Being in the restaurant industry is challenging as it is, and COVID hasn’t made it any easier. In this episode, Mark Canlis, third-generation owner of Canlis restaurant, joins Jesse Cole as they dive into the importance of relationships and how to reimagine the customer experience to keep building those relationships. Mark and Jesse talk about the struggle that the restaurant industry went through and why Mark and his brother kept playing the game. Mark emphasizes the importance of taking care of your people and why those relationships matter. Tune in and be inspired by this one-of-a-kind inspirational story.
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Reimagining Customer Experience In The Restaurant Industry Today With Mark Canlis
My guest is Mark Canlis. Mark and his brother are third-generation owners of Canlis Restaurant. Food & Wine Magazine called Canlis one of the 40 most important restaurants in the past 40 years. They received 22 consecutive Wine Spectator Grand Awards. They’ve been nominated for fifteen James Beard Awards and have won three of them. Esquire even listed Canlis as one of the top 100 restaurants America can’t afford to lose. On this episode, we dive into the importance of relationships and how to reimagine the customer experience to keep building those relationships. Being in the restaurant industry is challenging as is, but in 2020, battling COVID, Mark and his team launched eleven different businesses to keep going. The drive to take care of their people and keep building relationships, they kept playing the game. Mark is truly one of a kind and this is a fun and inspiring conversation of one business doing things dramatically different. I hope you enjoy.
Mark, I’ve been looking forward to this talk since the first time I heard your story. Welcome to the show, my friend.You can't expect to have the guests taken care of if you're not caring for your folks. Click To Tweet
Jesse, thanks for having me on.
I’ve seen the fact that you guys have come up with 927 businesses over the last 200 days. I want to go back to Canlis, the experience. I’ve never been to Seattle, never gone to a Canlis Restaurant. Paint the picture for me, what it looks like.
At some point, we’ll be allowed to fly or will be allowed to travel or do whatever were supposed to do. Go back to normal.
Pre-pandemic, what did Canlis looked like?
It looked like a restaurant and I know that for a lot of us, we haven’t been in one of those a long time. It’s 70 years old, our grandfather started it. I run it with my brother now, so it’s been three generations in our family of running a fine dining restaurant. The kind where you’re all off the road and you drive under this covered entrance and the valets open your doors for you and whisk your car away. The door opens and there’s a warm fire greeting you, and people without masks who know your name and take you in. We don’t do that anymore. It was fine dining and it was pretty cool.
You guys were known for the customer experience and how you treated your guests. I know it’s hard to go back there through the challenges you’ve gone through in 2020, but can you paint a little bit more of a picture because you guys were known for this experience?
What we’ve been working with is a rich legacy and history of service. As my grandfather set out to build it in the very beginning, which for this restaurant was 1950, he wanted the world’s best restaurant, and this thing was perched up on a hill. It’s overlooking the mountains and the lake. It’s a stunning piece of property, but the thing that is enduring or transcendent or in any way special is the feeling you get dining here, and that comes entirely from the people. We’ve always had a pretty awesome tradition of bringing in remarkable people and allowing them to work their magic. What happens, like in any great restaurant, is that intense feeling of being seen, known, understood, and cared for and walking away restored and refreshed and somehow poured into. That has nothing to do with food so much as it has to do with relationship, and with the way that people treat one another. That’s what’s going on behind the scenes of all the fancy stemware, wines, and fancy dishes and all that pretense of dining. There’s this moment to connect human to human, and that’s what makes a restaurant special.
You worked with Danny Meyer to start. Did you take some of this human connection, this vision of hospitality from him?
I worked for Danny Meyer from 2001 to 2003 timeframe. I had moved up there right after 9/11, I was coming out of the service, and I was like, “What is a restaurant?” I was pretty green, pretty young. I remember going to orientation four times. I kept signing up for it. I just wanted to hear this guy talk to figure out what this is about. He’s awesome. He’s the best. I opened a restaurant with his team called Blue Smoke, and at that time he ran a restaurant called Eleven Madison Park. I was there in New York, learning under him for a couple of years, but I’ve learned so much. I want to say publicly, I made so many mistakes on his time. Trying to get them all out of my system, but as it turns out I failed and brought a lot of that back to Seattle. There are years of learning to do and certainly the couple that I spent there was a remarkable gift to me.
I’m fascinated about the parallels though. There are always unique things. We’ve all been to restaurants and fine dining in your view in it, but with Danny Meyer, obviously, he’s known for these extra touchpoints and the fine details. I’m a big Walt Disney fan. The Imagineering documentary on Disney is one of the most fascinating stories. Have you seen that yet?Once your team trusts one another, there's no stopping you. Click To Tweet
Not yet. I’ve been told it’s awesome.
It’s unbelievable because the attention to detail is everywhere, and it seems Danny Meyer and obviously what you’re doing at Canlis. Are there any takeaways from that? Before we get into all the pivoting, I’m still looking back to the roots of the values, the people, but those touchpoints that we can maybe take in any business that’s a little different?
