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Difference Maker: Chad White wants to help Save the 509

What a difference four years makes.

“When I opened Zona Blanca in 2016, I was on unemployment,” chef and restaurateur Chad White said Dec. 15 at the new location of his ceviche restaurant and oyster bar, which is set to open in mid-January in the downtown Holley-Mason Building after the recent COVID-19 shutdown delayed a December debut.

Fast forward from 2016 to today, and while White, a “Top Chef” Season 13 contestant, remains busy during the pandemic, one of his proudest accomplishments in 2020 is working alongside Bob Lutz, former health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District, David’s Pizza owner Mark Starr, Matt Goodwin of the Backyard Public House and others to launch six months ago Save the 509, an effort to ensure that local small businesses survive the pandemic.

“It’s been incredible. It started as an idea. We met at where Bloomsday headquarters are with Dr. Bob Lutz, John Bryant, Mark Starr, Matt Goodwin, Jeremy Tangen, people who are in our culinary and hospitality industry, and the conversation was really about how do we operate during this pandemic,” White said.

“We are trying to solve our problems, and the only way we know how to do that is to reach out to the people who are operating the same kind of business that we are and then ask the medical professionals how we can better run our businesses.”

Spokane chef, restaurateur and “Top Chef” Season 13 contestant Chad White launched Save the 509, alongside the city, Spokane County Health District and more than 60 restaurants, bars and coffee shops, to help ensure business will survive the pandemic.  (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane chef, restaurateur and “Top Chef” Season 13 contestant Chad White launched Save the 509, alongside the city, Spokane County Health District and more than 60 restaurants, bars and coffee shops, to help ensure business will survive the pandemic. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

White, 38, said the pandemic is a big problem that affects all of Spokane. “We’re talking about the restaurants and small businesses here who are hurting and their employees who are hurting and the hospitality and tourism industry, the hotels. How do we keep money coming into our community?”

Save the 509 launched a website and invited businesses to take part with the mantra of three W’s: Wear a mask, watch your distance and wash your hands. “We don’t want to be political with anything. A lot of us have a difference of opinions,” White said. “But the one thing we have in common is that we operate small businesses in the hospitality industry.”

Save the 509 has assisted the wildfire relief efforts for the town of Malden, “all in the midst of many of us losing our shirts,” White said, raising about $10,000 through fundraising.

Save the 509 distributed more than 500 meals to local hospitality workers through a partnership with Sysco. And on Dec. 14, White’s team packaged 360 meals for local hospitality members.

Starr met White when the latter opened his second location of High Tide Lobster Bar in the Wonder Building, which also houses Starr’s David’s Pizza, and he has high praise for his Save the 509 co-founder.

“Chad tries 150% at everything that he does,” Starr said. “He looks outside of his own realm and toward the needs of others before he looks at what he needs to get through his day.”

White recently joined the board of the Washington Hospitality Association so that he could be more involved at the state level with legislation and communicating the needs of the hospitality industry and through WHA has consulted local small businesses on how to sustain their operations and get information on how to apply for aid and grants.

What does White hope to accomplish in the new year with the fledgling Save the 509, which has partnered with Numerica and Avista, among others, for fundraising? “In 2021, I think it’s going to be about training and education, which are very important. We want to be a support system for businesses. We want them to be able to reach out and ask us questions about how to better run their businesses.

“Save the 509 is really about running the offense for our community and helping businesses find success with the things that they already have. I think that’s the best way for us to help our community grow, and we have to protect it.”

Outside Save the 509, White has remained busy in this pandemic year. He received his first James Beard Award nomination in March for Zona Blanca. He started Chad White Hospitality Group in June for his restaurants Zona Blanca, the two High Tide Lobster Bar locations and TT’s Old Iron Brewery and BBQ. He launched a successful summer menu at Arbor Crest Wine Cellars, then continued with a fall and winter menu.

White’s new menu of global street food meatballs at Steel Barrel debuted in October. He has a new partnership with Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboarding Park. And, as a Navy veteran who enlisted on 9/11, he was nominated as 2020 Vetrepreneur of the Year. But it now comes full circle for White, starting with when he returned to his hometown in 2016 and opened Zona Blanca.

“Zona Blanca really is my baby. I left San Diego, and I came up here knowing I was going to do something, but didn’t know how fast I would do it. Within six months, I was opening a restaurant,” White said. “Fast-forward four years later, I own four restaurants, I consult on three projects, I’m a member of the Spokane Hospitality Coalition. I never expected all of this.”

Chris Batten, as principal of RenCorp Realty and one of Spokane’s leading commercial brokers, connected with White shortly after the latter returned to Spokane and helped him open Zona Blanca. Since then, Batten also has become White’s landlord at High Tide Lobster Bar in the Numerica Building and then Zona Blanca again at Holley-Mason.

“Chad is probably the best promoter I’ve ever seen,” Batten said. “The truth of the matter is, he backs it up with incredible hard work. He’s one of the hardest-working guys I know. He just keeps grinding it out day after day.”

Batten, who describes himself as White’s friend, business partner and landlord, said, “I’m just somebody who supports Chad. I believe in what he does. He’s a hard-working guy, and he’s impressive that way.”

Jim van Loben Sels, who, along with his wife, Kristina van Loben Sels, is known for their Arbor Crest Wine Cellars, became general managers at Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboarding Park in July after two decades as GM at Arbor Crest, so he has worked with White in two capacities. The conversation about a menu at Arbor Crest began two years ago.

“When COVID hit, Chad White reached out again, and it was an alignment with the stars,” Van Loben Sels said. “He really aligned with us as a personality. He’s more an extension of our team versus having someone who doesn’t have that same culture or drive.

“When Kristina and I saw Chad’s record of successes and ability to create something organic and new and not the same as everything out there, we realized that it would be a great partnership.”

Van Loben Sels continued, “Chad is really easy to work with. He’s a great communicator and forward-thinking. He and I really align in that we both think ahead, and that just comes with experience. I also appreciate his ability to work with a shoestring budget and make a maximum impact.”

White remains grounded despite the opportunities and success.

“It could all go away tomorrow, but we’re not going to stop running as fast as we can, working as fast as we can, bleeding as much as we can until we get where we need to get,” White said. “And if it all goes away tomorrow, then we rebuild.

“I’m afraid of the things that I can’t control, and we’ve dealt with a lot of that this year. But often when you look at that, there’s so much you can control in areas that you don’t think you can control. There is always leverage and creative thinking and teamwork.”

Amid the pandemic, White has kept his sense of humor while dealing with very real stress: “I’ve probably grown more gray hair this year than I have in my entire life.

“It’s been very scary. Working this hard doesn’t also come without an incredible amount of depression and stress knowing that I may have to tell my team that I have to close my doors and not provide work for them anymore. Knowing that makes me work harder.”

White had some final words about Save the 509 and his hometown. “We are already a strong community, and this pandemic is making us even stronger,” White said.

“And to see the city come out and support has been mind-blowing. When you ask, they give.”