arrowenvelopefacebookinstagramlinked-intwitteryelpyoutube

Lessons from a Michelin-rated restaurant’s transformation to casual takeout

Canlis exterior

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the conventional wisdom in the restaurant business was to save cash, cut overhead, and “If you’re fine dining: hibernate.” Mark Canlis did the exact opposite and performed the ultimate pivot—transforming Canlis from a world-famous, upscale restaurant with a months-long waiting list to serving bagels, burgers, and takeout.  

Most restaurants enjoying any success during the current epidemic—even if that means simply staying open—are sticking with what they know best and paring down to simple meals and smaller take-out menus. But Canlis, Mark Canliswith the support of family and staff, did a complete 180-degree turn, serving breakfast and lunch for the first time in decades. How did he make such a drastic change work?

That’s the topic of the latest episode of Full Comp, Josh Kopel’s podcast for the restaurant industry. In this episode, Canlis, owner/operator of Seattle’s Michelin-starred fine dining establishment that bears his name talks about what it took to pivot away from the restaurant’s traditional business model and toward a new way of working—lessons that translate way beyond the restaurant industry. 

The two restaurateurs also discuss the true meaning of fine dining, finding a balance between home life and restaurant life, and how Canlis and his staff turned some previously dark clouds into silver linings. 

Listen to the full episode below, and listen or subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Photos from Canlis

Ready for more? Check out more episodes of Full Comp:

Episode 1: Building a Restaurant Empire in a Recession: Tender Greens’ Erik Oberholtzer

Episode 2: Creating Opportunity from Tragedy: Serial Restaurateur Darin Rubell

Episode 3: Redefining Cocktail Culture: Death & Co’s Alex Day

Episode 4: The Art of the Pivot: Iron Chef Eric Greenfield

Episode 14: The Benefits of Community Building: Chef Nina Compton, Chef/Owner of Compère Lapin

Episode 26: The Future of Restaurants: Dean Alex Susskind, Cornell University

Episode 34: Becoming a Brand: Celebrity Chef Jet Tila

Episode 36: Fighting the Good Fight: Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless


Full Comp, episode 22 transcript
The Art of the Pivot: Mark Canlis, owner/operator of Canlis 

[Josh Kopel]

Today’s episode is brought to you by Yelp, whose mission is to connect people with great local businesses. They’re also helping me connect with you, which is totally awesome. Now, here we go.

[Mark Canlis]

Any challenge tests what we’re made of. And I fear for our country that we will make excuses instead of allow ourselves. In so many ways, that is the ethos of Canlis and the people who work here. I get to be a spokesperson for them. I put any of the hundred of them in this chair and you’re going to hear something similar.

[Josh Kopel]

Welcome to Full Comp, a show offering insight into the future of the hospitality industry, featuring restaurateurs, thought leaders, and innovators. Served up on the house.

[Josh Kopel]

On today’s show, we chat with Mark Canlis, made famous by transforming his Michelin starred restaurant into a bagel stand and burger joint, saving jobs and his restaurant.

[Josh Kopel]

When the pandemic hit, the conventional wisdom in the industry was to shut down and hoard cash. Mark Canlis did the exact opposite, pivoting his fine dining restaurant into three casual concepts almost overnight. Today, we discuss the idea behind such a bold move, how it worked out, and what the future looks like for the Canlis family and their restaurant.

[Mark Canlis]

We grew up with the restaurant. It wasn’t a big deal. We grew up thinking that we were kind of normal. And that’s just how it was presented to us. Our lives were not wrapped around this place. We ate like normal human beings. Macaroni and cheese and hot dogs. We weren’t hanging out here all the time. At the same time, we knew it wasn’t normal because Mom, Dad, mostly, when we were little kids and later Mom and Dad, they did work at night. They did work weekends. They worked holidays. We’d sit with the staff for family meals and that kind of thing. I don’t know. We also had a set of parents who shrank our company from four restaurants down to one in the name of family. We had a dad who didn’t go into work on Friday nights, which, for us, Friday and Saturday are the two busiest. So he could be at home and we all played board games and stuff. And that’s not without cost, though we weren’t paying it, but the restaurant did. Maybe the guests did. Maybe the business did in so many ways. But we thought that was normal, which clearly is maybe an exception to the rule in our industry. Dad coached our soccer teams. It’s not something I’ve been able to pull off with my own kiddos. It’s something I wished I could do. I don’t know how he did it.

