Warning For Downtown: Tom Douglas Quits Two High-Rent Restaurants

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Perhaps the most important signal of distress for Seattle businesses is the permanent closing of two Tom Douglas restaurants. That’s an ominous signal for a downtown that is already flashing SOS.

It’s another example of a commercial empire that grew out of the Pike Place Market, where starting in 1984 Douglas ran the Cafe Sport restaurant, adjoining the Seattle Club at Virginia and Western, a cafe now called Etta’s. Then he and his wife Jackie Cross rode the Amazon boom, fashioned a signature style (comfort food at fancy prices), became a famous nice-guy chef, spread to Bellevue, and exploited their geographic position between downtown and Amazonia.

 Some years ago, I had a conversation with Douglas about how all this was working out for him. To my surprise, he said that the Amazon workers were not the steady customers he expected. They spend too much money on their expensive rent, and so don’t have money left over for fancy restaurants, he lamented. Besides, the Amazonians work late and eat late as his restaurants are trying to close. And now, future growth of Amazon is likely capped in Seattle. (The special high payroll tax aimed at Amazon workers will likely be the last straw for Jeff Bezos.)

“My real money comes from tourists,” Douglas confided. That’s an interesting confession of how much the downtown Seattle boom has depended on the visitor market, the Convention Center, business travel, and cruise ships. Take away the visitor market, take away conventions, take away lots of downtown office workers, and you have a recipe for trouble.

Douglas and many others bet heavily on tourism, Amazon, and our high-rent downtown. All are now in serious hot water, possibly for years to come. That’s why the flashing trouble light from the Tom Douglas empire is more ominous for Seattle’s economic buoyancy than most other beep-beep-beeps.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Such sad news, and I never had a chance to try his restaurants. But looking at tourism, should we expect the business dominoes to keep falling? While there is no easy way to make up for the lost cruise ship shoppers, how could Seattle attract more regional tourists? Could getting more boutique size conventions be a small start? My first trip to Seattle was from Portland for a Society Of Professional Journalists conférence that probably had around 200 people at most. And unlike cruise ship tourists, we used downtown hotels.

    • The first phase of the convention center was modestly sized, aimed at the smaller conference business since other cities had huge convention centers. But it proved a slippery slope and we are now proposing to expand the center yet again. The visitor industry ended up wagging the tail of our downtown, though the scaling back of conventions due to COVID-19 and the recession might force Seattle into a diet.

  2. This is ominous and sad. i never had a visitor to Seattle whom I did not take to one of Tom Douglas’ restaurants. He has a fabulous sense of taste and flavour–like the best home cooking EVER, punched up delightfully. Think of smashed potatoes. It was thrilling to see him expand, changing the focus with every new opening. This is a huge loss, especially because he has not one, or two restaurants but many…..One of the great pleasures of living in an urban area is the smorgasbord offered by local restaurants. right up there with cafes and book stores. Awful news.

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