By AMELIA HEAGERTY
Back when The Hardware Store Restaurant really was a hardware store, Sound Food Restaurant flourished a mile and a half south of town, drawing Islanders young and old with its innovative healthful cuisine, live music and welcoming atmosphere.
Opened in 1974 by a collective of 12 people, Sound Food embraced the concept of organic and natural foods before any restaurant in Seattle did. It served Islanders for more than three decades, at times employing up to 50 people, before finally closing its doors last year.
Many residents wondered what could possibly fill the epicurean hole left by the 34-year-old establishment.
No restauranteurs stepped up, but an Island company purchased the darkly shingled building last month. Two former Sound Food employees are leasing the kitchen space for their catering businesses, breathing new life into the squat structure. But for those who loved the restaurant — who saw it as an icon for an earlier and simpler time on Vashon — its closure as a café marks the end of an era.
“The theory was all natural foods,” said Dorothy Johnson, whose daughter Lotus was one of the founders of the distinctive eatery. “I think that was what drew people to it.”
The earthy, single-story building on Vashon Highway at S.W. 204th Street had been a school administration building before a collective of food artisans turned it into a bustling culinary workshop. It was one of only a few restaurants on Vashon when it opened and quickly picked up a loyal following of Islanders and Seattleites.
“At one time it was a four-star restaurant,” Johnson said. “It was very popular — people came over from Seattle to go there and there were lines to get in.”
One by one, members of the collective became restless — to leave the Island, to leave the food industry — and Johnson and her husband David bought the departing members’ shares to keep the business afloat. So did Islander Gwynne Palmer, who served as the night chef during the cafe’s first years, then bought into the company and managed it from 1980 to 1988.
Eventually, the business morphed from a worker-owned collective to a traditional restaurant owned by the Johnsons and Palmer.
Palmer said she remembers the restaurant featuring a panoply of ethnic dishes, including Italian, Greek, Mediterranean, Japanese and Chinese fare.
“We did wonderful salads when other people were doing iceberg lettuce and canned dressing,” she said. “Everything was from scratch — all the dressings, all the soups, all the bread. We used a very minimal amount of sugar. We were fresh.”
Palmer said employees didn’t come and go quickly, because Sound Food was such a nurturing place to work.
“It was a family,” she said. “My time at Sound Food was wonderful. It has some wonderful vibes in those walls.”
The restaurant closed in May 2007, in part because Washington State Ferries had decided earlier that year to cancel Sound Food’s contract to serve food on its ferries. Because of that decision, the restaurant lost thousands of dollars in revenue, and the former owners — Bill Dorn and Norm Vork — are now embroiled in a lawsuit with the ferry system contesting its decision to terminate Sound Foods from its food service.
“It’s sad to see the end coming to that,” said Vork, who co-owned Sound Food from 2003 to 2007, when it closed its doors. “But at this time, it’s become very hard for restaurants to compete because there are a lot more restaurants now than there were five years ago.”
Still, the well-loved building with hand-carved wooden doors will be reanimated soon, although not as a restaurant.
The structure was recently purchased by an Island company that has rented out the kitchen and dining area to a pair of former Sound Food employees who have their own catering businesses. The dining room will be available as early as next month for event rentals.
The building owners plan to put all-new restaurant-grade appliances in the kitchen. The southern portion of the building, which has remained vacant since longtime natural-foods store Minglement moved a block north in 2003, will be used as office space for an Island restaurant appliance company, Performance Representatives Northwest.
Minglement owner Eva De Loach was the owner of Sound Food from 2000 to 2003. Her history with the cafe dates back to when she was a child living in West Seattle, and she and her family came to Vashon “just to eat at Sound Food.”
When she bought the restaurant, she kept all the original tables, chairs and bakery cases, because Islanders’ connections to them were strong.
“It was pretty nostalgic for the people on the Island,” she said. “People could tell you where the floorboards came from, where the ceiling came from. It was one of the most unusual restaurants on the Island.”
She said the restaurant was featured in a book called “Best Places to Kiss.”
“It was way ahead of its time, and timeless,” she said. “It was definitely an Island icon.”
For a few years before De Loach purchased the restaurant — from 1999 to 2001 — it went by another name, Crossroads, and all interviewed agreed this was the business’s darkest hour. Customers felt it lost its unique spirit and became an ordinary Island restaurant, without the commitment to natural foods that made Sound Food so beloved on Vashon.
No former Crossroads owners were available for comment.
Islanders breathed a sigh of relief when Crossroads management were unable to make payments on the building and defaulted. Ever since, it went by its original name of Sound Food Restaurant.
