Anyone who has opened a restaurant can likely tell you horror stories of construction delays, countless meetings to make decisions about everything from glassware to menu wording, and putting out fires, both literally and figuratively. But opening a restaurant during a global pandemic is a feat that, save for a century ago, no one had any experience navigating.
But for Jon Green, chef and co-owner of the newly opened Wooden City in Downtown Spokane, it is now a story that he can tell going forward.
Green and his business partners, including Abe Fox (pictured at right), had hoped to open in the spring, but when COVID-19 hit, that plan was quickly tabled. Instead of overseeing construction, Green started commuting between Spokane and Tacoma, where Wooden City has been serving its upscale American pub food for close to three years.
“It was like a scene from out of the movies. I spent probably 48 hours in front of the computer just trying to figure out how we were going to survive there. I built a new website with online ordering and put together a new menu that was better suited for takeout,” says Green, a 32 year-old native of Akron, Ohio. “We were doing a good business, but part of Wooden City is the experience and that will never translate 100% to takeout.”
Wooden City applied for and was granted a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan in order to keep the staff that had been hired in Spokane working towards their ultimate goal of opening, despite not knowing when or if that would be possible in the face of Washington State’s reopening procedures.
“Emotionally, we hit our low probably about a month ago. The PPP money ran out, but things were starting to trend towards being able to reopen. So we decided to look at this as a unique opportunity.”
Restaurants were not physically or financially designed to operate at 50% capacity. Bars were not intended to sit bare without patrons sipping on cocktails while they wait for a table. And as Green points out, a gourmet burger and fries prepared to be served at a table with friends and family were not meant to be boxed up and eaten soggy and lukewarm as a takeaway option. But these are just some of the new obstacles restaurants are facing, in addition to requiring masks, spacing tables apart, adding plexiglass barriers, offering single-use menus and limiting dining out indoors to members of the same household.
But knowing that these are the new rules for the foreseeable future means that Green and the Wooden City staff can plan for it and grow into their “normal” model as restrictions are lifted.
Located in the historic Genesee Building, Wooden City and building owner Craven Co. have used the 8000 square feet and 20+ foot ceilings to create a space that is warm and inviting, but also suited to social distancing regulations. Areas that Green and company had originally intended as private dining or party spaces, including a wraparound mezzanine offering a bird’s eye view of the restaurant, are now being used to serve patrons dining at a distance. Among the offerings for diners are Wooden City’s take on American classics like Peel ‘n’ Eat Shrimp, wood-fired pizzas, and a pork chop paired perfectly with creamed corn and fire-roasted veggies.
Although Green has the culinary bona fides of stints at New York’s Gramercy Tavern and Napa Valley’s French Laundry, working in Michelin-starred kitchens has not given Green, or his food, any sort of pretentiousness. In fact, having worked at such prestigious restaurants means Green can model his vision for Wooden City and its kitchen culture against the best.
“What is great is that our staff has completely bought in to what we want to do here, and as owners, we want to make sure that everyone is taken care of. There are so many issues in the industry, from the pay gap between front- and back-of-house employees to offering health care and making sure people aren’t working 70 hours a week and getting burned out, we would love to be able to bring about some kind of culture change.”
Part of that culture change can be attributed to support from the staff, including Green’s mother and brother, who have moved from far and wide in order to launch the Spokane location of Wooden City.
As Wooden City gains its footing, Green plans to introduce a happy hour and open the restaurant seven days a week. Although it will depend on how the state reopens, Green and Wooden City will be ready.