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Peter Levy

The story of Chow Foods, part 1

For over 30 years, Chow Foods has been a part of Seattle's neighborhoods. It's now part of Tacoma's Proctor neighborhood with more to come. Peter Levy was the innovator behind the rotating special menus that have come to define Chow.

Peter Levy

At 18, Peter was installing swimming pools in the summer. His restaurant history starts in Lake Oswego, Oregon, and a sandwich shop called Déjà Vu he opened with a husband/wife team when he was 20. After a year-and-a-half, he sold his share to them, and went into construction. "This was really when I found my love of design," he recalls, which has paid off over the years as he's worked as his own designer and general contractor. He was hired as an estimator in the '70s at Whirlwind Construction, a counter-culture firm where employees lived and worked together. His first job with them was the flooring in a 20,000 square foot showcase club in downtown Portland. The job got bigger and the firm became the general contractor. They decided that when it opened, Peter should be the GM.

"I had no restaurant experience to speak of, so while we were trying to raise a million dollars to finish the project, I got a job waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant. I then moved to TGI Fridays as a server and bartender. I was making good money as an estimator. Then the interest rates shot up 11%. We lost the project, my car was repossessed, and I lost my girlfriend. I was 23 and left with a love of restaurants: there were girls, booze, and drugs, not necessarily in that order. I stayed less than a year at TGI, then got a job at with Bill McCormick and Doug Schmick at McCormick & Schmick's in Portland as a bartender, moving to Jake's Famous Crawfish Restaurant, their first restaurant, where I went into management. In 1983, I moved to Seattle to be the GM at the McCormick & Schmick's on 1st and Spring."

After a year-and-a-half, Peter was recruited to work for Bill Kimpton in San Francisco. He became the GM of their fourth property (there are now over 40), Kuleto's, on Union Square. "This was my first experience with an Italian restaurant and I loved it. It was a crazy time though - mid-80s, lots of booze and cocaine. I arrived three weeks before it opened and was able to hire most of the staff. The chef was in place and he was a wonderful cook. But he was not a good manager, and he was an addict. That lasted three months before I brought in a new chef, Doyle Bailey. I loved and hated San Francisco. It was all work; after eight months, my wife Betty and I moved back to Seattle. It was 1987 and I wanted to open my own restaurant. I contacted a broker and they found a small place in Wallingford. I opened the Beeliner Diner in 1988 with $50,000." After three weeks, The Seattle Times review by John Hinterberger came out. Being from the East Coast, he loved the whole diner vibe (motto: "Eat it and beat it"). That next Saturday, they did 210 covers in a restaurant with 28 seats, running out of food. It took just over a year to repay investment money.

At the time, Peter and Betty lived on top of Queen Anne. At the top of the hill was a grocery called 20th Century Market. "They were basically selling cigarettes, gum, and Penthouse magazines. I told them if they wanted to sell, to let me know." A few months later, Peter saw a two-line ad in The Seattle Times for a market on Queen Anne. "He didn't call me, but I got in there and bought the assets. I wanted to create a restaurant company that wasn't cookie cutter. Chow Foods was incorporated in 1989 and we opened in early 1990. I brought Jeremy Hardy in as a partner. We met while working at TGI Fridays. I wanted to do American regional foods and the five spots as I saw them were the Northwest, Southwest, New England, deep South, and the heartland. The idea of doing American food came from Chef Larry Forgione who had An American Place restaurant in New York City. When we opened, people were disappointed that it wasn't another Beeliner and our business was not good. Our chef, Bruce Livingston, and I were sitting around after closing one night wondering what to do. He was a huge personality: he was 50, a Marine who spoke fluent Farsi, and had spent a year cooking in one of Paul Prudhomme's kitchens. Bruce said Mardi Gras was coming up and what about doing an eight-item menu from the French Quarter. We did it for 10 days and people responded. We decided to do another one, Chesapeake Bay Coastal Cooking for six weeks. That started our food festival that we continue today, generally five menus a year.

Chicken and Waffles at 5 Spot

"In 1993, we opened Coastal Kitchen on Capitol Hill. It was all about coastal regions only, and Capitol Hill was primed. We made money right off the bat. Jeremy and I were sitting around feeling like we were the smartest people around and decided to open another spot using our own money. In 1994, we got a deal from Mick McHugh on a spot in the First Interstate Bank downtown that had seen a couple places turn over. All the equipment was there; it cost just $500,000 to open as Luncheonette #1. Within nine months, we were closed. It was modeled after Lou Mitchell's place in Chicago and only did breakfast and lunch. No one in downtown Seattle wanted breakfast. There was a Starbucks upstairs and Jeremy's wife did marketing for Starbucks. We were selling Starbucks coffee for about .10 a cup and it was like $2 at Starbucks. One day Howard Schultz came in and saw that and got mad." Despite the fact they weren't making it, they decided to invest another $250,000 to do dinner. They called it Manny's Midtown. Across the street, there was a line out the door at Metropolitan Grill and they would have one table occupied. "I tell everyone now if you want to open a restaurant, don't use your own money. We eventually paid everyone back, all our vendors. It took 17 years to pay the Small Business Administration back, but we did it."

Connie Adams/February 2020

Stay tuned for part 2 in our March issue.

Chow Foods

5 Spot, Queen Anne
1502 Queen Anne Ave N
Seattle, WA 98109
206-285-7768

Endolyne Joe's, West Seattle
9261 45th Ae W
Seattle, WA 98136
206-937-5673

TNT Taqueria, Wallingford
2114 N 45th
Seattle, WA 98103
206-322-0124


Tacoma

Cooks Tavern
3201 N 26th St
Tacoma, WA 98407
253-327-1777
cookstavern.com

Brewers Row
3205 N 26th St
Tacoma, WA 98407
253-327-1757
brewersrowtacoma.com


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