[Mark Canlis]

When my grandfather passed away, there was a restaurant in Hawaii and San Francisco and Portland and Seattle. He had a board member, a dear friend of his, who just said, “Hey, man. You’re not the kind of guy that can succeed in family and in marriage and in four cities, so choose one.” And so they did. My uncle took over the restaurant in Hawaii. The restaurant in Portland went away on its own. And my dad sold the restaurant in San Francisco. It was just like, we’re just going to do one thing and try to do one thing really well. He was willing to pay the price to be home, which… It’s a big deal. You don’t get those days back. You don’t get to have those conversations with a two-year-old. Next year, three. Those moments are gone, you know what I mean? That was a value to ours growing up. We were like, cool! We love the restaurant. Because our parents are home. Which, obviously, is so unique and such a privileged perspective on so many levels, but particularly into owning a restaurant.

[Mark Canlis]

And also might have been the thing that steered this place in the right direction. We grew up loving our parents. There’s a concept. Our parents’ marriage survived when so many of our friends’ didn’t. That’s an advantage in so many ways. I grew up with a mom and dad who loved one another. And it was not easy. So you could say, yeah, they took that away from the business. We didn’t grow in the same ways other businesses did. We didn’t expand. We didn’t open another restaurant. We didn’t increase our domain here in Seattle. I’m really close to my brothers. What’s that worth? Because, right now, one of them works maybe 20 hours a day and saved this company when I started taking over 15 years ago. What’s that worth? Investing in the family. When it’s a family business, you can invest in the business and you can invest in the family. Those are not disintegrated from one another. As you know, it’s a game of figuring out how much to invest over here and how much to invest over here.

[Mark Canlis]

So, yeah. Maybe a unique upbringing in that sense. We grew up loving one another and in a really tight family and really close with our parents and with my two brothers. Here we are, 20 years later. No one thought… We didn’t think we would do this, but it kind of played out that way. I came back in 2003. My brother, Brian, came back in 2005. We were both in the military for a time. It was like, I don’t know. Mom and Dad need help. I want to go help. It was a disaster. Dad was like, “You should get your brother. He’ll totally help.” We were on a road trip one day and Dad was like, “Hey, Brian. Mark’s thinking about bringing you into the company. Would you be willing to do that? What do you think about that?” I’m like, “Aw…” My older brother was in the car. He was like, “That’s a great idea, Dad!” I’m like, “Wait, whoa. I’m fine. You guys, I’m fine.” But the truth of the matter was I needed him desperately. So when he came back in 2005, everything just started clicking in a whole new way. We had so much fun. We were just so much better together. I needed that. I needed someone to balance out some of my crazy. It’s been a wild ride.

[Josh Kopel]

How long have you been back in the business?

[Mark Canlis]

What is that? 17 years.

[Josh Kopel]

Right on.

[Mark Canlis]

Before that, I worked with Danny Meyer in New York for a little bit. So doing restaurants now for almost 20 years. It’s been awesome. It’s been so cool. We’ve been able to incorporate other members of the family into it. Our older brother is not involved operationally, but he’s on our Board of Directors. He’s a minister over across the mountains there in Wenatchee. I think his business card says Chaplain and Whiskey Consultant. It was like, “Dude, you have to have some role here. You have to earn your keep.” He collected all these incredible whiskeys. He used to live in Scotland. Any way we can stay close as a family, I think that’s really central to what Canlis, the restaurant, has been able to do. It remains the core of who we are.

