Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly column dedicated to the tried-and-true restaurants of Seattle and their secrets to staying relevant during an age of unrelenting competition.
Dana Tough and Brian McCracken have three restaurants (and one turned event space) under their collective belt — Coterie Room, Tavern Law, The Old Sage and Spur — the latter being their first foray into the restaurant business in July of 2008. Back then, Belltown diners were flocking to Brasa, Flying Fish, Marjorie and a brand new Italian joint called Tavolata — one one of the last remaining denizens of the neighborhood. The super-duo tells me their secret really has more to do with luck and persistence than anything else.
How have you managed to stay relevant?
Brian: With the product, we like to push ourselves to constantly evolve. I don’t know if that’s our secret, but it helps. We have a few items on our menu that have been around for awhile, but for the most part, it keeps our staff enthusiastic about what they’re selling as well, which I think is a big part of the customer’s experience, to get excited about a product.
Dana: Spur is also a playground in some ways for cooks that are training to be chefs and they want to learn technique. It attracts really hungry cooks who want to work for us. As far as staying relevant, we’ve kind of gotten lucky. Good press has come along to keep us going. Just this last month, Food & Wine named us one of the best gastropubs in America. Out of nowhere. Those things help!
Do you spend more or less time now managing Spur?
Dana: Way less! Spur is definitely…the systems are in place and it really operates well.
Would you open Spur today? If so, is there anything you’d change?
Brian: I think that we would open it, definitely, and if we were to change it…I don’t think we’d necessarily change the product specifically, but I think we’d be smarter with our dollars spent from the get-go. Maybe change the dining room a little bit, but not too much. It’s something very near and dear to both of our hearts.
Has your diner changed?
Dana: I think so. I think Belltown was different. I think Seattle’s dining scene is way different. There’s way more competition now, so it’s really, really difficult to stay relevant. We notice it with our newer places now, more than anything. Consumers are really spoiled in Seattle, which is great for people going out, but it makes our jobs a lot more difficult than in 2008. Obviously with any restaurant, we’re going after a certain demographic, but ultimately your customers will find you and your customers will dictate what you’ll become in a way. With that being said, in the beginning, we would be going until 2 a.m. with the drinking crowd, and now it’s gravitated more towards dinner service. We mellow down by midnight at the latest. So, it’s changed quite a bit.
What were some of the early mistakes you learned from?
Dana: I wouldn’t say mistakes, but I think what we learned after opening Spur is the importance of putting an emphasis on alcohol and cocktails. Our style of food is kind of labor intensive and thought provoking and it costs a lot to produce. We keep it at a price point that is 100-percent fair, but there’s not a huge mark-up; we’re not making a whole lot of money on the food program. After Spur, what we really wanted to put an emphasis on was an equally impressive cocktail program and bar aspect. Liquor tends to sell everything else a bit better.
Brian: I think one thing we’re still working on is keeping a good media presence to help keep our brand relevant, to keep it out there and in front of people. Sometimes I think some of our places can lose focus on the public, on what they’re bringing to the table. I think we have a unique product at all of our places that separates us from our competition and I think often the story isn’t told necessarily.
What’s next for Spur/you two?
Dana: I think at some point we might do some remodel touches, one of them being in the kitchen and another in the dining room. As far as our next project, it won’t be a restaurant. It will be related, but we probably won’t open more restaurants, not right now anyway.