Spokane Chef Chad White on Zona Blanca and Regional Recovery

In February of 2020, chef, restaurateur and Spokane-native Chad White was named as a semifinalist by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef: Northwest & Pacific for his first local restaurant, Zona Blanca Ceviche. For the Top Chef-alum, it was the exclamation point on 2019 which saw him open TT’s Old Iron Brewery and Barbecue with local brewer Travis Thosath in Spokane Valley and two locations of High Tide Lobster Bar. In the weeks following the nomination, White’s momentum was stopped as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered restaurants. Now, as he relaunches Zona Blanca in its new Downtown Spokane location, we check in with White on the year that wasn’t, his work with the Spokane Hospitality Coalition and what is to come for him and the region.

The James Beard Nominations were announced exactly one year ago. Right now we are in the same restaurant, moved five blocks east and you are getting ready to welcome guests again. Under normal circumstances, both are exciting achievements, but can you tell us what the past year has been like for you?

     Like trying to sprint on Jell-O. It’s been such an interesting time, and as much as I’d like to just sit here and talk about all the struggles and difficulties we’ve had, the thing that has stood out the most has been watching our entire team refocus and see all the areas where we can improve, fine-tune, and execute. We were able to realize how poorly we were running our businesses.
     Some people may see this and go, “Yeah, right. You don’t run your business poorly, you do a great job,” and I would say that I’m lucky. I was making the right moves, but that doesn’t mean I was operating at the level I needed to. So as we got into the nitty-gritty, we realized the bottom was so close, and we had to adjust. We couldn’t operate all the restaurants during the pandemic and be successful, so we shut everything down and we worked on them one project at a time.
     Part of that was moving to a new location for Zona Blanca. [During the first shutdown] the owners of the Steel Barrel Taproom could not operate because of their liquor license, which meant I couldn’t operate, because they ran the front of the house and all of their liquor storage was readily available. So it was in their best interest that I moved on and that’s how we ended up in this location.

It is great that you were able to use this time to really look at your operations and focus on how to improve, especially now that there are vaccines available and restaurants aren’t 100% reliant on take-out and delivery, but what has been the response of your customers? How have you felt the support of the community and do you feel the local food scene will be able to get back on the trajectory it was pre-pandemic?

    It can be, but what every restaurateur and restaurant chef feels in this area is there’s only so many reopenings you can have before it’s no longer exciting, right? Everybody’s going through the same process and we’re all screaming at the top of our lungs for the attention of our community.
    At the end of the day, our real heroes have been the community. It’s just incredible how much love they have for their businesses. And out of excitement, my team and I are like, “We’re gonna do great when we come out of this pandemic, look at all the lessons we learned! We really understand our business and we’re gonna do so much better.” But there’s still this inherent fear of “will we?” We have all this optimism, but we also have this universal reality and right now there are still so many unanswered questions.
    Right now it’s not about how much money I can make, it’s about how much money I can prevent myself from losing. I would do anything to prevent my children from ever going hungry, but my two biological daughters are not the only family I have. I have a huge family of very hardworking people who work for me, so I go to bed at night worried about not feeding my team as much as I do feeding my daughters and putting them through college. I think a lot of local business owners who are in passion-driven industries, such as culinary-arts and hospitality, really feel that same way. We aren’t giant chain restaurants where our employees are numbers. There are a lot of small-business restaurants in this city, and we often spend more time with our teams than with our families.

You are very generous with your time and active when it comes to giving back to the community. You’ve done work for Terrain, Second Harvest and Feeding America among many others. Can you tell us about how you got involved with the Spokane Hospitality Coalition (SHC)?

    The Spokane Hospitality Coalition really came from a few of us business owners getting together and trying to navigate everything that was in front of us. It was our pivot.
    I connected with Mark Starr of David’s Pizza, Matt Goodwin of the Goodwin Group, Jeremy Tangen from Borracho and a couple other business owners. We reached out to city officials to talk about what we were going to do. I’ll be honest with you, we left discouraged from that first meeting, because nobody really knew what was going on. All we knew was that we needed to stay home and businesses had to figure out how to operate.
    The Washington Hospitality Association does a very good job running defense for the hospitality business if you’re in the game and you’re a member of their services. They go to bat for you on insurance. They go to bat for you on taxes. They go to bat for you to make sure you’re properly managing your team and not breaking any laws. They run the defense; we realized that we needed to find a way to be the PR machine for Spokane and run the offense for small businesses, specifically in the hospitality industry.
    The Spokane Valley Coalition came in and helped us get 501(c)(3) status, so we could receive money. Then we started working with Kitchen Spokane, Greater Spokane Incorporated and Numerica. We reached out to Maryhill and Avista to get some donations. At first all we did was provide information and reminded people we just have the Three W’s: Wear a Mask, Watch Your Distance, Wash Your Hands. That’s all we’re saying. We’re not being political, but if we follow the rules like we always have in restaurants, likely with more strict health rules than any other industry except the medical field, we pledge to provide the best amount of hospitality in the safest way possible. Not only for our guests, but also our staffs.
    Our first initiative wasn’t even Covid-related. We raised money following the fires in Malden. Then we looked to do something for our industry as a whole. We reached out to our reps: liquor vendors, food vendors, explaining that it’s in their best interest to support us because the more business we do, the more business they do. So we started doing a growler program where [the SHC] purchased growlers at a discount. Then we sold those growlers to restaurants at a straight across purchase; we didn’t make a penny on it, although we ran the marketing and promotion that allowed them to fill and sell those growlers and make a good amount of money on it.

Do you see the SHC having staying power beyond the pandemic?       

     We meet every Friday to come up with new ideas on how we can continue to serve the community. We want to continue to be a PR machine for our local interests, local advocacy. What Washington Hospitality does is great, but I think that having the true local footprint makes a big difference.
    Ultimately the [SHC] is about providing resources. A lot of people are scared to ask for help. They don’t want you to assume that they don’t know how to operate their business. I just got done saying that I wasn’t operating my businesses in a way that was sustainable. It’s valuable just to be able to go to a place that’s not going to judge you whatsoever and say “I need some help, can you come and check it out?”

So what’s next for you and Chad White Hospitality Group?
    Where I’m at right now, I want to get Zona Blanca open and get it humming. I brought in two chefs from Los Angeles, Jeana Pecha and Xavier Reyes, and they’re going to be running this.
    We have ideas of expanding High Tide in the Coeur d’Alene and Boise areas, maybe even Missoula. We’ve been flirting with a Mediterranean chicken concept and maybe a Roman concept. I don’t back down from an opportunity. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve spent more time identifying what’s good for me personally, what’s good for the brand, what’s good for my family, what’s good for Spokane. It just depends on what the opportunity is and how it presents itself.

Photos by Jordan Wertman and Ari Nordhagen

This story was modified to reflect the opening of Zona Blanca. 4/20/21
It first appeared in print in the Spring 2021 issue of Edible Inland Northwest.