[Josh Kopel]

Now to bring it forward to today, I want to give you a quote that you said that really, really impacted me. You said, “Here’s what everyone forgets about fine dining. Fine dining is the most considerate form of caring about people with food. That is all it is.” That really struck me because it speaks to the logical transition that you made when the pandemic hit. I can’t imagine that fear wasn’t an element there. The conventional wisdom as soon as hit, as cutthroat restaurateurs go, is hoard your cash, cut your overhead, and if you’re fine dining, hibernate. You turned to your family and you were like, let’s jump into three different tiers of dining and see how it goes. And you did it beautifully. Can you talk to me about the thought process behind it?

[Mark Canlis]

I’m glad it looks beautiful from where you’re sitting. From where I’m sitting, it looks like a complete train wreck that has somehow stayed on the tracks. Yeah, it’s been the hardest thing we’ve ever done. It’s also been the most rewarding, I think, in so many ways. We’ve been so fortunate. To be sitting where I’m sitting right now, I can’t have enough words of gratitude and thankfulness for this team that pulled it off. For this city that supported us. Don’t get me started. Considering the civic unrest that’s right down the street, we’re coming from a place of privilege, right?

[Mark Canlis]

I guess it starts with the mission of our company, which is pretty weird maybe for a restaurant, but, to us, when we think of fine dining, we think of what we’re doing with our business. It has nothing to do with food. It has nothing to do with service or those things that can get wrapped around the axle in the restaurant industry. The mission of Canlis is to inspire all people to turn toward one another. I hope one day that that’s what somebody says about this place, like, at my funeral or something. I hope that’s the impact that we can make in the world. I care about food and I think serving people through food is beautiful and essential in so many ways. It’s not the most important thing to me and I think if we have a platform, if we have a voice, we get a chance to do something here. I want to remind one another that it’s the turning towards that we were designed for. The relationships that we were designed for.

[Mark Canlis]

Anyway, when you get into a pandemic, suddenly those things sweep across the globe and we’ve got it on our doorstep in Seattle. It was like, well, great. Everyone is physically turning away from and we’re talking more of a relational thing, but here we were. Social distancing is a brand new word. Six feet is a concept that people are just starting to wrestle with and understand. We were like, ok, how do we do this? If we just shut this thing down, A, all of my staff are out of jobs. B, that’s not what we were given this restaurant for. That’s not the best use of this platform maybe and so let’s just brainstorm ways that we can keep our staff employed. Let’s just brainstorm ways that we can serve a city that’s in need right now. We didn’t know the needs. It was like you’re playing a game and the referee suddenly has an entirely different set of rules in the second half than in the first half. That was March for us. That was, like, deer in the headlights, felt really sucker-punched, and we had no idea what to do.

[Mark Canlis]

So we sat down the team and just said, okay, does anyone know the rules to the game we’re playing? Because they seem to be completely different. And we just started listing them. Six feet seems to be a thing. Fine dining is not a thing. It’s not what anyone needs right now. But people have to eat, so that’s a thing. We just started listing these things. We were listing our strengths. Like, we have 115 employees who are in. These guys want in. We said that to them. This is voluntary. Does anyone want to do this? And they were all like, “We’re in.” It’s like, okay, that’s a strength. We’re on a freeway. As a fine dining restaurant, that’s a weakness. As a drive-thru, that’s a strength. So we’re like, all right. What if we do a drive-thru? Suddenly, this busy road behind us that we’ve always just turned our backs on, maybe we should just vibe in. We just started playing that game and going through the exercise of what can we be thankful for? What assets do we have that will work in this time of new rules? Can we just make shit up for people to do? And that’s what happened. It was like, boom. We came up with a breakfast thing. The Bagel Shed, where we baking bagels and doing breakfast sandwiches. We came up with a lunch thing.

[Josh Kopel]

How did that go?

