Charlestown Café changes and challenges, 1 year later

This Tuesday will mark 1 year since West Seattle’s Charlestown Cafe reopened after repairs from a fire that came on the heels of a long fight over its site’s future. Seemed like the time to check in to see how things are going – and we found out some surprises:

Story and photos by Kathy Mulady
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

The one-year anniversary of the re-opening of Webster’s Charlestown Street Café is a bittersweet celebration for Ron Hanlon, owner of the West Seattle fixture.

A fire in the stove hood in February 2008 closed the Charlestown Café for months while Hanlon, the café property owner and the insurance company haggled over details. The restaurant with the something-for-everyone menu finally reopened June 30 last year. Just in time for what some have nicknamed the Great Recession.

Hanlon’s longtime business partner Larry Mellum moved on earlier this year, expanding Pike Place Chowder to Pacific Place downtown. But Hanlon is staying put at Charlestown, and in West Seattle, where he has owned restaurants for 30 years.

“I’m going to ride this to the end,” he said this week.

Regular customers, like Al Schmitz – a member of one of West Seattle’s founding families – still come in, grabbing their favorite tables or seats at the counter:

“I’ve been coming here for at least 20 years, at least a couple of times a week,” said Schmitz, who teaches senior fitness in Burien. “It’s the good food and the pleasant waitresses.”

Servers Tama Warrior and Hesper Guerra pour endless cups of coffee:

Guerra started working at the café right out of high school, some 20 years ago.

Stories like that represent the sweet part.

The last three years have been a rollercoaster ride for Hanlon. In 2006, the café lost its lease as the landowner, Strickland Corporation, prepared to sell the property to Petco. The news riled loyal customers who took the threatened loss personally. They started a petition drive, packed community meetings and lobbied the city.

Petco’s proposal never made it all the way through Design Review; eventually it gave up and backed off from the purchase plan.

For the restaurant, it was a brief reprieve.

Less than a week after the reprieve was made public, the exhaust hood over the stove caught fire:


(2/4/08 photo courtesy Scott Kratz; there’s also video at JetCityOrange)
The fire damage (blamed on the deep-fat fryer) wasn’t horrific, but the damaged relationship between Hanlon and Strickland came into full bloom, according to the cafe owner.

Hanlon said it was obvious as soon as he called the insurance company.

“You could feel the brakes go on,” said Hanlon.

Employees were paid during the four months the cafe was closed. When it reopened last year, everyone came back to work.

The café was chugging back when the recession hit.

Hanlon remembers the sinking feeling he had September 15, the day Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. A few days later, Washington Mutual did the same. Suddenly, the bustling café slowed. Regular customers who used to come in three or four times a week, now stop by once or twice. Hanlon has laid off employees.

His hunch is that the economy has hit bottom, but he predicts it will stay flat down there for quite a while yet. It could be a blessing for the café, buying them time before another property buyer comes along.

Since the property fight with the landlord, the Charlestown Café has been running on a month-to-month lease. Hanson says the relationship can’t be salvaged.

“It’s a miserable marriage and we aren’t going to counseling,” is how he describes it. “I’m done.”

But the Charlestown Café does go on. At lunchtime, the place is lively. Tables are filled with business people, families and friends, just like always.

“We are making our expenses, our rent and our payroll,” said Hanlon.

So the anniversary brings mixed feelings.

“It’s great for the staff, it’s great for the community,” he said. “For me, it’s bittersweet.”

WSB coverage of the Charlestown Cafe – the development proposal, the fire, and beyond – is archived here, newest to oldest.

23 Replies to "Charlestown Café changes and challenges, 1 year later"

  • Voodoo June 28, 2009 (9:10 pm)

    The Charlestown has, unfortunately, lost some business from us post-fire. During the long period of closure we started going elsewhere and haven’t been back to the Charlestown much in the last year. I wonder how many others have done the same.

  • Sue June 28, 2009 (9:40 pm)

    We used to be regulars there. After they closed for the fire, we branched out and discovered other places to eat regularly. Once they reopened we tried going back once or twice, but realized that they had raised their prices and that the food, in our opinion, wasn’t worth the higher prices and we no longer go there either.

