Restaurateur Abe Fox, executive chef Jon Green and business partner Eddie Gulberg have opened their restaurant Wooden City Spokane in the historic Genesee Building downtown this month after the coronavirus pandemic pushed back their original target date of spring.
After a day for friends and family on Aug. 12, Wooden City opened to the public the following afternoon. Green, who was born and raised in Ohio, has moved to Spokane, and his mother, April, and brother Phil, who also relocated here, are part of the Wooden City team as maître d and expediter, respectively.
Green talked at length, over the phone Saturday ahead of dinner service, about Wooden City, which first opened in Tacoma in 2018. This is the second location of the restaurant named in a nod to Tacoma’s history as a timber town ruled by lumber barons.
Why was this the right time to open Wooden City Spokane after the original plan of spring 2020?
We opened as fast as we were able to open when we were ready. During this pandemic, everything slowed down a lot. We were at a standstill for at least 1 or 2 months with new construction. As we were considered nonessential, we had to shut down. Everything was taking longer than normal, but by August, we were ready to be open.
Are you nervous to be opening during the coronavirus pandemic?
Opening a restaurant in general is pretty nerve-racking. I can’t tell if I’m more or less nervous because of the pandemic. I just know that opening a restaurant is super intense. We are so busy, it’s hard to contemplate if this is scarier now. It certainly hasn’t made it easier, but Abe and I, working in the restaurant industry as long as we have, have become accustomed to overcoming challenges. We’re just doing what we can and trying to stay optimistic and stay positive.
What is it about Spokane that drew Abe, Eddie and you to open Wooden City in Spokane?
We’ve spent a lot of time in bigger cities. Abe spent a lot of time in Seattle. I spent time in New York and Paris and Tokyo and Buenos Aires. We realize that these cities, as we got older, weren’t cities where we saw ourselves for the rest of our lives. Opening restaurants in some of these cities just didn’t make a lot of sense.
We opened in Tacoma first. We thought Tacoma has a higher quality of living than Seattle did but still had the proximity to Seattle. We really loved the decision of going into a smaller market and creating a restaurant that is reminiscent of ones we created in bigger cities. We wanted to find somewhere similar to Tacoma in terms of demographics and population size.
We visited last summer, and it was just so beautiful here. There is the downtown scene with Riverfront Park, and seeing all the new construction and how pretty it is out here and all the outdoor activities around us, it just felt right.
How would you describe the menu of Wooden City Spokane?
That’s a tough question because we’re still trying to figure out how to describe it. There are elements of it that are very approachable, but there are also behind-the-scenes high standards and refined techniques that go into it. It’s combining my high standards, refined techniques and attention from working in Michelin Star kitchens, but applied to more approachable food that I personally would like to eat on a regular basis.
People have asked me about Wooden City Spokane’s menu, and if I had to put it down in words, I would say new American cuisine.
I think that’s fair. I’ve seen new American applied to other restaurants that are a little more experimental. I don’t consider us that, but it is new American – it’s casual but with high attention to detail. I think that’s about as close as you can get. I haven’t come up with anything better personally (laughs).
What have been some of the most popular items the first few weeks of opening?
Definitely the Blistered Hungarian Wax Peppers are something that people have already discovered. The beet ravioli is another one. It’s funny because these are two of the items that are also popular in Tacoma. These usually take more time to catch on, but people have discovered these items right away.
My family has been making the wax peppers for 20 years. It’s something that we cook at home for special occasions. If I’m coming home from college, we made wax peppers. It all came together in Tacoma. It’s not something that I ever meant to serve in a restaurant. I wasn’t sure what the response would be. It’s a super-casual food, but when you add a wood-fired oven into the mix, I thought it might be the thing that takes them to the next level.
What are your favorite menu items at Wooden City Spokane?
Of course, I love the peppers. It is something that my family has been making for years, and it is something that I always crave. I love the fried chicken sandwich and burgers. I love and crave the simple things. One of my favorite things to eat is sandwiches. I love fries. I love the more refined stuff, as well, but I come from a Midwest background and love the humble food group.