[Mark Canlis]

Awesome. I mean, we sold out in an hour every day. The line to get a bagel was an hour-long. It was silly. We couldn’t keep up with that demand at all. It turns out we’re a really inefficient bagel restaurant. We actually kind of suck at it. We didn’t make any money. So when you say how’d it go? When you would have people standing in line six feet apart, in the morning, in March, and they feel encouraged and they feel like, okay, we got this. We can do this. Life goes on. If the restaurant can be an encouragement to someone, it’s going really well. And that was. And then at 11:00AM, we’d have a line five blocks long ready for the lunch thing we were doing, which was burgers. That was crazy. It was the busiest thing we’ve ever done.

[Josh Kopel]

You guys were doing like a thousand covers a day, right?

[Mark Canlis]

Oh, we were doing a thousand covers in three hours. And we’re not set up for that at all. We don’t know what we’re doing. And then the dinner thing with delivery. We opened those Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday of that week when it hit. Looking back on it, that might have been dumb. We lost a ton of money doing that. We also didn’t lose any of our employees. I go back to that mission statement. It becomes really important. I remember taking over the company from Mom and Dad and having this conversation as a family. You realize that if we adopt this formally as our mission statement, we might lose money and then we’re going to come to you as your children and we’re going to say, we accomplished missions, but we didn’t make any money. Is that okay? And this is the time before Brian and I owned the company. We’re running it for Mom and Dad. I was like, “I need you guys to say that’s okay.” If I can prove that we have inspired people to turn toward one another in this city, but I’ve lost, is that okay?

[Mark Canlis]

It took awhile for them to get there. Because, from a business perspective, you think that’s suicide. But what we realized, working through this as a family, was that’s not suicide. That’s actually the strategy that has been the saving grace of this company for years. Where you can move profit to not being the defining rule of business, but one of the rules of business. Not to say it’s not the point of business, but it’s one of the rules that provides parameters and structure and scaffolding to your business. Don’t go too far over here. In soccer, if you kick the ball out of bounds – don’t go too far over here. If you kick all the ball out of bounds, right? It’s just one of those guidelines that tells us where to play, but it doesn’t tell you how to play or what to do or how to win.

[Mark Canlis]

So that’s what we did. In March, we lost a ton of cash. At the same time, we’re paying everyone back. We’re canceling every reservation. We shut our restaurant down. We canceled three months of reservations. We canceled 1000 people’s dinners. We’re giving back all their deposits because we just canceled all of them. That was a scary time and yet it was the most exciting thing I think we’ve ever done. Which was like, screw it. This whole city is in it and, pretty soon, the whole country is going to be in it and we don’t have a choice. This is the right decision. I wish you could feel the energy behind the staff of just supporting us and saying, we will move Heaven and Earth to make this thing happen. And they did. Anyway. Here we are, 13 weeks later or whatever it is and, somehow, by the grace of God, we are still in business. Yeah. It was scary and yet I wouldn’t do it any differently. It’s been awesome.

[Josh Kopel]

Were you surprised by the national attention? Like Esquire Magazine wrote about you. When you operate a restaurant, you live in a bubble. You work hard. You go to work every day. You don’t really know if anyone gives a shit.

[Mark Canlis]

You dream of Esquire writing about you. We used to freak out if we had a national publication call us. Literally, we had things like, okay, if anyone calls, wake me up out of bed. We had this whole protocol. Yeah, we’ve never seen this much attention from people who didn’t even know we existed yesterday. That’s awesome on the one hand. It’s been amazing. It’s saved us in so many ways. And on the other hand, look, we’re one story in a sea of a thousand stories where so many people have done what we’ve done, which is to sort of courageously say, “I’m going to stay in the fight and I’m going to figure this out. It might not work or it might be ugly or it might be imperfect, but I’m going to try.”

[Mark Canlis]

To take it all the way to today, that’s what we’re seeing in the streets of our city and cities around the world, which is saying, “Maybe we don’t know how to do this, but we’re going to try.” We’re going to try to take on one of the hardest things we can in this country, which is racial inequity and the injustice that we as a country have never been able to figure out for 400 years. It’s not perfect. It isn’t. No one has an answer here, but man, it inspires us to see people saying, let’s try. I know we failed in the past. Let’s try. I know this is hard. Let’s try. I know that, but I’m going to show up. To me, showing up is 90% of the battle.

