When our communities need help, “restaurants just show up,” according to famed Seattle-area Chef Ethan Stowell. In this episode of Bloodworks 101, producer John Yeager sat down with Ethan as Bloodworks wrapped up its “Savor Life. Save a Life.” blood donation awareness campaign and, as you’ll hear in this episode, the help from the culinary community “showing up” for patients in need couldn’t have come at a more critical time.
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Ethan Stowell: There’s this is kind of an unwritten thing with restaurants and the chefs is that, “You support my thing, I’ll support yours.” But more importantly, what I’ve always said about restaurants is that when there’s tough times and there’s something that needs to happen, restaurants will show up. They show up, that’s the phrase I’ve always said is restaurants just show up.
John Yeager: By now you’ve probably heard about our “Savor life, Save a life” awareness campaign. Working with members of the local culinary community, we set a goal of recruiting 10,000 new and re-engaged donors by July.
Members like Jason and Debbie Frend Wilson, the owners of the Lakehouse Bellvue restaurant. Jason and Debbie have their own reasons why blood donation is so important to them. A few years back, Jason needed to have enough blood on hand for an operation to mend a tiny hole in his heart. His wife Debbie, lost a lot of blood during the birth of her first child.
So, each of them knows, they just know, how important having enough blood on hand is. Now, I should also mention that because of Savor Life Save a Life, Bloodworks has now topped 13,000 new and re-engaged donors, thanks to people like Jason and Debbie. And thanks to a conversation they’ve had with fellow restaurant owner Ethan Stowell.
You’ve no doubt heard that name. Ethan Stowell owns a lot of restaurants, Tavoláta, Staple & Fancy, How To Cook A Wolf, Ballard Pizza Company, The Victor Tavern, Victory Burger, and that’s just to name a few. I spoke to Ethan recently at the Victor Tavern in Belltown.
Ethan Stowell: Yeah, we’ve got a bunch of restaurants. We’ve been in the industry for a long time. I mean, ESR was founded in 2007. It was actually a little bit before that. My first restaurant was in 2003, but the company formed in 2007. And we’ve just been a growing company ever since then.
So, we’ve got spots in obviously Seattle. We just opened a place in Woodinville. We got spaces in Spokane. We’re starting construction on a spot in Boise, Idaho, in a couple of months. We got a restaurant in New York and, shockingly, we even have one in Japan. But that’s a longer story, but it’s all good.
John Yeager: What is it about the restaurant industry that got you started in the first place?
Ethan Stowell: Well, I mean, I started off my background as being a cook. And when you’re a kid everybody wants to be kind of like their dad. And my dad was not a chef or cook. He was an artist, but his hobby was cooking. So every day he came home and made dinner for the family. We always had dinner together. And you could tell he got a ton of joy and pleasure out of the process of cooking.
So it just kind of rubbed off. We always had a bunch of interesting things and unique things to eat. My diet growing up was very broad. We always had lamb, and crab, and steak, and chicken, and rabbit, all kinds of stuff. So it just kind of expanded my palette, and I enjoyed it.
And then I got into the restaurant industry and found out that I really liked the industry, and I liked the hours, which is night-time work. And I liked being in the kitchen I really liked working with my hands, I really liked the fast-paced aspect of the industry.
So it just kind of stuck and it’s just, I’ve been there ever since. I’m lucky. I started off and found out that my career and hobby are the same thing. And I haven’t had to really figure out what I wanted to do since I started this industry. I kind of knew it from the day I started.
John Yeager: Ethan Stowell is known for many things, but just try walking out of one of his restaurants, especially Tavoláta, without trying their homemade pasta. What is it about Italian cooking that we love? The country loves it, obviously, the city loves it, and that’s the direction Stowell took.
Ethan Stowell: Yeah. We’ve got a fair amount of Italian stuff for sure. I guess for the most part it’s the craft of cooking. Italian food is not pretentious. It’s handmade from scratch. Pasta is one of my favorite things to eat and cook. For those of you who’ve never worked in a restaurant, the most fun station to work in our restaurant is the pasta station because it’s the most fast-paced and busiest because everyone orders pasta.
