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Pike Place Chowder, part 2

Chowder extremists

Last month we shared Larry Mellum's background and the rise of chowder in his life and the awards that followed. This month we'll talk about how Pike Place Chowder came to be.

With these successes, Larry felt he needed to do something with the chowder. His partner in Charlestown Cafe was not interested, so Larry pursued it on his own. The same day of that discussion, he had a conversation with a marketing guy whose office was in Post Alley who knew of a place that was open, the former Biringer Farms location. "We came up with eight different chowders and elevated all our ingredients, including a rotating chowder that uses Market ingredients. We opened in 2003 and it was great. We've had 20% growth every year. After the first year, I went to about 15-20 places in Massachusetts and Maine to see what a real chowder house looked like. I came back with nothing design-wise, but with a love for lobster rolls. At the time, you couldn't get fresh lobster here. After our second year, we added a crab roll, and it took off. I couldn't find the right kind of roll, so we used a baguette. In 2006 and 2009 we took our seafood chowder to Newport and took a medal in the seafood division. Three years ago, I brought on Mike Hillyer as head of operations; he had been the chef at Charlestown. I asked him to fix the crab roll. We went back East and tried lobster rolls again. We had our bread company come up with a brioche bun for us. I'd been trying to keep costs down and we just said, 'let's do it right.' No more mixing Dungeness with rock crab. Now we use all fresh Dungeness crab and we created a lobster roll using claw meat. We charge what we have to, which is $25. We figured if they didn't sell, okay. Instead, we sell about 200-300 a day now. We believe in making everything the best we can."

The 'we're happy to be in line' folks at the Pike Place Market location

It's clearly paying off. They have an area in Post Alley where people line up to order and have had to add a line monitor. Although only open 11 a.m.-5 p.m., they served 300,000 people in 2018. They added a grab-and-go in 2018 in the hallway behind the restaurant. "I was hoping it would help the local workers eat and get back to work. I'm not sure they're completely aware of it yet; even so, it's a nice addition." Larry went to New York once to see the Soup Nazi made famous in "Seinfeld." He placed his order and moved out of the way but was watching how everything worked. The Soup Nazi told him to move, but he didn't hear him. He then heard "MOVE!" "All I could think was, do I still get my soup?" The Post alley line monitor is nothing like the Soup Nazi.

Wanting to see if the name Pike Place Chowder would work in other locations, he opened a spot in Pacific Place in 2007. He had checked with the landlord and was told as long as the first location was in the Market, it was okay to use the name in other locations. "We struggled at first and I wasn't sure if it was the name that wasn't working or the fact that everything fell apart in 2008 financially for everyone. Still, we grew 10% that year. Two-three years later, the Market came to me and said, 'what's with the name being used in Pacific Place, you can't do that.' As it turned out, the building we're in at the Market was owned by a developer, not the Market when I started Pacific Place. The developer sold the building to the Market and they became aware of the name being used outside of the Market district. I'm a good soldier, but I really want to use the brand to grow. They've allowed me to keep the name in Pacific Place but not use it for other locations. More growth has come from selling chowder at Fred Meyer and QFC stores, at Safeco Field in the catering department, and in first class cabins on Delta Air Lines."

Even more people happy to wait their turn, this time at the Pacific Place location

Pacific Place has a larger menu because they are open for dinner and also have a hood system which doesn't exist at the Market. They started with eight chowders and reduced it to four (including the Southwestern Chicken & Corn which is only available at Pacific Place). In addition, there are sandwiches like the Wild Northwest Salmon and Po'boy, along with fish and chips, fish tacos, and sides like mac 'n cheese, fries, and green bean fries. Beer is also served at Pacific Place.

So many options at Pacific Place!

Their catering arm primarily does business lunches. They have 14 different chowder recipes which they rotate in one at a time at the stores. "Pike Place Market has been very good to us, so each month we donate a percentage of sales back to the Market Foundation."

"We have an amazing staff who take great pride in what they do. I'm not a chef, just self-taught. I cooked the first year we were open, then brought in Dario Guerra, who worked at Charlestown Cafe. Michelle Trulson was a server at Charlestown and started when we opened. She was the store manager, but everything was growing, so she now handles the shipping and catering, and her son Tyler Trulson became the manager. Mike handles operations, knows what I like and want and has similar standards. It's just a great group of people.

"If we add locations, really the best are public markets, but there's no sense in calling something Pike Place Chowder if you're going into Granville Island in Vancouver, or the Embarcadero in San Francisco. If we grow, we may call the product something else in different locations. For now, we're thrilled with the response from people. Yelp did a study in 2018 to find the top 10 dishes in America based on their 155 million food service reviews. Our New England clam chowder was #1. It's incredibly humbling. Because of all those reviews, we've managed to become one of those places people have to go: Pike Place Market to toss a fish, then have chowder."

Pike Place Chowder
1530 Post Alley
Seattle, WA 98101
206-267-2537

600 Pine Street
Pacific Place
Seattle, WA 98101
206-838-5680

www.pikeplacechowder.com

Crab and lobster rolls

Photos courtesy of Pike Place Chowder

Missed part 1? Click here to read!

Connie Adams/April 2019


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