[Mark Canlis]

I feel like because Seattle got Corona first, I feel like because we were one of the first restaurants to come out and say, we’re going to shut down and make this switch, brings a lot of attention on us and we’re so appreciative for that. But yeah. We were not ready for it. I mean, we were opening three restaurants in three days and at the same time, you have TV cameras and you have everyone asking you questions like, how do you operate in a pandemic? We’re like, we don’t know. We’re not the experts on this. We’re 24 hours ahead of everyone else. That’s it. We don’t know what we’re doing.

[Mark Canlis]

I want people to hear that. We do not know what we’re doing. That’s not a story of a pandemic. That’s the story of Canlis restaurant 70 years being a fine dining establishment. I don’t think you ever know what you’re doing. I think there’s always this posture of, man, I’m going to show up and put everything I have into this today and then tomorrow we have to have the balls to look back and say, that wasn’t good enough or maybe we can change or what if we tweak this or, you guys, is there any way we could do it differently and better? It just kind of all came to a head March 15th when suddenly the world, well the world had already had it, but suddenly, America, the United States, is looking at this saying, whoa, it’s here and we’re about to get crushed by this thing.

[Josh Kopel]

Did you enjoy the pivot at all? I always joke. I say that, I’m never ready to open my next restaurant until I forget how terrible it was to open the last one. Was it-

[Mark Canlis]

It’s like having kids.

[Josh Kopel]

… fun? Exactly. Was it fun? Was it exciting? Were there elements of that? Or was it just a function of profitability?

[Mark Canlis]

No, it felt like… I was in the military during 9/11. It was a time when we’re all just sort of like wide-eyed and like, whoa. But in the military, we’re like, we know exactly what to do. We have a checklist for this kind of a thing. It felt good just to have a mission. That efficacy. Like, hey, we’re not helpless here. There’s something we can do. It felt like that. It was like, wait a second. I’m not helpless. I can provide jobs for my staff. I just have to be creative. What was fun about it was letting the team run with it. It was like putting a Ferrari on a race track when all it’s been doing for its entire life was driving in traffic. It was like, you guys. There are no rules right now. Everything is on the table – go! Normally, they’re constrained because it’s one restaurant and it’s fine dining and everyone thinks it has to be, but it was like, there’s nothing that I won’t consider. What do you think?

[Mark Canlis]

To see them pull that off, it felt like, I don’t know. It felt like letting their creativity and their energy and their work ethic and their all of it out of the bag and letting the world see what they were capable of. Again, this isn’t me doing this. It’s not Brian. It’s the whole team that pulled that thing off. It was fun. Is it fun to pull out of traffic and get into your own lane and put the pedal down on some sports car and go 100 miles an hour? I don’t have a sports car. I have a pickup truck. But in my head, that’s a good time. That’s fun. And so, yeah. It was encouraging. It was uplifting. I think any time you can serve someone else… we all know this to be true… we’re the ones that are being filled up. I think it was a time when we needed to be filled up and we got that. We got that by serving others.

[Josh Kopel]

Now, look into the future. The world’s beginning to reopen. Dine-in is becoming a thing again. We could wax philosophical on the future of the restaurant industry, but I’d rather talk about the future of Canlis. What does it look like over the course of the next three months, six months, 12 months?