I like to think there are no duds on the menu. Every menu item, if I don’t come in and crave it on a regular basis, I know we need to change that item. I love the sausage and mushroom pizza, the pepperoni pizza. I love the chicken and rice. To me, it is a super-classic dish and something I’ve eaten for dinner since I was a child.
And I love the salmon toast, which takes a little more technique than other dishes. We cure our own salmon in house. We make the beet radish, egg mousse and pickled onions. The way that it comes together, it’s one of those dishes that is perfectly balanced and hits all the notes.
We don’t want to offer more than we can handle. We prepare so much fresh on a daily basis, if we get too much bigger, we would be overwhelmed with components that we can’t keep up with at the restaurant.
Do you plan to open for lunch?
That’s a tough one. We’re definitely open to it, but we’re undecided at the moment. I think we would like to. It’s a matter of we’re really into providing a high-standard guest experience. Hospitality for us is really key.
We know that the more you grow and expand, you have to be careful about how quickly you do that because you don’t want to do it too fast and throw off the culture. We don’t want to open for lunch and not provide the same level of experience that we provide for dinner. It all relies on us taking the right steps to get to lunch service.
Because we are only open to 50% capacity, it might be this weird blessing in disguise. It’s not obviously ideal for anybody, but because we are not packed out at capacity, we can provide that level of hospitality and get it right and deliver on awesome first experiences and impressions. It’s like an extended soft opening without everything being total chaos. As we grow, we’re going to make sure that we do it organically and responsibly.
You hit on this before. Your impressive resume includes the French Laundry in Napa, California, and Gramercy Tavern in New York. What influences or inspirations have you brought to Wooden City Spokane after working at those two celebrated restaurants?
With Gramercy Tavern, the biggest takeaway there is the culture they created. I learned a lot about cooking when I got to Gramercy. At the time, I had been cooking professionally for only a couple of years. I worked multiple stations to really understand how to cook vegetables, meat and fish and doing purees and working with a wood-fired grill. There was a huge amount of learning in my development as a chef.
But another thing that really stands out is that Danny Meyer sets out to create a different type of culture at his restaurants that you don’t really see in an industry that can be toxic. At Gramercy, people working there absolutely loved being there and being part of that family. It really feels like a special place, and I’ve always wanted to emphasize that in creating my own restaurant in trying to change some of the dynamics of the restaurant culture.
At the French Laundry, the culture part wasn’t really there. However, that’s where I came to appreciate to properly develop recipes and understand classic flavor pairings and how to live by super, super-high standards. I have to embody this high standard. French Laundry is world-class. Both of those places definitely shaped me a lot.
You also handle Wooden City Spokane’s food photography and social media. How did that come about?
When I was consulting in Seattle and met Abe for the first time, I was in a weird position where I had experience in that I could be a chef and open my open restaurant, and that was the goal. But I was still fairly young and didn’t have any money in the bank and didn’t know have anyone who wanted to invest.
For me the way to start on the right path to where I am now was to not do the traditional and work somewhere where I don’t really love as a sous chef. I put money where my mouth was and would apply as a kitchen manager to prove to myself and others that I can run a successful kitchen and a successful business.
I started to help places and bars turn around into profitable business in a couple of months. But more than just helping out in the kitchen and developing recipes, it trickles out into the social media and photography and website and menu designs and understanding accounting – all these skill sets.
If I want to get there without having a lot of money at my disposal, I need to learn how to do things myself. I learned as I went and constantly acquired skill sets to add to my repertoire.
What are you looking forward to in the future with Wooden City Spokane?
Payton Johnson is a great friend and a really, really talented cook. He moved out here from Portland, and I’m mentoring him right now. The plan for him is to grow into the executive chef role here. He works so hard and hasn’t gotten any attention, and he deserves it.
And I am definitely looking forward to seeing what we’re capable of doing when we’re not in a pandemic. It’s going to be awesome to be able to open the bar and be able to have large parties come in and celebrate the space and eventually open seven days a week.
We’re just trying to take it day by day, honestly. We’re just so happy to be open and that people are starting to discover us and having these great first impressions. It just makes us so happy, and that is all that we can ask for at the moment.
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