And the pizza station, that’s another fun one. But the main thing about Italian food is it creates a sense of sharing, it creates a sense of family, it creates a sense of just gathering around hanging out, and having a good time. That’s what we like as a company is we like seeing people gathering around a table.
I started off being a more fine-dining chef. And then just kind of started spending a bunch of time in Italy, starting traveling there a bunch. And really started liking the…not just the food, which I loved obviously, but the culture, and the people, and just how they think about dinner, and lunch and eating. And how important it is not just to feed yourself but just to make sure you’re getting together with people and hanging out and checking in with each other. I think it’s a huge thing right now.
John Yeager: So, the pandemic hits you. One of the things that people have told me throughout this whole “Savor life, Save a life” campaign is that people come together in restaurants and that must have helped you get through all of this.
Ethan Stowell: Yeah. I mean, obviously, the pandemic was hard. In a lot of ways, it was sad, mostly, more than anything else. It was long, but you knew what you had to do. We went through the recession in 2008, and 2009, so we kind of had a road map and had a little dramatic hit in your business levels. Nothing prepared us for what this was but at least we had a little bit of a road map.
The restaurant industry, they stick together. We as a company at ESR, we’re definitely hard workers, we’re fighters. We weren’t going to go out that way. And it wasn’t fun. And like I said, it was sad because some people lost their jobs. We’re still at the spot of restaffing. It’s still a challenge these days.
John Yeager: So, you got involved with “Savor life, Save a life,” through Jason and Debbie Friend Wilson over at the Lakehouse Bellevue. Tell me a little bit about that conversation.
Ethan Stowell: Jason’s been a chef around Seattle for a long time and so have I. This is kind of an unwritten thing with restaurants and chefs is that “You support my thing, I’ll support yours.” But more importantly, what I’ve always said about restaurants is that when there’s tough times and there’s something that needs to happen, you know, restaurants will show up. They show up, that’s the phrase I’ve always said is restaurants just show up.
So, I mean, I think those things, it has an easy ask, it has an easy give. Jason was certainly behind it. When you feel the passion of somebody else supporting something, that passion rubs off. So if people were going to get involved in something, you know, we were happy to do it.
My main reason for doing it was because of Jason, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t recognize the need, obviously, that was great. And you told me today that the numbers exceeded what the goal was, which is fantastic. But our main thing is just about being a member of the community, it means you got to be involved and you got to show up. So we try to do as much as we can.
John Yeager: And show up and give blood.
Ethan Stowell: In this case, yes. I mean, you know we’re here. The restaurant industry nowadays is a little bit different than it was before. So, the restaurant industry is a work in progress right now. Right now, it’s in the process of redefining its values and culture, so we’ll see how that goes. I mean, that’s a big task we have that we want to take on in the next year or so.
John Yeager: So in a way, this campaign, bringing all these restaurants together, couldn’t have happened at a better time, if you will?
Ethan Stowell: I don’t think there’s ever a good time to need that much blood. So, but, yeah it’s nice, it was the first event we’ve done since the pandemic where a bunch of people from the restaurant industry got together, which was nice. Hey, we’re all in this together now, and we’re all supporting each other. And it felt good to be back to, like, what was kind of like normal.
John Yeager: Kind of like normal, wow.
Ethan Stowell: Kind of like normal.
John Yeager: Can’t wait for that to happen again.
Ethan Stowell: Whenever that’s going to be in the future. Whatever that’s going to be and whenever it’s going to be.
John Yeager: Thanks a lot.
Ethan Stowell: Thank you. Appreciate it.
John Yeager: Bloodworks wishes to thank all the restaurant owners, the chefs, the winemakers, the beer makers, and everyone involved with “Savor life, Saver a life.” Based on the success we’ve had with this campaign; plans are already underway to try it again. Do campaigns like this really make a difference?
Combined with more than 11,000 new and re-engaged donors from last year’s “Music In Our Blood” campaign, and the more than 13,000 new and re-engaged donors from “Savor life, Save a life,” and it adds up to more than 24,000 new and re-engaged donors. That’s during a crippling pandemic and right in the middle of what the American Red Cross calls, the lowest national blood levels in over 10 years. All those donors couldn’t have come at a time when they were needed more.
Our community’s blood supply remains in a critical state, and we need everyone to pitch in and help. Schedule a blood donation today!