[Mark Canlis]

I feel like my crystal ball has been broken lately talking about the future. I think this is a good reminder for any of us that run businesses that it’s one day at a time. That the future is less important than the present. To allow ourselves to be constrained by not being able to go there. As business, as any COs, we’re so tempted to be like, I have to have the answers. I don’t know if you do. I don’t know if you do need to have the answers right now. I’m not a publicly traded company and I’m little so I get that’s a narrow perspective, but from where I’m sitting, I think it’s way more important to be present with our staff and with our city. I think it’s way more important to be present with my kids, talking about racial inequity, white privilege, Canlis privilege. Talking about the issues, wrestling with. That’s what we’re doing as a company. We’re wrestling with. We don’t know. We don’t have the answers. I want to be sitting in the uncomfortableness of a health crisis. The uncomfortableness of the civic unrest that I think is needed. I’m not talking about rioting. I’m talking about protesting. I’m not talking about destruction. I’m talking about change that is desperately needed in this country.

[Mark Canlis]

As business owners, that’s where I want to be. I want to be in the present. I want to be in today. Yeah, we are planning. I was supposed to be opening a drive-in movie theater this week. Doesn’t feel appropriate with the civil unrest happening down the road. But that’s another creative way that we can serve the city. We’re going to use our parking lot to do something that’s classically summer and fun, which is open a movie theater. When we reopen, it probably won’t be as a fine dining restaurant. I don’t think fine dining is still what people need and it doesn’t work as a business model, so why use it? Why not just save that for a little bit down the road? Maybe that’s late summer. Maybe that’s fall. I don’t know.

[Mark Canlis]

I think, in hospitality, we have this charge. I think the country needs us. When people say we’re an essential business, it’s essential that people eat and you could do that in so many ways. I think what’s essential about the hospitality industry is to go back to what we know to be true about our roots in this industry, which is, if you go back two or three thousand years, the beginning of hospitality, there were people in need. Some guy walking down a road on his donkey or however you traveled back then, and he gets to the end of his rope. He gets to the end of the day or he gets to a place where it’s too dark or unsafe or he’s out of food and water and there’s a knock on the door. All restaurants. We stand on the shoulders of this tradition. Maybe you’re knocking on my door. It’s not like he texted and said like, “Hey, Mark, I’m on the way, man.” It’s not you’re from my town. It’s not like you’re from my country. You’re not of my people. You’re not of my tribe. You likely aren’t like me. And I’m in a place of power and authority and safety and you’re in a place of vulnerability.

[Mark Canlis]

Hospitality gets its roots from me opening my door and making space for you, this stranger. Someone who is tired and needy and sweaty and smelly and hungry and doesn’t look like me. Might be of a different race, religion, creed, ethnicity. It’s an exchange of power. If we go back to what hospitality means, it’s me saying, “I exchange my place of privilege, safety, and power because my heart breaks for you, a person in need. And I will make space for that.” That is what hospitality is about. Hospitality is not hanging out with your buddies, drinking rosé or beer. It’s making space for the other. So, man, if there was ever an essential business right now, it’s the hospitality business. It’s the business of people whose hearts and minds and businesses are wrapped around this essential truth that if we don’t make space for the person who is different than us, we are hypocrites to be running restaurants. We are hypocrites to be saying we are the hospital industry.

[Mark Canlis]

So, the future? I’m going to be doing that in my own heart. I’m going to be doing that in my own family. I’m going to be doing that with my staff and saying, what does that look like today? If it looked like this 3000 years ago, what does it look like today? And then how do we take this building, our kitchen, our talent, our resources. How do we take everything we have and turn them towards those who are needy? That’s awesome. I have no idea how I’m going to make money doing that, but again, maybe that’s not the question to be asking right now.

[Mark Canlis]

Maybe the question to be asking is, what hits me in my heart right now? Who do I want to become as a business leader? Who do I want to become as a friend, as a husband, as a dad? As a guy standing at that door with the ability to turn towards a stranger and say, come in. It’s safe here. You are welcome here. I will make room for you. Sit at my table. No, we weren’t expecting you, so that means you’re taking food from my children. That’s okay. Be in my house. Rest here safely. I don’t know who you are and maybe we believe different things, but I know in my heart there is something that reaches out to you because I’m a human and you’re a human and we all know up here and in here, we are connected. That’s what the hospitality business has always been about.