What Danny did was he turned restaurants into places that were human again. At some point, we got too fancy for our own good. It was these places, these palaces of formality, and you had to abide by the rules, almost bend down and worship at the foot of pomp and circumstance. The ridiculousness of it all. In the wake of that, the guest was forgotten. The guest was lost or was almost made subservient to the expectation of what it was to go out, and go big and dress up, and pay a lot of money and all this stuff. What Danny did was he said, “This is completely upside down. This is for the worst. It is all about the guest. If we’re not paying attention to that, then trim it, cut it, and drop it on the cutting room floor. It has no service.” That’s not to say that there are not some special things and a lot of traditions that go back years and years. He reminded the world what it was about. It was about people and not just the guests but his own team. You can’t expect to have the guests taken care of if you’re not caring for your folks. That was his charm, and his magic, and his gift to New York City at the time, and even nowadays, well beyond that.
I heard you and your brother talk about saying, “We think about this. Tonight needs to matter, their time matters and maybe their first date, their last meal, the night before their baby is born. They come to make tonight matters.” I saw the parallel. Our president every day tells our team, “Every game is someone’s first game. Every game is someone’s first time seeing the Bananas, how we’re going to make them feel.” I’m fascinated on how that either is taught for you guys, or if you have maybe a story that’s told as you onboard people that one of your team members, one of your staff did for someone that shared about this night matters.
When we talk about what matters most in this business in particular, but we think in all business, it’s this idea that someone is trusting you. It’s a tender, vulnerable moment. The question is, what do you do with that? If someone’s coming to your game, bringing their kiddos out, that’s a big deal. Maybe it’s their first game, and maybe they’ve never done this for them. Maybe they’re a little scared, and maybe it’s a little loud. They’re trusting you with whatever it costs to go, and with the time. They didn’t do something else on the afternoon. For us, we see that at a high stakes way, maybe more so than going to the ballpark on a Saturday afternoon. I think of a story where a few years back, we had somebody call and ask for a reservation for seven people on a Saturday night. “Sorry, we don’t have it. We book out a long way in advance.” “Really?” I was like, “No, we’re not joking.”
The woman on the phone, she goes, “Here’s the story. Me and my five sisters are all in town and we want to take my mom out. She is dying of cancer.” That’s a big deal. Seattle’s got a remarkable hospital for all of this, since we get a lot of out-of-town people that come in and fight cancer. You start to realize that what’s happening in this moment has very little to do with food and wine. It has everything to do with the fact that this dinner may not happen ever again. This is a moment that these women are hallmarking in time and capturing, and suddenly what they’re offering to you is, “Could you take care of us in this moment? All my sisters are together, my mom is here. We don’t know if she’s going to make it through this thing, and we need to spend time together. We’re looking for a place for this to happen.” More than a place, they’re looking for people who will see them in that need and serve them in that need.
That’s what a restaurant does, ultimately. It has everything to do with seeing a person for who they are, and for where they’re at, and for where they’re coming from and responding to it. We literally changed the restaurant to the guests to say, “This is what they need. Is there any way we can create that thing?” That doesn’t mean we’re making food up on the fly. It’s certainly deeper than philosophical altruism or hope. It is literally a game that we play which is, “I wonder if we could bend the will of Canlis Restaurant to this particular person’s circumstance tonight? What would that look like?” Isn’t it true that we would be the better for it? It fills you up. You’ve probably experienced that, or anyone has who’s ever pour their heart and soul into a gift that they’re so proud of because they know it’s going to land beautifully. It makes all of the work worthwhile and it takes away, in so many ways, the effort of what it took to produce that gift, and leaves you with the beauty and the relationship that has been established from it.
That’s what’s going on here. We found a reservation. We literally took a private room and cleared the whole thing out, set up a table for this one party and said, “We got you on this. We can do this.” In that moment, it’s not that the food and wine don’t matter, it’s not that the service doesn’t matter. All those little fine details are important, but the spotlight is not on food and wine or service or any of those things. The spotlight stays on them. It’s on them, it’s on this time together.
That find a way is a great segue, but I’ve heard of restaurants setting up even seats in back in the kitchen to take care of people. We found a little area, we set up a little station to have players go on dates with fans. We have a catered meal come on and a player, usually a grandma, and they would sit and talk and interact. One of the players got so close with the grandma that they talk regularly throughout the year and they became friends and a relationship was formed.
That’s so crazy. Is it that crazy? No. If you took the time to have a space where relationship conform, it’s amazing what will happen. You’re right. Finding a way is the core of hospitality. It literally is. I don’t think of it as hospitality as a business by the way. I think of it as the underpinnings of the way we can and probably should operate societally. It’s the way we interact between one another, and in that sense, all business is about these interactions, all the businesses are about these relationships. It becomes our ability to be in a relationship with one another. It doesn’t surprise me.
