth


about the hard, dirty yet ultimately rewarding work of running a restaurant.





The Rockwood Bakery


When it first opened two years ago, the Rockwood Bakery was less than half its current size, and there was no telling how well this South Hill cafe a few blocks east of Manito Park was going to do. Within weeks, however, people had heard tell of fluffily sublime quiche, flaky croissants with bittersweet chocolate filling and nice black coffee to wash it all down. Now it's not uncommon to go in on weekends and see a long line snaking from the door to the counter. For owner Kammy Magnuson, it's a sign that her business is doing well and also that after two years, she can afford to find some hard-earned balance in her life.


"In the beginning, I was here at four in the morning and then I'd be here until eight or nine at night," she says. "You can kind of run on that excitement for awhile, but you can only do that for so long before you burn out. I'm lucky to be in a place where I've been able to hire some help."


The seeds for the Rockwood Bakery were planted early in Magnuson, fed and watered by both her love of baking and her experience working in Seattle coffee shops. Not completely sure she wanted to own a coffee shop herself, she went to business school and focused on accounting "to have something to fall back on." Still, the floured counters and energetic work of baking called her back. She went to baking school at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, came back to Spokane and put some time in at Fugazzi to gain commercial baking experience.


In the meantime, her future site became available. Done in by Ice Storm, the little Rockwood Market on 18th Ave. was up for sale. For Magnuson, it was a stroke of luck to find such a great location, but the building was not without some major flaws.


"If I'd known then what I know now about what the building needed, I wouldn't have done it," she admits. "The shell of the building was pretty sturdy, but inside it needed new electrical, new boards, new plumbing, new insulation."


And along with all the necessary improvements came a whole new set of headaches. Pulling up the floor, Magnuson and her contractors discovered asbestos and nearly got hit with some serious city fines.


"[The city] came by and told us we needed a permit to tear up the floor, and thank God they did before we did it. If you tear stuff out and some of that stuff gets in the air, they have to contain the whole building. The worst case scenario is that they would have had to tear the whole thing down. We had no idea. We didn't even think about it."


While Magnuson owns the restaurant by herself, she did have help getting ready to open from her family, and also from family friend Pat Jepson who helped design the bakery's warm red interior. While some of the changes were by design, others came about in response to customer demand.


"I didn't want a place this big," she says, adding that she was surprised by how crowded the bakery quickly became. "I was nervous about tearing down the wall and making it so much bigger, but it's actually made things a lot easier."


Being adaptable is a big part of Magnuson's success. From deciding to go with cheaper, sturdier plates instead of the pretty, more expensive dishes that once sat in the pastry case, to knowing the value of the occasional donation to charity, Magnuson continues to fine-tune her operation on a daily basis.


"You can do whatever you want as long as it fits within what the customers want you to do," she says.


So with two years under her belt, what would she tell others interested in opening their own restaurant?


"Unless they had worked in restaurants before, I would say don't do it because you have no idea. People think it's so glamorous and fun, and you get to talk to people all day, and it is all of those things but they don't see what's underneath it -- all the hard work that goes into it," she says. "But if you know what you're doing, it's so worth it."





The Elk Public House and Moon Time


For the past decade, Browne's Addition residents have seen numerous variations of the neighborhood bistro try their luck at the former site of the Elk Drug Store, at the corner of Pacific and Cannon streets. But none have done so well as the current incarnation, the Elk Public House, which opened in 1998. Opened by the same folks who had made the Moon Time Pub and Grill a Coeur d'Alene institution, the decision to open in Spokane seemed a natural one.


"We just looked at the demographics and saw that it would work," says John Grollmus, who opened both Moon Time and the Elk with Brad Fosseen and Jeff Meagher. "We were doing so well in a place of twenty to thirty thousand people, and we thought, 'Well, how would we do in a city of a couple hundred thousand?' "


While the Elk was packed with customers almost from the very beginning, Moon Time was a little slower to take off when it first opened five years ago.


"We were pretty much running it by ourselves, and we'd stand around throwing darts to see who would get to go home," he says. "That first summer was a little rough. But we'd figured out it would be that way; we'd done our business plan and we knew what our break-even point needed to be. We knew we could keep it going even if it we could only afford to have the three of us running it for awhile. So we didn't panic."