[Mark Canlis]

So, now, with racism just in front of everyone and so real in ways that it needs to be. And with Corona that has not gone away in any way. That’s our call as restaurant owners and as those in this business. I don’t know. I’ll get off my soap box. When we talk about the future, I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re going to. I might do a lemonade stand on Highway 99 next month. Okay. Maybe that’s the right thing to do and I hope we have the guts to do it. I hope we have the guts to follow our heart right now. I hope we have the guts to say out loud, “I don’t know. I’m wrestling with it and trying to figure it out.” That’s where we’re at. It’s uncertain. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe we need to be.

[Josh Kopel]

Is that a realization? Is that an “aha!” moment? Is that something that came out of the quarantine and the pandemic or is that a way you felt centrally? If it’s not, have there been any “aha!” moments through this process?

[Mark Canlis]

I think any challenge tests what we’re made of. I fear for our country that we will make excuses instead of allow ourselves to be tested. In so many ways, that is the ethos of Canlis and the people who work here. I get to be a spokesperson for them, but I put any of the 100 of them in this chair and you’re going to hear something similar. The “aha!” moment is that what we were doing before is not enough. I think that’s the thing that hits me most squarely, which is, we thought we were doing the right thing. The fact of the matter is we were doing good, but maybe not good enough. And so the question is, how do we change? I don’t know. I’m just going to sit with that a little bit.

[Mark Canlis]

One of the things we’ve been doing is this bingo show. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. Our expediter, who runs all the delivery, used to play bingo with the staff after work. So we like to drink a beer, play a little bingo, whatever. It’s a throwback to… Anyway. She was like, “Why don’t we just put bingo cards in every dinner that we’re delivering?” Maybe what the city needs is to play a game and laugh a little. And this was before all the civic unrest. So, we were like, sure. We’ll just livestream. I don’t know. I’ll stand there and we’ll pull bingo balls out of a salad bowl and we’ll play. So a few thousand people are playing bingo every Friday night and suddenly we find ourselves in the position of hosting a variety show, a bingo show, which is…

[Mark Canlis]

I would never have told you, eight weeks ago, you know what my future looks like? It’s hosting a bingo variety show on a livestream for a bunch of kids. I feel foolish doing it every time and it’s terrifying because I would rather stand in a suit at the front door of a fancy restaurant and look good or be perceived, to be able to control the way that people perceive it. But I think maybe what I need to do is stand up there in the awkwardness and the hardness of the moment and not control that. That’s what I need is to be a little bit out of control and a little bit vulnerable in that way. Isn’t that what hospitality was about anyway? It was vulnerability. Letting you into my home and into my heart.

[Mark Canlis]

And so that’s the “aha!” moment, which isn’t, like, Canlis needs such and such, but what do I need? How do I need to change? And I think I need to be a little bit more vulnerable. A little more raw. A little less polished. A little less put together. It’s easy to stand at the front door of a fancy restaurant and have everyone ooh and ah over the chef’s incredible food and a bottle of wine and that view, but it’s hard to be seen for who we actually are. I don’t know. I desperately want to be liked. I desperately want to be someone that people respect. I have to figure that out in here before I can expect anyone to do that. So that’s what that bingo thing is about. Somehow it’s about us letting our restaurant be seen for who we are. I think that’s the aha moment. It’s like, yes, it’s the time for that. Does that make sense? I don’t know if-

[Josh Kopel]

It does. It totally resonates with me. I stand in a fancy suit outside of my restaurant and I feel really good about the way I’m perceived.

[Mark Canlis]

Right? I feel like, cool, yeah, I got this put together.

[Josh Kopel]

Absolutely.

[Mark Canlis]

Until you’re tested.

[Josh Kopel]

Right, exactly.

[Mark Canlis]

I feel like that’s where we’re at as an industry and as a country, as a people. If you’re White, that’s where we’re at. I don’t even know if White is a race. I don’t think it is. But I think we have to look in the mirror and say, this is where I’m at right now and what does that mean? Yeah. I haven’t figured it out, but I’m okay wrestling with it. You know what I mean?