Jan Riley, who is now a librarian at Vashon Library, began working there in 1977 and stuck around for years, waiting tables at breakfast time and for special dinners.
“The energy of the people there, they really cared about food, … almost taking the French attitude to it,” she said. “They didn’t want to just make comfort food for people. It was more like they were trying to be innovative.”
The restaurant had a standing tradition of serving “pheasant under glass” at formal dinners in December, Riley said.
She recalled working with Bob Long, the restaurant’s first and longtime baker, setting up the restaurant while he baked in the wee hours of the morning.
“He’d always play music and we’d dance, and I’d sometimes have a big flour print on my rear end when I went out to wait tables,” she said. “He’s the best ballroom dancer, Bob.”
The two shared a love for Otis Redding, Riley said, and even in the oft-tense and harried atmosphere of a restaurant and bakery, the pair never quarreled.
Long went on to open his own bakery, Bob’s Bakery in downtown Vashon, which became a fixture in its own right.
Several other Sound Food employees have achieved culinary success both on Vashon and off after leaving the restaurant.
After leaving Sound Food in 1988, Palmer went on to manage the deli at the West Seattle PCC and then later to partner at Stray Dog Cafe on Vashon. Bill Freese, a cook at Sound Food throughout the 1980s, now has his own company, Bill’s Bread. Adam Cone baked at the restaurant for five years before starting Monkey Tree.
Riley agreed with Palmer that the employees comprised a family, but said her customers formed a tight-knit community as well.
“Sometimes people would get up and help me bus tables,” she said. “It was a really great community place.”
Riley said the restaurant’s live music was a big draw, and she remembered Seattle-based folk duo Reilly and Maloney as regular performers there.
Islander John Candy, who moved to Vashon with his family in 1979, was a frequent customer. He said he loved the family-friendly atmosphere at Sound Food and the way the restaurant was a nexus of Vashon society.
“It represented this new generation,” he said. “It was long-haired, back to nature and liberal politics. All walks of life came there.”
Candy said the ’70s were a time when people were just discovering natural foods in their own homes, and a natural-foods restaurant was almost unheard of.
“So a restaurant that had that feeling, a restaurant that would even serve tofu, that was huge,” he said, citing the eatery’s ever-popular tofu scramble on the breakfast menu.
He too remembered the musical performances, which were sometimes impromptu.
He said Zimbabwean marimba player Dumi Maraire, who is widely credited by ethnomusologists for bringing marimba music to Seattle and the United States, stopped by Sound Food after a concert at the Blue Heron with a group of his marimba students. These were the same students who formed the band Vashimba, which was a mainstay at Strawberry Festival for years.
Maraire began playing mbira, the Zimbabwean thumb piano, “at the spur of the moment,” Candy said. “He was just amazing without any organization at all.”
He said the cafe’s rich history is unparalleled on the Island, and he was sad to see its doors close last year.
“It was kind of an ignominious end for Sound Food,” Candy said. “I appreciate what Sound Food was.”
But today, two former Sound Food employees said they are excited to be returning to the building where they worked many years ago, to operate their own catering businesses out of the kitchen that has been the domain of so many talented Island bakers and cooks.
Shortly after Sound Food ladled its last bowl of soup and tossed its last salad, Mardi Ljubich of SheFidgets Catering and Nadia D’Aoust of Three Olive Catering started the mammoth project of cleaning, painting and redecorating its interior for their own grand opening of the building later this year.
Ljubich and D’Aoust, 10 years apart, are like sisters, Ljubich said.
Ljubich was first employed at the cafe when she was 14, as a bread slicer; then a decade later she waited tables for a week before she was promoted to floor manager. She remembered growing up in the front, and back, of Sound Food.
“When they first opened it, the area that is now a bar was the soup counter, and you could belly up to the soup counter and get a cup of soup and a thick piece of bread,” she said.
D’Aoust said Ljubich hired her to work at Sound Food 11 years ago, and she’s excited to be collaborating with her at the same place the pair started working together.
When the dining room opens, it will combine elements of Sound Food with Ljubich’s and D’Aoust’s own styles.
Butterflies will grace the walls, and Ljubich said features of art deco and wrought iron will be incorporated as well.
The dining room will be available for event rentals soon, D’Aoust said, catered or not.
De Loach said the Sound Food establishment deserved its place in the annals of Vashon history.
“It will be missed by old-time Islanders,” she said. “The Island moves slower than other places, and people like to come back and remember.”