In the middle of a global pandemic that's had devastating economic impacts on the restaurant industry, Spokane chef Michael Wiley bought a second restaurant.
At the beginning of October, the chef and owner of Wiley's Downtown Bistro on Washington Street added Prohibition Gastropub to his repertoire after the pub's owners, John and Jill Leonetti, decided to exit the business and move away.
"'You're insane.' That has been the overwhelming feedback," Wiley says during a break at Prohibition on a recent weekday afternoon.
"But about 30 percent see it as I do — 'Wow, that is a great opportunity timing-wise, and if you can figure it out now and make it in these kind of times, when you get to the other side imagine what it will look like,'" he continues. "That is what we hope, when we get through this 'covidity,' there will be really great opportunities."
To that end, Wiley and his staff, who gave enthusiastic approval of the expansion, are keeping a positive mindset amid current challenges as restaurants' seating capacity remains reduced by half and many diners opt to stay home.
"Things are what they are. Obviously business is diminished — there's no way around it — but on the energy side, it's just another challenge for us as we try to make sense of it and we try to be quickly reactive to any changing circumstance," Wiley says.
"Our teamwork is elevated because when those challenges happen, we just pull together and figure it out," he continues. "I've really, since COVID, started taking the opportunity to use it as a tool to create more positive energy in the face of what is a negative circumstance."
As an example, he recounts how a few days prior, late Sunday, the restaurant had about $900 in sales come in between 8 and 9 pm. Several diners were disgruntled by the slightly slowed-down service due to the unexpected rush. It's not uncommon, however, for the restaurant to see between $400 and $600 in sales for an entire day of service since he took over.
"How do I predict this and have enough staff to be completely full?" he asks. "Everyone here is working to their maximum potential, if not beyond that. Patience and kindness go a long way, but I would encourage that whether in COVID times or not."
Through all the ups and downs, Wiley and his team at both the bistro and gastropub are focused on one goal: providing all guests with a great experience.
"So, how can we do a great job and make great food and offer great service and cocktails in a pretty environment, and how do we make everyone feel special," he says.
As Prohibition's new leader, Wiley isn't looking to change much, if anything, right off the bat. He acknowledges there could be a name change in the future, and that he'll gradually put his own culinary spin on the casual, pub-focused menu he inherited from the Leonettis. One entirely new option for the restaurant just introduced, for example, is weekend brunch, served on Sunday from 9 am to 2 pm, with a menu ranging from gluten-free poutine to mimosas.
Having retained the culinary staff at Prohibition through the transition, Wiley says the regular menu is being prepared by experienced hands who know its recipes better than him. That's allowed him to somewhat more easily split his time between the two spots, although he says he's still back and forth between each several times a day, and typically working 80 hours or more a week.
"At Wiley's I'm still a predominant force on the line, so it's harder to walk away from there because I don't have the depth of players" like at Prohibition, he says. "So I'm working [downtown] three to five nights a week. When I walk away from [the gastropub], I have zero doubt it's going to be done in a way that is no less than exceptional." ♦
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that Prohibition Gastropub serves brunch on Saturday and Sunday, but that service is only available on Sunday.