At the Vashon Golf & Swim Club, a stalwart chef who almost never takes a day off has quietly opened The Sandpiper Cafe, a new island restaurant, offering takeout and seating out on the deck for the time being, and serving up timeless and tasty dishes as COVID-19 restrictions allow.
Islander Doug Arends has an irresistible vision of his restaurant, the only one south of town, with views of the Seattle skyline and Puget Sound that will have something on the menu for everyone, club members or not.
“It’s an amazing thing that we’re going to be able to do here,” he said, picturing sun-filled afternoons taking in the scenery while dining, watching sports games on TV while sipping on a locally sourced beer, wine and spirits.
The restaurant will be closed for the first week of February but will reopen from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
For the island cafe right now, Arends has created a light menu of sandwiches and specials before the restaurant’s full opening, which will entail a redesign of the interior that takes advantage of the surrounding views. He expects the dinner menu to be more sophisticated and diverse, eager to prepare fresh seafood such as salmon.
“Everybody has been so supportive of us. And it’s just been really great to see,” he said.
Arends began his accomplished career at the age of 18, running a deli for a while before going to culinary school, and he gained invaluable experience on board the Alaskan ferry system, followed by stints cooking for two Alaskan governors, including former Gov. Anthony Knowles and Gov. Frank H. Murkowski.
He has owned the original Sandpiper Cafe, a mainstay for breakfast and lunch made from scratch in downtown Juneau, Alaska, since 2006, a spot that opens earlier than anywhere else in town where locals and tourists can stop for coffee and a bite to eat.
All along, Arends has worked tirelessly in the kitchen.
“I think I’ve actually put out close to 2 million meals in my lifetime. And I feel pretty proud of that,” he said. “Because I think they’ve all been pretty good. I know I make mistakes, everybody does. And they’re not always going to be perfect. But you know, if you come out and you have a nice BLT, you walk out of here going, ‘Wow, that was a good sandwich.’ I mean, that’s kind of how it’s supposed to feel. And I enjoy that.”
Five years ago, the family moved to Vashon, a happy medium between life in Alaska and Arends’ family, who live in California.
Soon after, Arends, who discovered a passion for golf at the age of 12, joined the public club on Vashon and started working as an attendant at the pro shop, where he met several of the other members.
Joel Hille, vice president of the club’s board of directors, said that the former Mileta Creek Restaurant at Vashon Golf & Swim Club had been underperforming for some time before Arends took over. It was not living up to its potential or reflecting the best that the club has to offer.
Ecstatic to partner with Arends, who could revitalize the restaurant and attract new members, the board signed a lease agreement last spring, unknowingly on the eve of Gov. Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Safe’s shutdown order, as the state and nation faced the onset of the first COVID-19 wave.
“For us, as the board and running this club, we were all pretty concerned about COVID, because the main gist was to improve the restaurant, to get more people from the public to come and enjoy it, and possibly see this great, little club here,” Hille said, adding that the Great Recession left the club struggling more than a decade ago. It was a shock when, just as things had been looking up, the pandemic arose.
“So we’re just so grateful for Doug, for hanging in there, keeping it going and keeping the dream alive so we can get through this,” Hille said.
The months ahead aren’t going to be easy. The National Restaurant Association sent a letter to Congress last month pleading with lawmakers to stop the industry’s ongoing “freefall,” sweeping away jobs while continued furloughs and layoffs are expected for at least the next three months.
Owing to the economic fallout of the pandemic, according to the letter, 17% of the nation’s restaurants, more than 110,000 businesses, are permanently closed or will be shuttered long-term due to the pandemic’s economic fallout. On average, these restaurants had been in operation for at least 16 years, and 16% had been open for at least 30 years.
Just 48% of owners are likely to stay in the industry in some way in the months or years ahead, the letter added.
“In short, the restaurant industry simply cannot wait for relief any longer,” Sean Kennedy, the organization’s executive vice president for public affairs, said in the letter.
For his part, Arends knows that running a restaurant is a daunting and often demanding challenge even in the best of times. Despite the hardship of it, he takes customer feedback seriously, remaining committed to maintaining a consistent standard of excellence.
“I took a complaint on a cup of coffee a couple of months ago and that upset me. So I went and bought a coffee roaster and now I’m roasting coffee. So that’s not going to happen again,” he said.
Still, he said the time and effort it has taken to keep both of his businesses open throughout the crisis is almost incalculable.
“There could be meteors falling out of the sky, and I’ll still be asking somebody if they want a beer and a burger. I’m just not going to stop until I can’t do it anymore physically. So COVID be damned. But boy, [this is] the biggest challenge in years,” he said, adding that he has recently submitted an application for a business loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
“I had a friend sitting on the deck yesterday, not in the greatest of moods, and we sat down and had a little industry chat, to kind of keep everybody’s attitude up. It’s a tough industry to be in for certain right now,” he said. “We’ll get through this. I’ve got to stay positive.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of a former governor of Alaska. It was Frank H. Murkowski, not Lisa Murkowski, the United States Senator.