Restaurateur-designer Josh Hissong speaks of his success
Post Falls native Josh Hissong likes to quote independent filmmaker Jim Jarmush’s fifth rule of moviemaking, which begins, “Nothing is original.”
The irony is that Hissong himself is an original of sorts, a restaurant designer who snuck into the trade through the “employees only” door, and has excelled through a combination of clever ideas, creative self-promotion and unbridled confidence.
Hissong and his business partner, architect Armando Hurtado, launched their Hurtado/Hissong Design Group design firm during the depths of the recession and have grown and evolved nonstop ever since.
Hissong and his wife, Jinjou Sun-Hissong, operate two restaurants – Ginger Asian Bistro on South Grand and Wasabi Bistro on North Division – and have two more under construction.
And despite seven-day work weeks, Hissong still found time to star in a reality TV video ( www.diynetwork.com/videos/ the-hissong-job/61081.html) that earned him DIY Network’s title of America’s worst do-it-yourselfer.
Hissong discussed his career, and the real story behind the video, during a recent interview at HDG’s office, 522 W. First Ave.
S-R: Do you recall the first time you noticed a built environment?
Hissong: Back in the early ’80s, my dad bought a boat shed in Bayview and over the next seven or eight summers replaced it with a two-story float house. I remember thinking when I was about 9 that I’d much rather have one big bedroom on the second floor than three small ones, so you could see from one end to the other. So my dad put wide entries into each room instead of doors, and if you stood just right you could see from one end of the floor to the other.
S-R: Did you gain hands-on building experience during that project?
Hissong: Not as much as my dad had hoped. My brother and I spent more time on our motorcycles than we did helping. But now my dad and I are building Nudo (an Asian noodle restaurant at 818 W. Sprague Ave.), so it’s a chance for me to make amends for being lazy as a child.
S-R: You majored in business. What career did you imagine for yourself?
Hissong: Everyone I knew was going into sociology, which to me was sort of a cop out. My dad’s line of work was sales, and that’s what I thought I would do.
S-R: What was your favorite college course?
Hissong: Despite making fun of sociology, it was probably interpersonal communications. I grew up in a town with very little racial or religious diversity, and I spent an entire semester holding hands with people from all over the world.
S-R: Do you have any formal design training?
Hissong: None whatsoever.
S-R: What was your first job after college?
Hissong: Managing a little restaurant in Los Angeles. When the owners shut down that location and we all went off to build a new one in Pasadena, I realized the (designers) they were working with didn’t understand the functionality of a restaurant. So I helped redesign that space, and the other side of my career took off from there.
S-R: What brought you back home?
Hissong: I returned in 2001 to manage Brix Restaurant in Coeur d’Alene.
S-R: Do you think of yourself more as a restaurateur or a designer?
Hissong: Probably a designer, but design doesn’t pay well, so the restaurant side allows me to do this during lulls in development.
S-R: You and Armando started HDG in 2010, soon after he was laid off by another architectural firm. Was attracting clients tough at first?
Hissong: We were kind of lucky. We immediately got a bunch of little projects – people wanting schematics – and kept busy.
S-R: What’s your niche?
Hissong: My experience with restaurants has steered us toward hospitality, but we do everything.
S-R: Which Spokane project are you most proud of?
Hissong: Fire Artisan Pizza (at 816 W. Sprague Ave.). The owners basically gave us a check and said, “See you in five months. Build us a restaurant and make it cool, make it sexy, make it functional.” It was the first time the process wasn’t (messed) up by the client, and it gave us the confidence to tell other clients, “Let us finish, and then look at it.”
S-R: How else has HDG evolved?
Hissong: We’ve learned a lot about the business side of architecture. We don’t bill hourly – we say here’s the price, start to finish, whether it takes us 10 hours or 35 days. So we’ve had to get better at managing clients’ expectations – underpromise and overdeliver rather than overpromise and underdeliver.
S-R: What distinguishes you from other local design firms?
Hissong: The fact that I’m willing to stick up for what I believe is right – especially regarding functionality – even if it comes down to screaming matches with clients.
S-R: On the outside of your building are the words “architecture is a weapon.” What does that mean?
Hissong: We constantly battle the elements, bad building designs, bad structural engineering.
S-R: Does that atypical attitude affect which clients walk through the door?
Hissong: It’s funny. We deal with 25-year-old entrepreneurs who want to build bars, but we’re also doing a house for an Idaho state senator whose wife is a doctor of education. All our clients want their business or their home to feel cool and thoughtful and sexy.
S-R: Any unusual requests?
Hissong: “Will you do the job for free?” I hear that a lot.
S-R: Since launching HDG, what’s been your biggest surprise?
Hissong: The fact that everyone has embraced what we’re doing. We get emails all the time from people thanking us for painting statements on the outside of our building and bringing life to downtown. This is a beautiful brick-and-mortar town, but it can feel kind of gray and dull at times.
S-R: Besides “architecture is a weapon,” what statements have you painted on the façade?
Hissong: The first was “proof design is sexy.” Then we put up a Jim Jarmush quote: “Authenticity is invaluable. Originality is nonexistent.”
S-R: Who filmed the video of your kitchen-remodel disaster?
Hissong: RIVR Media – the same people who do (the TV series) Trading Spaces.
S-R: You say at the start that it’s your dream home. Was it?
Hissong: No, it was a friend’s house we planned to flip.
S-R: Was anything about that DIY episode real?
Hissong: Quite a bit. And quite a bit was, “Oh, that was the perfect emotion, but we didn’t get it on camera. Can you do it again?”
S-R: If you set out to prove you’re America’s worst remodeler, don’t mistakes have to be staged?
Hissong: Touché. (laugh) But we weren’t supposed to talk about it being scripted.
S-R: Back to HDG – what changes lie ahead for your firm?
Hissong: More ground-up projects. It’s hard to get your foot in the door in an industry saturated with people who have been around for 20, 30 years, firms that have been around for 50 years. But we’re getting to a position where we can pick and choose projects a little more.
S-R: In general, what’s the best thing you can say about Spokane architecture?
Hissong: That it’s growing up. People are starting to realize that the look really does matter. In most cases, you spend as much on bad design as you do on good design.
S-R: Who’s the perfect client?
Hissong: Someone who’s excited about their project. The more excited they are, the more willing I am to sit in the office seven days a week until their design is done.
S-R: Are you the perfect client when working on one of your own restaurant projects?
Hissong: Absolutely not. I’m building two right now: one in the Tri-Cities with my wife, and the one here with my wife and dad. And when it comes to my own projects, everybody in the office hates me because I’m a client, and clients have opinions.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at email@example.com.