The Opening & Closing of Chino's Seattle

Its location was a coveted spot in a spectacular Seattle neighborhood of exceptional restaurants. From this corner storefront at 10th Avenue and Pike Street on Capitol Hill,  Walter and Mari Lee, along with bartender extraordinaire Veronika Groth,  looked forward to introducing their vision of  a restaurant based around the Los Angeles street food they enjoyed in their youth. Chino’s would basically be a bar offering great snacks intended to be accompaniments to the fabulous concoctions created by a bartender Veronika Groth who arrived with a great reputation. Chino’s flavors were bold, salty, tangy, and quite addictive. Unfortunately, 10 months after opening, this cantina with its Taiwanese and Mexican menu inspired by Los Angeles and street food closed its doors.  What went wrong?

Although the National Restaurant Association doesn’t have exact failure rates for restaurants in their first few years, their public affairs director says that in an average year about 60,000 restaurants open and about 50,000 restaurants close. In other words, 5 out 6 restaurants aren’t going to make it past their first year. Chino’s lasted 10 months in a highly competitive location on Capitol Hill. Some would say the opening a restaurant is like playing poker at an onlibe us casino website, but I don't think that is totally true. The are some sites online that offer an "Odds Calculator" that players can use in real-time to know exactly what their chances of winning and losing are at any point in a poker hand. Wouldn't that be great if there were an equivalent calculator for resaturant entrepreneurs. Odds, via the calculator, are available for such games as Texas Holdem, 7-Card Stud, 7-Card Stud Hi-Lo, 7-Card Stud Hi-Lo (No Qualifier) Omaha, Omaha Hi-Lo, and Razz. A calculation is made and voila, you get an approximate probability read out. A restaurant "odds calculator" would have to be able to handle a lot of variables depending upon, location, price range, demographics, competition, size, bar or no bar, menu, back of house competence, front of house competence etc etc. Well, someone needs to wave a magic want and create this calculator. In the meantime, all one can do is do exhaustive research, line up all the pieces / components, and take a leap of faith with fingers crossed!!

Mari, who quit her job as an environmental consultant would run the front of the house. Her husband, Walter, would be in the kitchen serving Taiwanese and Mexican inspired street food.  Walter has always done the cooking and this menu was based on the foods he knew growing up.

Chino’s was a complete departure from their original plans. Both attended the UW where Walter received his law degree and Mari studied biology. Originally they thought they would ride the food trend of opening a food truck. However, Seattle despite the recent loosening of laws in 2011 regulating the operation of food trucks, it still was not easy to be a mobile restaurateur. So the lawyer, who really didn’t want to go into law, along with his wife decided that they would instead open a brick and mortar store instead. They purchased the space, which formally was the mom and pop sushi restaurant known as Oasis Café and with the help of an architect emphasized the industrial vibe of the space with exposed earthquake retrofitting and lots of cheeky L.A. ghetto references. Eventually an artist created a large street mural at the entryway.

Bringing Back Authentic Street Food & Tiki Drinks

Everyone felt that the addition of Groth would bring a more of a cocktail-focused vibe with good food concept to whole operation. Groth wanted to make her own fresh juices, orgeats and grenadines in-house. She enhanced the flavors of the alcohol with subtle sweetness and well-crafted complexity of flavors to compliment the spices in the food. She planned to change the cocktail menu weekly featuring eight “classic cocktails with a twist.” as well as eight tiki drinks.  Chino’s went big on cocktails, but stayed small on food. A staff of 10 were hired.

The Lees tried to keep their restaurant as “street” as possible while accommodating the affluent, hipster culture of the Capitol Hill area. However, looking back, in hindsight they may have made it too “street” for the audience they were aiming for. Consider their offering Menudo de Chino offal stew; “Blood & Guts,” which is exactly what it says it is; or Pig Ear Salad with scallions, garlic and cilantro. Perhaps the hard-boiled eggs flavored with anise and soy is the least adventurous of this trio. On the other hand at a preview party there were many exclamations of yummy for Walter’s Zha Jiang Mein noodles with sweet bean sauce, hot bean paste and minced pork, his Tinga tacos with braised pork and chorizo and Spicy Chicken Wings with a fish sauce garlic glaze. Their signature dish, Gua Bao, pork belly in a steamed bun with pickled mustard greens, cilantro and crushed sweet peanuts (also available with fried tofu) was delicious, delicious, delicious!

Everything looked promising with great inspired drinks and tasty adventurous street food.

The Lees said they learned a sobering lesson that having a successful restaurant is not all about the food. It also requires clever marketing. as Mari observed post mortem: “People tell us, ‘You’ll be fine, your concept is great,’ and we know it’s unique. ” However most people, in the long run, want the safe thing. The Lees were too adventurous for the Capitol Hill cliental and ended up not pleasing a broad enough demographic to stay solvent.

In September of 2012 owner Walter Lee confirmed the sale of Chino’s.  Walter Lee said there were now no plans to re-open Chino’s and that the restaurant is closed for good.