Bringing ‘em back to Winslow Way

Winslow Way Cafe’s new owners, Sean Halligan and Lotus Topper (second table, at left), surrounded by the team Halligan calls “the most solid crew I have ever worked with.” - RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo
Winslow Way Cafe’s new owners, Sean Halligan and Lotus Topper (second table, at left), surrounded by the team Halligan calls “the most solid crew I have ever worked with.”
— image credit: RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo

There was a time when, on a busy night, you would expect to wait for a table at the bustling Winslow Way Cafe.

But then-owner Tom Lathrop sold the downtown institution, and for whatever reason, the fizz went flat. No waiting. Slow business.

The place was advertised for sale. No takers.

Then the bartender took matters into his own hands.

“We were told the place would be closed, so I made an offer and he took it,” said Sean Halligan, who officially assumed ownership in April.

And now things are hopping again, so much so that you just might have to wait for a table on a busy evening.

“Since April, people that didn’t know there was new ownership have been coming in, then coming back,” Halligan said.

“We have a stable group of customers who we know frequent other places as well – some days here, some days at other places. And we have tourists and summer people saying this place has an atmosphere that makes them feel comfortable coming in.”

The pillars of the revitalization effort, he said, have been good food, a pleasing environment and good service.

Both executive chef Don Donaldson and sous chef Tadao Matsui, a Bainbridge High School graduate, have a culinary school background, Halligan said.

The menu has been revamped to keep some of the old favorites, add more specials and beef up the lower-priced offerings of burgers, pizza, salads and appetizers.

The walls have been painted, and “we’ve done lots and lots of cleaning,” Halligan said, to improve the appearance of the place.

And the staff, headed by manager and part-owner Lotus Topper, another BHS graduate, has been upgraded to what Halligan calls “the most solid crew I have ever worked with.”

While he relies to some extent on local students, whom he calls “a huge labor pool of very responsible people,” he also depends on career restaurant workers.

“There are some – not many, but some – professional restaurant workers on the island,” he said. “You have to make it attractive to them to be employed here instead of in Seattle.”

Making the job attractive to careerists means giving them the opportunity to earn a decent income, Halligan said. To enhance those opportunities, Winslow Way is open for lunch, and offers brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. And it has started doing catering.

Halligan also emphasizes to the staff that they have considerable control over the establishment’s success.

“The better they are when they come to work, the better off the restaurant is, and at the end of the day, they will make more money,” he said.

Another large part of the comeback is Halligan’s effort to create an atmosphere of conviviality.

“I try to meet everybody that comes in here, and if I’m talking to two people I know, I introduce them to each other. I like it when somebody walks in the door and five tables say ‘hi.’

“We want people to have a true quality night – cocktails, dinner and conversation,” he said.

Halligan got his start in the hospitality business in Colorado, working as a stagehand for a dinner theater. After stints in the Marine Corps and Navy, he jumped back and forth from entertainment to hospitality, with employers as diverse as Hyatt Corporation, where he worked on special events, to Universal Studios, from which he took a leave to visit relatives on the island.

“My mother and sister are on Bainbridge, I came up for a visit and here I am,” he said. (He is not related to former City Council member Shelly Halligan).

Buying a restaurant made it official that his leave was permanent, he said.

“I’ve been a volunteer with the fire department for over a year,” he said, “and I’m becoming part of the community.”

Halligan intends to continue changing the restaurant, although more slowly.

“We’ll make slight changes to the menu, and we plan on offering live music Wednesday and Thursday nights,” he said. “Our plan now is for it to be background music, not a concert venue, but if it turns into that in the future, that’s fine too.”

Business has actually slowed a little during the warm months, Halligan said, because the cafe has limited outdoor dining.

“But if it means my season is going to be winter, in the Northwest I’m okay with that,” he said.

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