Grollmus estimates that between the three owners, they have about 30-40 years experience, which he cites as one of the most crucial elements of their success. Fosseen and Meagher had both worked at Seattle's 74th Street Ale House, where Grollmus was a frequent customer, and the popular pub provided inspiration for the kind of place they wanted to open.


"We were really into the whole concept of a neighborhood public house. Originally, public houses, which is where the word 'pub' comes from, were neighborhood meeting spots, which is what we were after. But we also wanted food to be a big focus."


The Elk's menu is an extension of the Moon Time menu, which Grollmus and Fosseen had "about 75 percent planned out" by the time they opened. But while the food part has usually been easy, they've found personnel issues to be a bit more challenging.


"Staff is the hardest thing we have to deal with. At our busiest times, we've got about 40 employees and somewhere in there you're bound to have someone who's having some sort of personal crisis, or who got too drunk the night before. At times it feels like glorified babysitting."


Ironically, while people are often the most difficult element of running a restaurant, they're also one of the most rewarding. Grollmus is pleased with his current staff and management, but also finds enormous enjoyment in providing a good experience for pub patrons.


"It's definitely about taking care of people. When people come back to the kitchen and tell you they loved their food or whatever, that's the best. It's just killer."


So what advice would he give a budding restaurateur? Besides finding partners you trust, Grollmus suggests getting plenty of experience.


"If you don't know how to do every part of running a restaurant, you're screwed," he says. "It's not as risky if you know you can handle the books or go back in the kitchen and cook if you need to."





Luna


Like both the Rockwood Bakery and the Elk, Luna had a history of being a neighborhood institution long before it became a restaurant. The modest building at the corner of 57th and Perry was a construction company office in the '60s, a real estate office and most recently, a grocery store and postal annex. And again, like the owners of the Rockwood Bakery and the Elk, William and Marcia Bond started with a vision long before they had a location.


"I was a designer and did that for a long time, and William was a neurologist. But we both had a wonderful desire to do something with food," says Marcia Bond. "It's all about fulfilling a dream. It's about knowing what you want to be and how you want your food to taste, and it all sort of evolves from there."


While the Bonds envisioned crusty loaves of artisan bread and a case full of architecturally stunning pastries, they quickly realized that they needed more than inspiration to make their restaurant a reality.


"They have a great culinary school at Spokane Falls Community College, so I went there, and then I went out and asked Brett Fontana, who later came to work for us but was working at the Spokane Country Club, if I could work there for a month to learn whatever I could," says Bond. "I ended up staying for four months and asked to do whatever I could to learn it from the ground up."


They also knew other people in the restaurant business who were happy to share their experiences.


"There are a goodly number of books out there that tell you how to run a restaurant in terms of what numbers are important and what techniques to try," says William Bond. "But we also had some good help from people who were already in the business here. They helped us in terms of saying what the potential problems were, and that, 'This is how it might go, and if it doesn't go like this or if you don't do this, you're going to end up far from where you want to be.' "


One of the biggest challenges they faced early on is understanding the limitations of their location.


"We didn't know what the site was destined to be or what we were destined for," says William Bond. "We opened with breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it took us a year-and-a-half to see that the site's just not up for breakfast."


"It was awful," agrees Marcia, "I was here for breakfast most of the time, and I thought 'We are really failing here.' "


The Bonds scaled back to serving brunch on the weekends. They give much of their credit to their talented and loyal staff, including current chef Brian Hutchins. And they focused on what they were doing right, which was offering a varied and inventive menu, using the best ingredients possible, and providing a warmly elegant dining experience. Luna gets customers from all over the Inland Northwest, but William points out that most of their customers still come from the 99202 and 99203 zip code areas of the South Hill.


"What we saw most recently is that in the days following the attacks on Sept. 11, people really came here in much the same way that you'd come to the YMCA or your community center. People would come in and it would take them forever to make it down the aisle to their table because there was such a communal atmosphere in here. I would have thought that with what's happened, what's happening and what's going to happen, that the only restaurants that would do well in America were going to be the fast food places," he says. "But what we're finding out is that in big cities all over the U.S., it's the diners and neighborhood corner restaurants that are doing okay, because people need that sense of comfort."


When asked if given the chance, they'd go into the restaurant business all over again, the Bonds both answer with a resounding yes.


"It's all about joy," says William Bond. "We would absolutely do it again."

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