The key here, Mark, it has to be taught. I learned from a guy who runs Magic Castle Hotel, Darren Ross, it was one of the top-rated hotels. It’s an old apartment building. They were in The Power of Moments and it’s hilarious. I spent time with him and he goes, “We teach our team, listen carefully, and respond creatively.” We ask lots of questions and then we figure out how we can respond to create a moment. We’re always opening our ears to say, “Why are they coming to this? What’s this moment? Why does this game matter to them? How can we make it more special?” It sounds like that’s kind of the root of what your team has been building over the years.
It’s a desire to do something in your own life that matters. At the end of the day, you could figure out some tricks to turn a buck like, “If we take care of people in this way, maybe we’ll get paid for it.” That ends up being a pretty hollow, soul-scraping thing, to realize that all you’ve done with your life is figure out this societal trick to turn a buck. There’s something deeper with all of us that craves the work of our hands and the time that we sacrifice on the altar of needing to make money. It is important, by the way. I’ve got bills to pay, so I’m not against it. What we want is that work and that sacrifice matters for something more obviously than the paychecks that we bring home. It’s the motivation behind the thing that is the magic. That is what becomes special, what becomes effective and unique.
I want to pivot out a little bit into the fun culture that you’ve built. People talk about Canlis and it’s the customer experience, it’s the innovation, it’s all the new things you’re doing, which we’ll get to. As I started doing some more research, I started hearing about laser tag, donkeys, costumes, people wearing wigs. You’ve got to tell me about this fun culture because it’s so important. I don’t think enough businesses talk about fun yet and how that makes people feel they matter and they’re part of something special.
It’s remarkable how quickly we forget that as if growing up and graduating into adult la la land means that the fun piece doesn’t matter anymore. I don’t know, I’m fortunate to be in charge of the business. If this isn’t fun, that’s on me. Literally, that’s my fault. You can’t point at anyone else and say, “It’s not fun because of that guy over there.” I run it with my brother and we’ve been playing games our entire lives and it’s the lens through which we look at the world, which is if we’re going to do this, let’s have fun with it. We do a lot of things that would shock a lot of others.What matters most in business is the idea that someone is trusting you. Click To Tweet
What are some of those things that are shocking?
Back when we used to throw large parties, people get together. We used to throw a New Year’s Eve party that has for years now devolved into some of the most creative, raucous, and unexpected parties that probably a fine dining restaurant has thrown before. For example, we turned the restaurant into a Hawaiian village once and built a koi pond out in the parking lot. You had to walk across this thing and past a waterfall, down into a section of the basement that happened to look like Chinatown with Peking duck hanging off the ceiling, and a tattoo parlor, and a hot tub. We’ve turned it into an apres-ski party. We made it snow.
You got a hot tub in your restaurant?
Multiple times actually. Not to mention, you see the apres-ski party, we had St. Bernard’s everywhere as a part of the ambience, and we had a ski lift, a chairlift in there. The idea of taking and twisting and turning a space like this, which is traditionally sanctioned as this formal sacred space and having fun with it. In 2020, we turned the entire restaurant white. Everything was white, and we asked everyone to come in white and to wear white wigs. We brought in a zillion lights and timed them and coordinated them with music, such that we could turn everything green or pink or blue, and it was a blast. It was amazing to see what the color of people, and their hair and the environment around them did to your mood, the feeling. That was the staff taping white paper and white floors for days and days.
Before that, we brought in these 10, 15, 20, 25-foot high balloons. We did an art installation. I feel there’s so much opportunity to have fun. Even right now, we’re looking for an executive chef. Our chef is going to head off and open his own restaurant. We’re super proud of him and excited. We’re going to bring these people. That’s where laser tag comes in and some other stuff. We do a lot of creative things to explore. Does this person have the ability to laugh? How easily does that come? In play and in laughter, you start to see a person. You’re vulnerable is the honest truth. All of us look pretty goofy laughing. It’s a vulnerable thing. You’re letting your guard down in a way that if someone doesn’t have the ability to do that, I’m not interested in hiring them.
You don’t want to hang out with them.
No, you don’t. We become the people we hang out with, so why would I bring that person into my company? I don’t want to become that way. I’m trying to become someone who’s more lighthearted and full of joy, not the other way around. That playing games and having fun isn’t some branding play. It’s a good strategy for building teams and learning about one another and building the intimacy that breeds trust that allows you to do whatever you want in business. Once your team trusts one another, there’s no stopping it. We get there sometimes by way of playing games and having fun.
Mark, I want to stay here. If anybody that’s going to stay on fun for a little bit, it’s a guy in the yellow tuxedo, that if you search on Savannah Bananas on YouTube, we have 400 videos of us doing every spoof and music videos of us having fun. It’s huge, but it’s not talked about enough. I’m sitting here, thinking like, “You’re putting this koi pond, Hawaiian, hot tubs, all this.” Tell me how it works for you, and especially now, obviously 2020 has been very tough financially for you and for us. How does it happen? How does it start? You get an idea and then all of a sudden, your idea gets bigger, and so does the expenses. Did you start with, “Let’s do this and have a budget?” How does it work?
