Story and photos by Mary Sheely
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Sixty percent of new restaurants fail within three years. But Mission Latin Restaurant & Lounge, 2325 California SW, is about to celebrate completion of year five.
If there’s a secret to Mission’s success, Eric Cozens, who owns the restaurant along with Peter Morse, says he doesn’t know what it is.
“We feel very blessed to have had it work out,” Cozens says. “I don’t know what the formula is. It was a lot of things coming together: the right place, timing, personalities, economics.”
It helps that Cozens and Morse complement each other in skills as well as personality.
Cozens, who previously worked for Starbucks opening new stores, handles day-to-day business operations. Morse, who has a lengthy background in bartending and restaurant work both in America and in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, was working at the El Camino in Fremont.
“I was able to write the checks and pay the bills, and Peter had the restaurant background where he knew how to make the margaritas and schedule people. A lot of restaurants are under funded when they start, so you open a restaurant, you spend all your money and think, ‘Oh, that’s fine — as soon as we open the doors, we’ll make money.’ But you don’t really make money for the first year.”
Morse and Cozens financed Mission themselves, and took their time finding the right location.
Cozens says. “We had been looking for almost two years and had come very close on all different places in the city. We stumbled across this place, paper on the windows, that used to be called the Lizard Lounge — people have great stories about that. I looked up the landlord and told him who I was and he kind of grumbles at me and finally agreed to meet me. I don’t know, I was 28 and kind of crazy, and he must have seen something in me, and he agreed to give me the space.”
According to Cozens, in restaurant ownership, like life, first impressions can mean everything.
“Once you open, it’s hard to change the perception that people have of you,” he says. “You kind of have to know what you are.”
It’s a little ironic when you learn that he and Morse started building Mission with a look in mind, but with no idea what kind of food they would serve — and today, food is arguably the strongest of Mission’s strong points.
“When we first started, we hired a chef, then put our heads down and started building a bar,” Cozens says. “We didn’t think about the food, more about the tequila and what the glasses would look like.”
Six weeks before Mission was to open, the first chef “took off,” Cozens says, forcing the partners to scramble to find a replacement. “We literally put an ad on Craigslist, picked a guy, put him to work, and went back to building.”
Cozens and Morse put in Mission’s floors, added walls, built tables, and even constructed the entire wall of stone behind the bar by themselves.
“Some people were like, ‘That’s not very smart,’ but it was very rewarding,” Morse says now.
The chef, Dave Hilliard, was left to his own devices to remodel the kitchen, hire a staff, and create a menu. One night, after a long day of painting, Morse and Cozens were sitting exhausted in the bar, and Hilliard was ready to share his work.
“We now remember it as, ‘Dave brought out the $250,000 tacos,’” Cozens says. “Because at that point, all we had was a really expensive room.”
At this point in his story, the word “amazing” features prominently.
“He brought out these fish tacos that were probably at the time the most amazing things we’d ever eaten,” Cozens says. “We were like, ‘Oh man! We’re going to have amazing food!’ It was the most amazing thing, and that was one of the things that contributed to our success.
“People come to Mission to feel comfortable,” he continues. “They like the environment, a dark bar, it makes them feel good. I think what we’ve done is exceeded expectations with our food. If you don’t expect to get good food, it tastes a lot better.”
“Dave took our menu to a different direction and level,” Morse says. “We were very surprised and actually very fortunate for our first hire to take the reins and create a menu, and there’s still a lot of stuff on our current menu from day one.”
Although some customer favorites were added later.
“Dave was such a purist we didn’t have nachos on the menu for like two years,” Cozens laughs. “On the business side of things, I had to finally sit him down and say, ‘We’re putting nachos on the menu, Dave.’”
But even the simple content of nachos isn’t taken lightly, Cozens says.
“We kind of got a lot of flak for charging for chips and salsa. But the salsa is made from scratch every day and we fry our own tortilla chips. And our kitchen is 100 square feet!”
