Ed Schafer was dropping off a friend after night class when he was handed an apron and put to work.
He was 21, Mustard Seed was busy, and he figured he could help clear tables.
Nearly 27 years later, he’s still at it.
Today, the accidental busboy is running the restaurant. Not only is Schafer the general manager, he’s one of Mustard Seed’s owners. And he’s been part of the popular Asian eatery almost as long as it’s been in business in Spokane.
Mustard Seed is celebrating 30 years in Spokane with a variety of specials Tuesday through Sept. 28. Schafer is hoping to see some new customers as well as familiar faces.
“I think people might be surprised that we have been here this long,” said Schafer, now 47.
Throughout the last three decades, Mustard Seed has been the backdrop for birthday and rehearsal dinners, graduation parties, anniversaries, dates and after-movie snacks. Couples have gotten engaged there. Others come in once a week and order the same thing every time.
“We tease them we should have a little plaque for them at the table,” Schafer said.
Chicken Osaka – chicken breast sautéed with ginger and lemons, and served with a mustard sauce for dipping – is a signature menu item.
In fact, Schafer said, “It outsells everything 2-to-1.”
Other popular menu items include Maui Chicken, Chicken Teriyaki and General Mustard’s Chicken.
During the 30th anniversary event, Mustard Seed is offering specials like two spring rolls, slaw and rice for $5.95. Diners can also enjoy a dollar off themed lunch bowls or family-style dinners on different days of the week – Maui Monday and Pad Thai Thursday, for example.
Mustard Seed, headquartered in Spokane, started in Missoula in 1978. Two of its original owners – the husband-and-wife team of Betty Tokumoto and Dave Hall – still own the business, along with Schafer and two others.
Schafer worked his way up from busboy to bartender, then daytime manager and assistant manager. He’s been general manager since 1991. Five years later, he bought into the company.
“I love the fact customers I used to wait on, I’m now waiting on their kids,” Schafer said. “Employees that used to work for me, their kids now work for me.”
Mustard Seed has two full-service restaurants: the NorthTown Mall location, which Schafer manages, and the original eatery in Missoula. There are also eight Noodle Express shops: two in Spokane, two in Missoula, and four more in Idaho and Montana. In all, some 500 people – including part-timers – work for the company.
Mustard Seed moved into its downtown Spokane location in 1983. It relocated to the mall in 2001. The golden-hued dining room of the Spokane restaurant seats 274 people.
The menu has changed some throughout the years. But, Schafer said, the focus has always been lean meats, fresh vegetables and dishes from Japan, Thailand and Polynesia.
“We’ve kind of stuck with the original recipes that my wife and her sister developed,” said Hall, 63. The Montana native met his wife, who grew up in Okinawa, at Oregon State University. The couple, along with Tokumoto’s sister, who’s since left the business, were Mustard Seed’s founding owners.
“We’ve had our share of ups and downs over the years, but it worked out very well,” Hall said.
Sauces are made on-site, and gluten-free options were added about five years ago. Dim sum-style small bites – spring rolls, shrimp or pork won tons, Chinese roast pork pieces – were added to the new happy hour about two years ago for $2.50 each.
Take-out and delivery makes up about 14 percent of the business. There are two delivery vehicles now; Schafer said eventually he would like to expand the fleet.
Meanwhile, he oversees 67 employees, including a prep cook who’s worked there 18 years and his own sister, the dining room manager who has worked there for two decades.
“All of us are very thankful Spokane has embraced us for so long and hopefully will continue to do so,” Schafer said. “We have some very loyal customers. I’m just very thankful for Spokane.”
He also said he’s never looked back; he doesn’t think about what his life would have been like if he hadn’t dropped off his friend that night nearly 27 years ago.
“Nope. The past is the past.”