We do not start with a budget. We’re in this room that I’m sitting in right now, and we run into a problem and we all scratch our heads and start looking at it. Someone throws that idea and then another one, and then another one, and eventually, there are 30 of them. Then my brother is like, “Also guys, there’s this thing called money, and it’s a rule to the game and we need to not break that rule.” Here’s the thing. We think of money and profitability, or we set it aside. If we’re talking about games, think of the game of soccer. To me, money or the businesses need to be profitable because we’re not a non-profit. We need to make money so we can pay the bills and patch our roof when it leaks. I think of that as a rule to the game. It’s one of the rules, so they can soccer that you play inside of this big rectangle, that’s a rule. In baseball, you can’t run to the other base until somebody hits it. That’s a rule. In business, one of the rules is you can’t lose all your money. It’s one of those rules and you should make a little bit, so you’ve got some for when times get hard.
We start with the problem and we look at it relationally. It’s like, “What’s going on here?” “There’s a pandemic.” What the people need right now is food, but what they don’t need is to be inside a dining room with all of us hovering around them, polishing silverware and placing down all these little forks and stuff. What if we were to feed the people up in another way? In that way, if you lead with the relational aspect of it, I’m in a relationship with this city. I’ve been feeding them for 70 years. Now that there’s a pandemic, I can still do that, but the rules have changed a little bit. Let’s approach this creatively like what could this look like? What the pandemic did is it stripped away a lot of the rules that we’re used to playing and gave us a whole new set. We can play this game. This is the same game with different rules.
I love that you’re calling it a game too, Mark. When you treat it as a game, it doesn’t seem the end of the world if it doesn’t work out as well as we play it. Looking at everything as a game. It sounds like you always start with a question. We have Idea-Paloozas and we always say, “Let’s talk about ideas.” After a few years, we got to ask a specific question and we’ll get the best ideas because we’ll figure out how to solve it. One question we ask is, “What would it take to make fans want to stay until the end of the game?” Our games are sold out, so we came up with all these ideas. It sounds like, “How do we still serve our Seattle community, but the rules have changed? What are we going to do to continue to serve foods?” You ask a question and that’s where they start coming up.
I like your assumption that because somebody bought a ticket, it doesn’t mean you’re serving them through the entire thing. Maybe me and my five-year-old want to be there for an hour, and then maybe baseball doesn’t work for the second hour. It’s like, “Dad, I get it. I’m a little bored.” The idea that you would consider saying, “Just because we have your money, it doesn’t mean it’s over,” because there’s nothing relational about that. That’s entirely transactional. “I got your money. Good. Let’s peace out and go our separate ways.” What you guys are saying is actually, “It matters to us that the entire time you’re in my stadium, you’re having a good time.” That’s going to be amazing and people hung out after the game like they do at church. They don’t leave, they eat donuts and stuff. Think about that. People stayed at the stadium all day. It’s probably illegal or something.
That’s our post-game plaza party. We bring out our full pep and we have all the players outside the Plaza. We have a free s’mores station. It gets to be 11:00, 11:30 and people are still dancing. It’s a party night.
It’s like, “This is a good time. We all like one another. Let’s do this.”
You’re talking about starting with questions and then that goes into it. You’ve always been re-imagining. You’ve brought that. You and your team re-imagined what things are supposed to look like.
That’s what people maybe don’t know about fine dining. We’re doing the exact same thing we’ve been doing for three generations. This is no different and neither was the pandemic any different. In my business, restaurants don’t last this long, especially in this country. We’ve been re-imagining, re-envisioning, rethinking about the relationship every day of our lives in this company. It wasn’t that much of a stretch to turn the restaurant and do a burger drive-through. That feels like rolling out a new menu and that’s all it was. We’re going to roll out a new menu, and instead of inviting them in, we’ll keep them in their cars. Instead of serving fancy food, we’ll make an insane burger. That’s not that hard actually, not when you have a team that knows how to do it.
I feel at some point if you’re asking the same question over and over, it’s, “If this, then what?” If I need to be the best restaurant in the world, then what steps do I need to take to get there? If restaurants can’t even be open, but you need to employ your people, then what can we do? It’s an if-then, and having the courage to call a spade, a spade. Having the courage to say, “I think we’ve got to close.” We’re the first restaurants in America to close because of this thing. We’re back and we’re saying, “That’s foolish, that’s crazy. What are you guys doing? That’s ridiculous.” You don’t need to close.
You all have these months of reservations. We sent out back thousands of dollars of cash. From a cashflow perspective, it was devastating, because you make a reservation, you put your deposit down and people thought it was nuts. At some point, you have to say, “This is where I’m at. This is where my heart is at, and we’ve got to do this.” That doesn’t mean the game is up. It doesn’t mean that you’re being, to use a sports metaphor, pulled out and put on the sidelines. No, we were still playing. Every bit of it is still on the field, still playing. We just had to suddenly change all the rules.