Hilliard moved on two years ago, and since that time James Scarlett has been the Mission chef. Scarlett continues making the Mission favorites, and also creates new menu items — such as pork chops with a cherry chipotle glaze — that are offered on a rotating “fresh sheet,” some of which will soon be added to the regular Mission lineup.
“We’re making a menu change next month,” Morse says. “Keeping everything we have but offering some more, well, it sounds silly, but combinations. So instead of choosing between tacos and chili rellenos, you can get them together.”
The menu is “ours to mess up,” says Cozens. “We keep it consistent.”
STICK WITH WHAT WORKS
After five years, the partners understand what works in West Seattle, where both now live. Cozens is in fact one of a third generation of locals.
“Mom, dad, aunts, uncles — it was nice to come back here and open up a place that served the community,” he says.
“The neighborhood has really grown up in the last five years, I think,” he continues, citing newer additions like Brickyard BBQ, Feedback Lounge (WSB sponsor) and Shipwreck Tavern, and classic favorites like West 5 and Beveridge Place Pub. “I think shortly that West Seattle will become a destination for the city for good food and bars.”
One new restaurant, Porterhouse, is in the space where, for three years, Cozens and Morse operated a second venture, Blackbird Bistro, before deciding to close (in fall 2008) and focus all of their attention back on Mission. Cozens doesn’t say much about the experience, though he clearly views it with disappointment — and some relief that it’s over.
“That’s a good example of sometimes the stars don’t align on things, and it’s a lesson and move forward,” he says.
What works at Mission? For one, an atmosphere that welcomes all comers.
“It’s everything from the rockabilly hipster tattoo crowd, couples that will come in for date night, to just neighborhood dudes who want to come in and drink some beers and watch the game,” says Cozens. “There are new families — we have a kids’ menu. We’ve helped out our business a lot by being able to have our mezzanine space for parties.”
While there’s no fee to rent the mezzanine, Mission does require a minimum order per hour.
“And if you have only 20 people for a Friday or Saturday night, we don’t kick you out,” Cozens says. “We just open it up to the public.”
Even more important to the business has been hiring the right people, something the partners have obviously done well — the bulk of the staff, from bartenders down to the dishwasher, have been with Mission for years.
“You have to find people that you think can do it as good as you,” Cozens says simply.
“Dawndra Budd. She was one of our first hires and has been with us since day one and now she’s floor manager. Gretchen Williamson — she was our very first hire and was with us for about a year, then moved over and managed Blackbird, moved to New Orleans, got married, has three kids now, and now she’s back working for us again like nothing ever happened. Our dishwasher Miguel Perez has been here since we opened. Seth Shimada, he’s been a bartender for three years and he just has the best Thursday night following. It’s kind of his own night on Thursday.”
Yes, owning a restaurant is work. But it’s important to Morse and Cozens to enjoy their work.
Morse says his favorite thing about Mission is “just the ownership, being able to call it your own.” But he adds, “The funny thing is, I still wait tables and bartend. I’m on the floor, and I love that part of it. Our staff is awesome. I think I always loved doing that in the first place, and this gives me my own place to do it.”
As for Cozens, “I decided that I wanted to throw a party. That’s what I wanted to do when I grow up — throw parties for a living. So what better way to do that than to open a bar?”
To celebrate Mission’s fifth anniversary, Cozens and Morse are, of course, throwing a party. The Mission Five-Year Anniversary party is tomorrow night (Tuesday, February 2), beginning at 7 pm. The public is invited, but you must be 21.
“It’s 7 pm until close or whenever the cops come,” laughs Cozens. “We’re going to have a little live music, a DJ, tequila sponsors for the night, some drink specials.”
And Mission definitely has something to celebrate.
“I feel like we’ve crossed the hump, we’re a fixture in the neighborhood,” Cozens says. “We’re really happy we’re here and it’s something that could be here or a long time. We’ll just try to keep getting better, updating, and keep it relevant, and hopefully do it again in five years. At least.”