On July 5, partner restaurants Pollard Coffee and O Sole Mio Pizza House opened for business in Vashon town. Since then, both places have been frequently packed with customers. One might even be forgiven for surmising, given all the excitement, that islanders haven’t seen a new restaurant in years.
In fact, this is far from the case. The month of May alone saw the birth of Patty’s Place, which serves global cuisine just off 178th and Vashon Highway; Ruby Brink, a much-anticipated butcher shop, bar and restaurant in the Vashon Landing building; and Iyad’s Syrian Grill, a pop-up food stand often located in Vashon Village. A few months before them came Wild Mermaid, the waterfront cafe and bar at the north end — its bar room, called the Seagull Lounge, opened just weeks ago — and Camp Colvos Brewing’s taproom in the old Saucy Sister’s building.
And that is just the most recent wave of new eateries. Several others have opened in the past four years, including Bramble House, Gravy, Earthen Bistro, Vashon Brewing Community Pub, Glass Bottle Creamery, Maven Mercantile, Sugar Shack, and, lastly, Lucy’s Table, which closed last year, just 10 months in, after building owner Deborah Kohler had to relocate.
Of course, there’s another side to the growth spurt story — Saucy Sisters and La Playa both closed recently, while Rock Island Pizza and Island Queen (formerly Zombiez) switched owners. Gravy owners Pepa Brower and Dre Neely also cancelled their plans to open an Italian restaurant called Sugo. On the whole, however, business appears to be booming for restaurants on Vashon.
Vashon Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Marsh attributes much of this success to overall economic upturn.
“We’ve come out of a recession that was five or six years ago, [in which] we had empty storefronts,” he said. “So I think that what we’re seeing is there’s a shift in the economy — people have more spending [money], and people aren’t freaked out about their subprime loans, so we are seeing people invest in business and open restaurants.”
Vashon historian Bruce Haulman also noted the influx of older, wealthier residents to the island — people who are likely to eat out more. But beyond this, Marsh also thinks much of Vashon’s restaurant boom simply comes down to the foodie culture here.
“I can’t think of any other town of 10,000 people that has the quality of restaurants that we have,” he said.
Given the sheer number of cooks in the kitchen — or in this case, the number of kitchens on the island — one might think that restaurant owners would feel the constant pressure of competition. But according to Megan Hastings, who co-owns Wild Mermaid and Snapdragon Bakery & Café with her husband Adam Cone, there is generally little risk of any one place being edged out of business.
“Everybody feels the pressure of competition in life, and on a small island, where there are only [so many] people that really frequent restaurants, yeah, for sure,” she said. “But I also feel like each [restaurant] has their own niche and does their own thing, and people are drawn to different places for different reasons.”
One example of this is Patty’s Place. Before opening the restaurant in May, owner Patty Freebourn served tamales at the VIGA Farmers Market, as well as selling them wholesale to several retailers and catering events. But Freebourn always had a larger vision for her restaurant.
“A lot of people thought I was going to open a Mexican restaurant,” she said. “We have two wonderful Mexican restaurants on island. They didn’t need another one.”
Instead, Freebourn, who is half Mexican, half Korean, serves dishes ranging from German, French, Italian and Swedish, to Chinese, Japanese and Korean, to American and — of course — Mexican as well.
However, even within a single cuisine, there may be some room for differentiation. While several places already serve pizza on Vashon, O Sole Mio specifically makes New York-style pizza, with thin crust, wide slices and ingredients imported from Italy.
“We just [thought] that it would be a good fit to have this program here on the island,” manager Geran Webb said.
Since opening, O Sole Mio has been packed. And with a relatively young and inexperienced staff, this has pushed Webb into working 16-hour days. The restaurant’s immediate popularity might owe itself in part to the fact that Webb and his staff have, to date, given away approximately 2,000 slices of pizza for free, meaning a significant portion of the island already knows what to expect.
In addition to customers, O Sole Mio and Pollard Coffee also attracted controversy on their opening night, after they hired members of the motorcycle gang Hells Angels to provide security for a private event.
Marsh speculated that the decision may have been motivated by publicity, saying, “When you have a restaurant, you’re also putting on a show, and I think that was a big part of the show.”
But Pollard Coffee owner Robin Pollard maintains their intentions were more straightforward.
“We did what we needed to do to ensure that the event was managed well and that there were enough security and safety precautions,” she said. “I mean, they’re just regular people.”
The decision may have been controversial, but as Marsh pointed out, the restaurants are still keeping busy.
Other places, such as Snapdragon and Sugar Shack attract customers by offering live music, while Ruby Brink and Gravy both promise seasonal, local ingredients.
These unique offerings don’t just ensure variety for islanders; they also attract customers from Seattle, Tacoma and Southworth, all of which, according to Marsh, are part of the market for Vashon restaurants.
“We’re very much a visitor-driven place,” Marsh said. “So what we’ve learned is, if you have something extra special, people will make the trip, will fight the ferries, and they’ll come over here to have prosciutto that’s been made from a hog or a pig that was raised on the island and was butchered or processed here, or have a cider that comes from Asian pears that have been growing on the island for hundreds of years.”
In theory, Wild Mermaid and the Seagull Lounge have an immediate advantage in the off-island market, as the building is located just steps from the north-end ferry dock, meaning visitors from Seattle and Southworth can come over without bringing a car. According to Hastings, though, most of their business comes from commuters, who like to stop by for an afternoon drink or snack on their way home from Seattle. The newly renovated space boasts impressive artwork, as well as indoor and outdoor seating, featuring the only waterfront view from an island restaurant.
There are other ways of attracting visitors from the mainland, too. Ruby Brink, for instance, has had two in-depth articles published about it in Seattle’s installment of food journalism powerhouse Eater. In the case of one island restaurant, such media publicity wasn’t even necessary.
Earthen owner Chris Koerber only ever desired a small community of loyal frequenters. And yet, recent months have seen more customers than Koerber is staffed to handle, including many from off-island.
Another new restaurant, however, is still waiting for its lucky break when it comes to tourists and visitors.
Patty’s Place, like Earthen, is not located directly on Vashon Highway, meaning people passing through town are less likely to find it unless they are actively looking for it. For the time being, Freebourn is relying on the restaurant’s Facebook page, as well as word- of-mouth, for publicity.
However, social media is not by any means a bad strategy for drawing customers, according to Marsh.
“People just don’t go over and say ‘Oh, I’m gonna go out and just see what’s open,’” Marsh said. “People find something on Instagram. They see the Baking Company has these really cool cookies, and then they go there because of that.”
With so many different ways of finding out what Vashon eateries have to offer, and more options than can easily be counted, only time will tell which businesses will flourish the most after the confetti settles from Vashon’s restaurant boom.
— Sasha Elenko is a freelance writer.