Let’s dive in a little bit. I love the keep playing the game. Simon Sinek talks about The Infinite Game and I love the book Built to Last by Jim Collins. What are you doing to keep playing the game? That’s what you guys did. A side note here, you’ve used the word relationship over and over again, and I don’t think companies use the word relationship. They talk customer is transactional. They’re not talking about relationships.
That is seriously messed up. I would use a stronger word, but I don’t know where you’re going to put this. It’s a disturbing thing to me that a company is scared of the word relationship. I’ll say it, that’s what it is, they don’t have the guts together. It’s hard. I’ll be honest, we fail at this all the time, by the way. It’s so hard. Relationship is messy. I don’t choose any of them. It’s not easy. You and your kid, you and your spouse, you and your boyfriend, you and your cat. It’s weird. It’s messy. It’s hard. It takes work, also it’s worth it. When somebody says, whether it’s Simon or anyone else, “You stay in the game. Keep playing the game,” what we’re saying is, if this matters to you, work on it.
Telling her I love you, 50 years ago, when you put that ring on her, that’s not enough. That was good for that day, and then what are you doing about it now? Any of us who have been in any long-term relationship, even your best friend, there are times you’d get in fights with that person. There are times when you disagree. It’s when we turn toward one another that all of the magic happens. It’s when a company turns towards their customers, their guests, their clients, and says, “I see you. I want to serve you. I’m not just here to make a buck.” That is a very powerful move for anyone in any business. It’s special. I use relationship a lot. I can switch it up. You can cut me off if you want.A relationship is messy; it's also worth it. Click To Tweet
We’ll go with that. I love it. I see you and I hear you. I’m thinking, right after this call, I get to make twenty calls. I get sent everyday calls to make to fans that either bought tickets or merchandise. What I realized is people don’t answer their calls anymore from other numbers. I do a video and it’s a personal video of thanks and I ask them when they come to the game to please come over and say hello. It’s not huge, but it’s a start to a relationship as opposed to buying a ticket. Just like you, you’ve had thousands.
We have thousands, but everyone on our staff realizes that the relationship starts right away. It’s not when they are coming to the ballpark, it’s not when they first come to our game. It’s the first time that they’re interacting with us and that’s so important. We could jam on that for a while. I do need to go into what you were able to do over the 11 businesses in 11 months. You can briefly mention them all, but I want to know what worked and what didn’t. I noticed you pivoted from each one and it hasn’t seemed one has been like, “We’re going to keep this going.”
Some of them were terrible ideas. In concept, they all worked. I think that’s important.
Why don’t you share what they are first, Mark?
On March 14th, 2020, we shut our restaurant down. On March 16th, we took a day off, and on March 16th, we opened up as a drive-through burger company. We had 1.5-hour lines to get burgers and we sold out in a couple of hours and that kept happening. That was lunch. They would literally shut traffic down on three roads getting here. On March 17th, we opened something called The Bagel Shed. We haven’t had this chip container and our parking lot that we use as a bakery, like a pizza oven in there and a flour mill and stuff. We’re like, “We can make bagels. That’ll create jobs,” because bagels are time-intensive to make.
It’s a terrible business idea, by the way, from a money standpoint, but an amazing business idea from serving the community and serving my staff. We were trying to figure out how to make jobs. How do we keep 115 people employed when we can’t be a restaurant? We’ll do burgers for lunch and we’ll do bagels for breakfast. We make this bagels thing and it was popular. The next day, the 18th, we started delivering dinner. We were like, “The staff is still here, and we’re still making family meal like staff meal. Why don’t we make more family meals?”
What’s family meal? Do you feed the staff?
We feed you, the guest, but we feed ourselves before we feed you. We cook a couple of meals a day for the staff, lunch and dinner for the crew that works here and we call it family meal because we all sit down as a family and eat. We can’t feed you if we haven’t fed ourselves. We’re making a family meal. Why don’t we deliver family meals to the people? I have all these employees, what’s the difference between a server taking it from the kitchen to the table? We can take it from the kitchen to their car, to your table. Let’s do that. We stood up this delivery service and it was nuts, it completely took off, which destroyed us. It was very hard to pull off. Suddenly, we had this lunch thing going on and all this craziness. The police were showing up every day like, “The traffic is an issue.” “I know but we don’t know what to do about it.” We had the bagel thing, which also shut everything down in the morning. The lines for bagel were an hour long. I bring those first three up because they weren’t necessarily profitable ideas.
How are they not profitable? You have 1,000 people.