  • thanks June 28, 2009 (9:47 pm)

    Oh thanks for this. We are a loyal family to Charlestown, we love their breakfasts and the lunch sandwiches are great too. I have to say that from going there often I really respect how Mr. Hanlon runs his business (and the other man who used to be there too). They get you seated immediately and the service is just impeccable. You really don’t find that extra touch of service at most places. And I also like how the employees were long-time employees – we always have the same waitresses. Now they have seen us from new homeowners in West Seattle 9 years ago to coming in with our 2-year-old. But the thing I was most happy about when it re-opened was that the seniors had a place to gather. They have a great senior menu and it seems to really provide a place for them to go and be among others. It’s just a great community spot. I am so sorry to hear about the changes and the troubles. Very sad. But we will still come!

  • Vanessa June 28, 2009 (10:06 pm)

    Let’s get the word out, and commit to eating at the Charlestown more than what we’re doing now. Remember how we’re were all going nuts, thinking that Petco was gonna take over….Well, now we have a real choice in helping to make a difference. By spending some dollars for one of our favorite local restaurants, we can help them stay alive. This time we have more of a voice from our support and our pocketbooks, compared to thinking we couldn’t fight the corporate side of life…….Mmmmmm, clam chowder for lunch tomorrow, I can taste it now…

  • Heidi June 28, 2009 (10:28 pm)

    I was looking for some comfort food tonight and stopped in at the Charlestown for mac n’ cheese. For $9.95 I got a ridiculously large bowl of delish pasta, a salad, steamed veggies and a dinner roll. I don’t think that is expensive in this town! I have plenty of food left for lunch tomorrow. Those of us who want to keep the Charlestown around need to eat there more often than just weekend breakfasts. Give it a try for a weeknight dinner!

  • PDH June 28, 2009 (10:35 pm)

    Still the best place for families, seniors, and others in West Seattle! Don’t know how many “extra” tips we have left because of our 2YO messes and yet they still love him and greet him every time. Tomorrow he turns 3 and the only place he wants to go to celebrate is the Charlestown Street Cafe!!!!! Same for our 9 1/2 year old. Even in a recession, we make sure to frequent our locally owned West Seattle Businesses!!!

  • WSB June 28, 2009 (10:45 pm)

    Happy birthday (in an hour and a quarter) to your 3-year-old! – TR

  • pampire June 28, 2009 (11:26 pm)

    A friend of mine was a waitress at the Charlestown Cafe when she was diagnosed with cancer. The staff there was very supportive of her and even held a fund raising car wash shortly after learning of her situation. I hope they can hang in there until I can afford to eat out again!

  • Little brown dog June 29, 2009 (4:58 am)

    The economy has us going out less, down to just once a week, but when we do and it’s “slupper” time (late lunch/early supper) this is always our destination. The waitresses are familiar and our tastes the same virtually every visit, so I think they can go ahead and place our order just upon us arriving, no asking necessary. For our anniversary my husband said “Charlestown?” Not fancy, but comfortable like our relationship.

  • Beth June 29, 2009 (7:54 am)

    My family loves the Charlestown Cafe. The food is always the same, unlike some that is good one time and when you go back, the food is awful.(We have had that happen at to many places). The soups are always wonderful!! We love their different chowders.It is the perfect place to get together with a small group of friends.

  • Meghan June 29, 2009 (8:16 am)

    The staff at the Charlestown is so nice. But unfortunately, the food is mediocre at best. It’s the kind of place where you get a stray onion in your blueberry pancake or get completely unripe fruite (both of which happened to me last time) because the cook hasn’t cleaned the grill adequately or the fruit isn’t inspected carefully. And it’s rather expensive for what it is. But I do hope they have a niche in W. Seattle. Their deck is nice in the summer and they do the basic things like burgers and fries well.

