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Skagit Landing

A restaurant and more, part 1

You can picture this as a movie: five kids grow up in a small town, move away and become successful in various fields. As they return to visit family, they realize what they loved about the area is fading away. They can't let it happen and form a venture capital/management group to keep iconic businesses and industries viable based on three tenets they think Skagit Valley can be a world class provider in: 1) Value-added agriculture and food, 2) art, culture, events, entertainment, 3) outdoor recreation. But wait, it's true!

Back from left: Randy Howard, Donnie Keltz, Andrew Miller. Front from left: Rachael Sparwasser, Angela Speer.

Andrew Miller, Rachael Sparwasser, Randy Howard, Angela Speer, and Donnie Keltz all graduated from Mount Vernon High School in 1994. Angela and Rachael were cheerleaders, Andrew was a yell leader. Believing that the Skagit Valley has the potential to provide living wages and keep iconic businesses and industries locally owned and controlled and, more emotionally, promoting a place near and dear to their hearts, they set to work. Rachael was the first to say, "It doesn't feel like home anymore." Andrew added they'd need vision and investment. Rachael said, "Do it." Five people on a phone call, a proposal written, and in 2019 Spinach Bus Ventures (SBV) was born.

"The Valley produces roughly $300 million worth of crops, livestock, and dairy products on nearly 80,000 arable acres," says Andrew. "It's near a lot of people who can appreciate what we have here. Ours is a rural-to-urban approach. We look at the anchor businesses - mom and pop businesses that create inter-generational wealth that allows them to send kids to college or tech schools. If we don't do anything, large corporations will come in, buy them, then take the money out of the community. We want locally owned and operated businesses in order to maintain our quality of life."

SBV now owns and runs Tulip Town, taking over from locals who had made it "a jewel of The Valley." While the Tulip Festival is once a year, the group's goal is to always keep the farm in good agricultural condition: apple trees, gardens, nursery trees, annuals, and perennials. On weekends in October for the Harvest at Tulip Town, there is a beer garden and café. They also own and run Skagit Acres, purchased in 2020. There people can connect with their "inner green," natural beauty and living systems. It contains a garden center, boutique gift shop, and café. The Spinach Bus team also purchased and now operate Fairhaven Mill, a certified organic flour mill that began as a small co-op in 1974.

Tulip Town field

While they originally agreed "no restaurant" Andrew the rulebreaker (lawyer) wanted the group to ponder the idea when a restaurant space opened at the Port of Skagit airport. Who in their right mind would open a restaurant during a continued pandemic in a business park? SBV, of course. "First, you have to go through Skagit farmland to get here," says Andrew. "You see the beauty. Second, it's a value-added proposition. Third, we have a fantastic partner in Port of Skagit. We wanted to create a cool place with world class food, fun environment; a restaurant we and everyone who lives here could be proud of. But we couldn't do it without the right chef."

Skagit Acres

Enter Josie Urbick, also of the Class of '94, who grew up working in blueberry fields. "The expectation was that kids picked berries, spinach, tulips. You had to. We all did the same thing." She was interested in food and cooking and having a different experience, so she attended Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Arizona ("Portland was too close and Vegas, well I could get in trouble there!"). She did a catering externship in San Diego for a year, but the city was expensive and not what she was looking for culinary-wise. She missed family and friends. Moving back, she had a line cook job at Lola in Seattle within three days, staying for four years. Feeling burnt out after suffering a broken foot, she spent time on a farm learning to harvest and running a few farmers markets. She attended a Quillisascut workshop, meeting Kären Jurgensen who then worked at TASTE at the Seattle Art Museum who suggested she work on call there. "After San Diego, I got snobby about catering and didn't think I was interested. But I did it on call and it was such a different experience. The menu was about locality and sustainability; it drew me." She worked for Bon Appétit, the managing company, for 15 years, until the pandemic when all salaried managers were furloughed. "I had never not had a job! I was a little lost and posted on Facebook about it. Five minutes later, Andrew contacted me and said, 'I have a proposition.' We talked the next day and I was in."

Chef Josie Urbick

Andrew explains, "When you grow up in an area where the main jobs are dangerous: logging, fishing, farming, your life is in your co-workers' hands. It builds trust. It's the same for us at SBV. We grew up together and have that trust. When we heard Josie was available, the restaurant was on!"

Connie Adams/October 2021

Skagit Landing
15426 Airport Drive, Ste B
Burlington, WA 98233

Spinach Bus Ventures

Tulip Town

Skagit Acres

Photos courtesy of Skagit Landing

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