For example, if the goal is to employ my entire team, so I have 115 of some of the best restaurant people on the planet. We pay them well. We don’t use a tipping model. We pay them hourly a good salary so they don’t rely on tips. If I’m going to maintain that through a pandemic, that’s expensive. In the old days, you’d come in and dinner here is $150. If now I’m charging you $14 and I’m still paying all my people their same wages. You can’t make it up and we weren’t efficient enough. It’d be one thing if we were a burger restaurant for a couple of years and dial in our systems, but we don’t have systems. We have a couple of days to put this thing together. We were inefficient in that and if we were still doing burgers, I’m sure it’d be profitable.
One way, it wasn’t. There were hours like, “What should a burger be? Let’s make it $14.” No one knows, we haven’t had time to cost it out or doing this stuff. We’re grinding up dry-aged steaks that we weren’t going to serve and tasting menus and now we’re turning it into burgers. We were guessing. In our own system, it takes a couple of days to figure out all those numbers. By the time we got those numbers back, we were like, “This is not working for us.” It wasn’t about profitability. That’s a rule to the game and we chose to set that rule aside and said, “Maybe this is the year where we allow ourselves to break that rule. I don’t think that’s the most important thing right now. Let’s put it over here, put on the shelf for a second, and we’ll keep looking at it.” You can’t bleed too much money. That’s what that looked like.
It was tricky. It was hard. It was exhausting and we had to figure out a way to do it in a safe way, so you’re taking your kitchen, you’re cutting in half. That’s very inefficient. You’re using your dining room as a prep space, which is very inefficient. We’re taking steps. I don’t know how many billions of gloves we went through, but those suckers were expensive back in March and April 2020. You’re trying to figure this out as you go and it’s inefficient. We moved out of bagels and burgers for a while. We did delivery for a bit, and we started doing a piano live stream, which became fun. We have these piano players. We thought, “Why are we using piano players as delivery drivers? They could actually live stream all the music to people eating at home and we could bring them along,” so that was fun.
One of our employees was like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could bring some joy into these homes? What if we got people at home playing games or laughing or being together as a family?” It was hard. You remember that we’re all quarantined at home and like, “This is awkward and we have cabin fever.” The reciprocal of that is like, “This is amazing. We have time together as families.” In the old days, I would’ve done anything to have more time with my kids or slow down how fast they were growing up. Suddenly, we’re all forced together and we’re complaining about it. What if we got all these families playing games? We put bingo cards in the dinners that we were delivering and we said, “We’ll play bingo with the whole city. What if we get the whole city to play Bingo? That would be so fun.”
We launched a bingo show. We went live stream on Friday nights with this bingo show, and we had musical guests. We have no business doing a bingo show. We’re fine anyway. That became so fun and you have this suddenly thousands of people laughing or listening to music, or coming together in a way that maybe we’ve forgotten how to do as families. We played bingo Friday after Friday. In the midst of it, we started doing CSA boxes, Community Supported Agriculture. A lot of farms were hurting so badly because all the restaurants are closed, and all the farms don’t have a place to put their food. We were like, “Send us your food and we’ll put it in boxes to people.”
We were doing CSA boxes for a while, then that turned into cocktail kits because drinking obviously was very fashionable. We had this crazy idea like, “Why don’t we open a movie theater? That’d be cool.” The best thing in a pandemic when you’re not supposed to be with other people will be a drive-in movie theater. Literally, you arrive in your car, you stay in your car, you leave in your car. It was made for pandemics. We built a movie theater in a parking lot, a drive-in movie theater, which was super fun. By then it was summertime and we thought, “What if we make a restaurant in the parking lot?” We built this thing called The Crab Shack. That’s completely divey. We took an old shipwreck boat, brought in seven tons of sand and served crabs outside and get messy. This is what this is for. Up here, forest fires are a big deal and it was a horrible season for it and all the smoke arrived, so we couldn’t do that. We had to go back inside.
You did a ton of different things. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from all of it?
The biggest lesson that we’ve learned is that you don’t need a fine dining restaurant to live out your mission. Our mission was how do we inspire people to turn toward one another? In the old days, the first 69.5 years of this company, we did that through fine dining. The last twelve ideas, whether it was the community college or the Europe village or the Crab Shack, it became the idea that you don’t need what you think you need to stay on your mission. That applies to many things. I don’t think that’s the lesson for a restaurant. It’s a lesson for a lot of life. It’s been so life-giving to us to continue to get the services.
It’s given more purpose, it sounds like. I share lots of stories speaking about some events where there were tragic moments in our community, but everyone came together including the family. We all felt like one family. There’s so much debate about family versus team versus family. I lean towards the family. I know you can’t fire family, but there’s a different feeling you have with family. You’ve been fostering that tremendously. Mark, I know we could go on so many hedges, but I do want to go into a couple of games because that’s what we do a little bit on the show.
I’m going to play a game I’ve never played before. It’s called Freaky Friday. It’s because I’m blown away by your creativity of you and your team. You become me and I become you. We’re both creatives. I’m going to try to become a restaurant owner and think of a new idea, and then you’re potentially running a concession or a ballpark owner. I want to maybe spitfire some ideas that we would have. If you want to throw one, then I’ll throw one. We’ll go back and forth.
