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As a college exchange student in Italy, Alissa Leinonen was housed with a tiny woman who was a chef and made home meals with huge flavors. She spoke little English and Alissa spoke little Italian, yet Alissa understood she could come to the woman's workplace and see her work. She was excited to see the woman at her creative best. When she arrived, she was saddened to find herself at an elementary school, with visions of this dynamo wearing a hair net and serving corn dogs. The actuality was that these school kids ate beautiful fresh pasta dishes and caprese salad at tables with checkered cloths and salt and pepper shakers, the same sort of meals she herself was getting at the woman's home. It was the moment that crystalized what Alissa wanted to do -make beautiful meals for everyone.

Working in the restaurant world since she was 14, from dishwasher to hostess, she found she loved the business of food. She worked at Settebello, Sostanza, Adriatica. "I felt honored to be part of it and watch the magic happen," says Alissa. She returned from her semester abroad, got her Business degree from the University of Washington, wrote a business plan, and was shocked, shocked, that nothing went according to that plan.

In 1996, she found a tiny hole in the wall spot for her cafe, 470 square feet, barely enough for four small tables, at the Pike Place Market on Western Avenue next to a tattoo parlor. Her mom had a branding and design firm called Methodology, so she asked her what to call her company. She suggested Gourmondo because it was big gourmet. Perfect. She opened her café by refinancing her Jeep for $4,000 and had two partners who each put in $2,000. Her dream was financed with $8,000. One partner, Jennifer Clancy, she'd met in Italy (also an exchange student), and Ron Johnson, a sous chef at Sostanza. "With this kind of seed money, we had to be resourceful," she laughs. "We bought a residential oven at Green Lake Used Appliance and learned that you don't use residential appliances for commercial work. But it was only $200! We were set to open on August 1, 1996, but I was so nervous and worried, I gave myself a migraine, and we had to open on August 2. Our first day we made $36, and $24 of it was from my mom. I decided we'd probably not make it through the end of the year, but we'd be proud of what we'd done. It was a small place, but we had chilled water glasses with lemon on each table."

One of the best things about their location at Pike Place Market was that the Market is truly a community. Vendors gave her deals and discounts on produce and meat. "We were surrounded by the best ingredients, and we wouldn't have made it without the help from all these other vendors. Momentum did pick up, then Nancy Leson of The Seattle Times put us in an end-of-year list of the Top 10 Cafes in the city. Soon there was a line out the door. I had to figure out how to scale it, so we decided on boxed lunches, which were bag lunches back then. Business increased and we closed the café to concentrate on boxed lunches and catering. We were in a warehouse in Clover Park which allowed us to grow organically. It was powerful to know I could choose my path. What does success look like? I was a latchkey kid with a younger sister. I knew that I wanted a job where I could pick my kids up every day from school. That's the business production schedule I built: most Gourmondo employees get off at 1 or 2, and our cafes close at 2 or 3 p.m., so they can all pick up their kids. We take up a lot of their time in the weeks before Christmas, so each year, I buy Christmas gifts for all my employees' children. We have 100 kids in the family now. That work/personal balance is very important to me."

After the first year of business, Jennifer became pregnant and decided to be a stay-at-home mom. The partners were working 60 hours a week and making about $15 an hour. Who could blame her? Yet about six weeks after she had her child, Jennifer admitted she needed more. Alissa suggested that since she always made the mini bundt cakes for Gourmondo, she should continue to do that from her home. Jennifer installed a commercial kitchen at her home and got to be there with her kids. And 25 years later, she makes about 6,000 cakes per month. Alissa bought her out in 1998, and they remain good friends. In 2009, she bought out Ron. "We were doing about $3 million in sales, and realized we had different visions about our future. I wanted to double down on our opportunities. Ron wanted to be more conservative. We agreed to each come up with a plan. I made him a good offer and he accepted."

Alissa's daughter was born in 1999 and she wanted to work part-time. In order to work 2-1/2 days a week, she had to bring in some great leaders. The company grew slowly, then more aggressively. From 2015-2019 they went from $5 million to $17 million in sales. They projected $20 million for 2020. Alissa signed a lease on their current space, doubling the size of their workspace. They had a record January and February, then on March 6 everything crumbled. Cancellations started coming in, all due to COVID. By the end of the week, she'd lost 95% of her business.

Watch for part 2 in our March issue.

Connie Adams/February 2023


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