  • KatherineL June 29, 2009 (9:15 am)

    I love Charlestown. For years, my friends and I met there because I couldn’t get out of West Seattle. One day we sat and talked for four hours. Nobody tried to move us on. The waitresses are always friendly and greet me like an old friend, even though I can’t afford to go out very often.

  • Ms Pam June 29, 2009 (10:12 am)

    I love the Charlestown. Unfortunately when they reopened many of the serving sizes seem to have shrunk which was a disappoointment. So now I just go there occasionally when I just have an absolute craving for one of there dishes!

  • fiz June 29, 2009 (10:25 am)

    Ron deserves better than Strickland. He has worked hard and supported West Seattle youth for decades. How many of us remember standing outside the White Spot on Fauntleroy, waiting for a counter stool on Sunday mornings? Rom would bring a cup of coffee and the paper outside to us.

    My 91-year-old mother chooses to go to Charlestown Street whenever I can get away to take her to lunch, and she always orders the Curry Chicken Salad. With toast, please.

    Hester, Tama and others always greet us with smiles.

  • Paul in Gatewood June 29, 2009 (12:05 pm)

    I grew up in New England and Charlestown’s clam chowder is as good as any I’ve had back there – maybe better.

  • roddy June 29, 2009 (1:04 pm)

    Well, yeah, that’s why they won the Chowder cook-off back in Newport, Rhode Island for four years straight! Can’t beat it.

  • Patrick June 29, 2009 (2:00 pm)

    Funny, I just had lunch there before I read this article. Good service, reasonable prices, brown edges on lettuce. I guess it depends on what you order.

  • Vanessa June 29, 2009 (4:51 pm)

    MMMmmmmmmm,I had a big bowl of clam chowder for lunch and it was so very, very yummy. Yes, eating out is expensive, but when you don’t have all the time in the world to shop, prepare and cook, certain places like the Charlestown has just the right stuff……MMMMmmm, Mmmmmmm, good Chowder!!

  • Twick June 29, 2009 (5:14 pm)

    We were among those who signed the petition and wrote letters and considered the Charlestown one of our hometown faves. But we’ve stopped going since the re-opening after several disappointing experiences. The food quality has declined, the prices have risen to no longer be competitive, and even the service has suffered. (Nice, but absent.) Once we waited almost an hour (!) for our breakfast to be served, only to be treated rudely by the owner when we told him we had decided to leave rather than wait any longer. It makes us sad to abandon what used to feel like “our place” but it’s not the recession–it’s the poor quality of the experience that keeps us away now. I hope these comments might encourage Mr Hanlon to take a closer look at what’s going on–we’d love to come back and support this local institution if it was good, consistent, fairly priced and friendly like it used to be.

  • Joe June 29, 2009 (5:22 pm)

    Still the best clam chowder in Seattle!

  • Amy June 30, 2009 (8:56 am)

    We’ve also had some disappointing food there. Bland and tasteless, or WAY oversalted. It’s definitely disappointing, as we loved the Charleston for their breakfasts. Dinners have never been much of anything great – microwave meals taste about the same…

  • bridge to somewhere June 30, 2009 (9:18 am)

    i really like the people there, and the article reveals some understandable tensions they are going through, what with the fire, relationships that haven’t gone well, and the recession — but here’s the thing: patrons don’t generally care about all or any of this, especially when they themselves have little money and are under similar stresses. if anything, hard times should be a time for a restaurant to work on its core business: making people happy. if you can’t do that, even when you’re having a hard time as an owner, your business will fail. period. there are tons of charities out there and i certainly donate to them, but a business is not a charity — it has to earn my money. if its a restaurant, the service and the food must be top notch or i’m not going.

  • dolly June 30, 2009 (11:10 am)

    I hope they take a good look at the service they are providing. As a long time customer who also worked hard to “save the Charlestown” I too have been disappointed since the reopen and recession. Service has been slow, lackadaisical and food prep a little unpredictable. As a small business owner, I understand the struggles presented in our economy, but as a consumer, I also must make the tough choices about when and where I spend my dollars. Please take a look and make sure that the service is top-knotch all day, not just when your long-time great servers are working in the mornings and weekends.

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