You want me doing concessions, right?
However, you want to look at that. There’s a ballpark and food needs to be served.
Can we bring your own? Can we have a bunch of grills? Is that okay? That’s not too dangerous. Do you guys have a parking lot? I want a 100-foot long grill and you roll up and throw it on. You’ve got people there helping like, “Do you need help with those burgers?” “No. I got this.” “I could do a hot dog now. What have you got? A ribeye prime rib? Sure.” Maybe we have this communal grill, because in the kitchen, you’re in your home, everyone hangs out in the kitchen anyway. Why don’t we let people cook?
Whatever’s normal, do the exact opposite, so every ticket in our game is all-inclusive, which no one’s doing that, but you said, “Bring your own food.” We encourage them to bring their own food, because it saves us. Every ticket is all you can eat, so it’s a win-win. I love that. I’ll throw one now. I don’t know if you’ve done this, but I love it. Fan contests. Your restaurant, choose a new food item of the year or a new drink of the year. We’ve had our fans vote for potential. That’s where the Slippery Banana, the Banana Blackout, somebody’s crazy concepts, so a fan contest. I’ll throw one else at you. The world’s largest or world’s most unique. You guys already are known worldwide, but can you do the world’s largest something or the world’s most unique? We serve garbage can nachos, which is three orders of nachos on a garbage can lid with 2 hot dogs, 2 burgers, 2 chicken sandwiches, all cut up, nacho cheese house and some bananas. It’s 3,500 calories and feeds a family of whatever.
Family of two in my world because I could polish that off. I have an idea then. I’ve got one for you. What about a nacho fountain? I’m thinking of the world’s largest. You have a stadium, I have a restaurant, but you could probably rock a chocolate fondue fountain. What if you did a nacho fountain? You could have a chip and coop, like a chicken coop.
Just with the cheese coming down like chocolate?
It will cascade like Willy Wonka style, the cheese waterfall, and you come up with your chips and you dip it. You stick it in there and you munch on it. It’s what you can keep going back to.
That’s so gross but awesome. I love it. We’ve talked about the idea of having a kitchen sink. Going to Lowe’s, Home Depot, ACE, getting kitchen sinks and serving every single food item in the kitchen sink. Have all the hot items in one side and have all the cold items and say you get everything and the chicken and the kitchen sink.In business, one of the rules is you can't lose all your money. Click To Tweet
Can you take the sink home? I’m wondering if that’s part of the idea.
It’s maybe $50 or $100 and then $200 if you want the sink.
You can do ripping nachos in a kitchen sink. What’s amazing about a sink, you can fill the sink with nachos, put all the fixings in there and you put the whole sink and nachos in a big oven. It’s going to be hard to hold the sink, but you could cook the nachos in the sink is what I’m suggesting here.
I like all of that. I’ll throw one more for you and you guys probably already do this because when people come to Canlis in the past, it was all about a celebration. I love the idea of a whole celebration concept. You only book when you book. It has to be some type of celebration. You have to let them know exactly what you’re celebrating and then you provide a performance, you have special gifts, giveaways. Each celebration is over the top performance and you know exactly why they’re celebrating.
Your celebration is the ticket in.
What is your celebration? You know what they’re celebrating and it’s different performance events. This is where you go to celebrate in Seattle. There already is Canlis, but maybe it’s even a bigger concept. I thought about that for you guys.
Why don’t we flip that on its head and what do we say the most common, random Tuesday night is a celebration. What do we juxtapose them off? We get the great 50th anniversary blowout months, and then the other one is like, “I’m celebrating the fact that I’m married to my wife,” and it’s a random Tuesday night. The idea is that we learn to celebrate one another better. That could be cool.
When you have people, it’s a yes, and. We were literally doing yes, and, and we didn’t talk about it. It ended up being more of our stuff but it went both ways. I want to do one more game and we’ll finish up after this. Are you ready for one more?
I’m rethinking my waterfall of cheese fountain. I don’t think the health departments can.
It would be worth at least that announcement.
The first ten people before it all gets nappy in there. That’s going to be awesome.
I started nacho fountain, just for the record.
It’s a work in progress.
Presented by Mark and presented by Canlis. Truth and dare. Which one would you like first?
I am a big fan of truth. I have been searching for truth my whole life. Let’s start there.
We’ll do that and we’re going to finish with a dare. What’s holding you back now from success?
Fear is what holds us back. Let’s see, do you want a better answer?
For you, personally. Let’s get vulnerable.
If you want me to get vulnerable, definitely my pride. As a leader, what’s holding me back is probably where I fall down as a leader and where I fail there, historically speaking, has to do with pride. It has to do with not wanting to be seen as someone who is not perfect, who makes mistakes and is willing to own all that right up and move on. That can take my whole team down. Not only is it uninspiring, it’s just no one wants to be around that person and I can be that person. I’m at the top. It’s poisoning the company from the top down and that’s on me. Pride is something I constantly wrestle with. It’s hard to say to your team, “I screwed this one up. Do you know what? My bad.” That holds the whole team back. It sets a culture that is cancerous.