[Josh Kopel]

I do.

[Mark Canlis]

It’s a weird time to be a restaurant. It’s a weird time to be delivering when the streets are shut down and you’re like, what are we doing? We’re delivering dinner at 2:00 PM. We’re hosting a bingo show. I’m like, wow. And also I’m okay with that. It’s okay. So, yeah. I hope this is a time when we as a people get tested for… Like your value is not your values unless they cost you something. There was so much about a pre-pandemic time that might’ve felt normal to us, but it wasn’t neutral. Right? It wasn’t perfect. As many times as I’ve heard, “Wow, I would just like to go back to normal,” I don’t know if I want to go back to normal. Normal seemed pretty broken if we look back at it. If we take off the lens of the way we see the world and see it through other people’s eyes, that was messed up. The beginning of 2020. This might be broken now and it is. There’s a lot that isn’t right with right now, but I find a lot of hope in putting it back together in beautiful ways.

[Mark Canlis]

That’s what I’m focused on. The future is going to be better than it was before this thing. We just have to figure that out. I believe in this company and in this city and in this nation. We can do it. I don’t have the answers, but that’s what I’m going to focus on. There’s incredible things happening right now all across the country. You don’t hear about it. There’s incredible things happening in the protests. You don’t hear about it always. There’s bad things happening also. We tend to focus on the bad and we’re foolish to let that… to throw the baby out with the bathwater in that way. We’re foolish to pretend that the little things are the things that divide us. I believe that when all of us are standing at the door and someone knocks, I believe that our heart reaches out to those folks. I don’t know. I just want to make sure that mine responds properly.

[Josh Kopel]

It’s an industry podcast.

[Mark Canlis]

It’s an industry podcast, yeah.

[Josh Kopel]

Like it or not, you’re an industry thought leader. At the end of every show, I like to give the guest an opportunity to speak directly to the industry. Is there anything you would like to say directly to people listening?

[Mark Canlis]

This has been hard. It’s been easier for me and my restaurant has been able to stay open somehow. It’s been easier for me because I’m White. It’s been easier for me because I was born into an incredible restaurant legacy. It’s been easier for me for so many reasons. I don’t want to apologize for that, but I want to recognize that this has been hard. Also, there is good inside of this. We as an industry are the scrappiest, most resourceful, most big-hearted, most… If there’s any industry that can pull this off and be in the right place and put it back together again, it’s mine. It’s the hospitality industry. It’s the folks that run the restaurants. We were conditioned for this. I don’t want to say no one works as hard as we do, but speaking to our people in this thing, we know what this is like. I can’t wait to see them shine again. That time is coming.

[Mark Canlis]

I think there’s an opportunity here. You don’t have to have the answers. Put one foot in front of the other. If you take one day at a time and you say, hey, this is what I have to be thankful for, that’s how we lead. Maybe in the absence of the kind of leadership that we want to see. Everyone’s got different opinions on that. We lead by starting with ourselves. I think of my own crew. I think of the restaurant industry workers in this city. I think of so many remarkable human beings. Let them loose. Let them put the gas pedal down. Let them go. I’ll follow that. I’ll follow the people whose hearts are in the right place and are taking it one day at a time. So, yeah. I’m proud of how we’ve done this together as an industry, as a group of people who have not always had it easy, and I see a lot of hope coming. That’s the future. We’re going to build that.

[Josh Kopel]

That’s Mark Canlis, owner/operator of the Canlis restaurant in Seattle. For more information on the restaurant and the family behind it, go to canlis.com.

[Josh Kopel]

If you want to tell us your story, hear previous episodes, check out our video content, or read our weekly blog, go to joshkopel.com. That’s J-O-S-H-K-O-P-E-L dot com. Thank you so much for listening to the show. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, please leave us a review. A special thanks to Yelp for helping us spread the word to the whole hospitality community. I’m Josh Kopel. You’ve been listening to Full Comp.

Permalink

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.