What’s so good though, going full circle, is what you guys were able to do during the pandemic and have so many things that you gather your start, stop, start again. It wasn’t as successful as you hoped. It showed that the willingness to get over that in the scheme of things, it’s small. I don’t even call it a failure. It’s an aback. I’m not trying to get into therapy mode, but I love that you do that.
Our failures are a key part of our story. That’s why I say, my business, seven of them lost money, but I wouldn’t call them failures. We were standing on the shoulders of those failures and in our own personal lives. Those failures make us, they define us, they shape us if we allow them to do so. That’s where character comes from. What’s the dare?
We’ll go to the dare, but I love when you’re talking about, “Some of them, I lost money.” I heard some of the parties that you guys have done with donkeys and wigs and everything crazy. They don’t all make money, but they’re part of the story.
They’re part of the gift. They’re part of the process. If all you’re ever doing is making money, then you have to admit that. There are very few companies that say, “I don’t care about you because all I care about is making money.” You feel that way maybe when you’re experiencing that company, but it’s rare that they have the guts to say it out loud because they know it would be breaking their relationship. We can talk about that all day long.
We’ll go with the dare here. You call it the dare. This is something that, because of a mistake, it got better at our ballparks. This is a promotion. It’s called the Sing-Off, and it was always two men, grown men. They would be on the field, we’d have a mic in front of them, and when the song stops, you have to finish that song whoever gets it first. It was a love song, it was funny, but one night the contestants didn’t show up and the third out happened, and I said, “What are we going to do?” Our director, our host said, “Let’s do it with the fans.” We had 2,000 fans in the main grandstand versus 2,000 fans in the metal bleachers and the other grandstand. We had them sing-off against each other and it was epic. It was 4,000 people singing. It was a much better promotion when a failure went wrong. Now my friend, full circle, I’m coming back to you, we’re going to play a song and when that song finishes, you have to finish that song lyric. That’s the dare. Are you ready?
Even if I don’t know, can I just make it up?
I’ve had people make it up.
I hope that this is Wind Beneath My Wings. Lay it on me. Here we go. I know this song. “You’ve got to hold on to what you’ve got.” It’s that song, “Ready or not.” Is that the one? You only gave half a second. That was intense. I wasn’t ready for it.
What happened is, talk about failures, the YouTube that was linked up, it decided to go to an ad. It was supposed to say, “We’ve got each other, but that’s on us. We’ll give it a shot. We’re halfway there.”
I’m impressed I got the song from the sixteen seconds.
We were about to get an ad on taxes right now. That was good. It was Livin’ On A Prayer.Failure is really a key part of your story. Click To Tweet
Is that Bon Jovi?
100%. I’m very impressed. You could see an utter failure of the music and my situation right there, but you hit it. I’m giving you full credit. I thought Livin’ On A Prayer, “We got our shot,” and the lyrics fit into what you guys have been doing and why I admire you, respect you and love what you’ve built.
What has been done could be compared to that song. I consider myself successful in life. We’re definitely living on a prayer. That is my new business philosophy.
Mark, we could go on for a while. We’ll have to do a post-pandemic to see where you guys are later, but we’ve talked some great things about family, trust, fun, relationships. Is there anything you want to leave to the readers that are trying to build something as special as you’ve built at Canlis?
There’s a lot of hope and there’s a lot of joy out there and we don’t often get a chance to talk about it, to live into it, to embrace it. It’s almost as if we’re scared to do so, and these are hard times, particularly right now. I don’t want to sugarcoat that or whitewash over it. This is hard, but also to find the good inside of what is hard, we’re capable of that. We’re capable of so much. We find ourselves encouraged even in the midst of these hard times. We want to spread that word. Jesse, thanks for what you’re doing. It’s cool to be with you. It’s cool to see what you guys are doing. You’re so creative. The next time I’m throwing a party, I’m calling you.
I’m coming to Seattle for those parties. I’ll tell you that. Mark, thank you so much.
I would love it.
- Canlis Restaurant
- The Power of Moments
- Savannah Bananas – YouTube channel
- The Infinite Game
- Book Built to Last
About Mark Canlis
The second of three sons, Mark grew up in a restaurant family. He joined Canlis in 2003, after graduating from Cornell University and serving as a Captain in Air Force Special Operations. He met his wife, Anne Marie, while opening famed restaurateur Danny Meyer’s fifth restaurant, Blue Smoke, in Manhattan. Returning to Seattle, Mark spearheaded the generational transfer and brand modernization that has garnered the family business national acclaim as one of the finest restaurants in America. He now owns and operates Canlis restaurant with his more talented brother, Brian (who edits this website). He and Anne Marie reside on Queen Anne with their three children.
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