(Editor’s note: We weren’t planning an extensive preview of the Swinery’s reopening. But the story of its proprietor acknowledging problems is a compelling one, and the interview yielded details of future plans as well. Yes, the story’s long – longer than Christopher’s much-read July Swinery preview – so if you are interested, note it’ll take a while.)
Story and photos by Christopher Boffoli
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Bacon lovers will rejoice when the Swinery re-opens its doors for regular business hours today for the first time in several weeks.
The deli and butcher shop closed in February after owner Gabriel Claycamp announced on his website that the business had no choice but to close in order to complete ongoing renovations in their new West Seattle commercial kitchen at 3207 California. However, Swinery insiders came forward to say that there was more to the story. They alleged that management problems ultimately prevented the Swinery from paying vendors and employees, and that a lack of profitability forced the owners to suspend their operations.
We followed up with Claycamp to talk about that – some of the challenges his business has faced since opening last September – and to talk about some of the changes that customers can expect from the relaunched shop, including hamburgers and duck fat potatoes from the new walk-up window, tubs of bacon-chocolate chip cookie dough, and more of the celebrated artisan bacon, which will soon be sold nationwide.
As the Swinery re-opens, Claycamp seems surprisingly centered. “Actually, I feel good right now,” he says. “This has all been an incredible learning experience with all of the ups and downs and I’ve seen how fast you can lose everything doing this.”
When asked which of the aforementioned reasons for the Swinery’s shutdown were true, he says, “All of the above.”
The five months of the Swinery’s initial operation was perhaps a case study in how a small business can quickly capsize from variables related to the mysterious alchemy of customer demand, overstaffing, mission creep, and some of the unique challenges posed by an endeavor to support local, sustainably-sourced products — for sale at premium prices — during the waning days of a deep recession.
The Swinery also was burdened in some ways by the collapse of Claycamp’s previous business venture, the Culinary Communion, which he founded in a house near Morgan Junction in 2002. But above all, the most significant troubles seemed to begin and end with issues related to construction. As Claycamp describes it, the renovation of the building itself presented many unforeseen challenges that weighed heavily on the budget. “Of the $350,000 in start-up capital we budgeted for the business, about $275,000 of that was consumed by issues related to the building renovations.”
When we last interviewed Claycamp in July 2009, he was working amidst a mountain of rubble and dust, in the process of transforming the space (formerly a dog-grooming salon) into a facility that was suitable for the preparation and sale of food. The building had originally begun as multiple structures which were connected haphazardly through the years, sometimes, he said, without permits. It looked like it. The interior was an odd warren of small rooms of varying size, much of which looked old, unevenly built and in need of attention.
During the initial planning, Claycamp seemed excited about the building’s potential. But as demolition began to open up walls, surprises began to emerge. “The walls weren’t even framed with two-by-fours,” he says, “It was just odd pieces of wood with sheathing holding it all together. There wasn’t even any insulation. We found newspaper stuffed in to the walls in a lot of places. Usually, after we tore open a wall we instantly regretted it.”
Claycamp says that his team not only had to renovate the building to suit the needs of their new venture, but that the process of construction by its nature attracts the attention and involvement of building inspectors, some of whom may not have looked more closely at the building in decades. So the new occupants became responsible for correcting all of the issues that had to be brought up to code.
For instance, Claycamp said that the building actually had two separate electrical services, one in the front and one in the back. “No one could find any permits after the 1950’s that showed when the front and back buildings were connected and made into one. So the back and front each had their own separate service and apparently no one ever noticed because, as far as the City was concerned, the property had two addresses.” Apparently, two different meter readers visited the property independently for fifty years and no one ever figured it out. “Having one building with two separate electrical services is actually illegal,” he says, “So we had to take care of that.” But that created new problems. When a new electrical service was installed on the north side of the building, owners of a neighboring property filed a complaint with the DPD when they noted that the new electrical panel did not have the technically-required three feet of clearance from their property.
There was also the sudden, unexpected death of their electrical contractor which halted work in their new commercial kitchen just as their access to their old kitchen, downtown at 4th and Main, was ending.
Claycamp now says that the downtown kitchen was a mistake in itself. “I have no idea why we opened that downtown walk-up window.” The space had formerly been used as a retail walk-up window and commercial kitchen for Josh Henderson’s Skillet street-food operation. When Henderson vacated the space, Claycamp and his team moved in and opened with a breakfast and lunch service, as well as expanded hours on game days which they hoped would take advantage of the location’s close proximity to the downtown stadiums. But after inconsistent customer response, they first reduced their hours and subsequently announced that they would be closing to refocus on the main Swinery operation in West Seattle. However, that location continued to serve as the operation’s commercial kitchen after the Swinery decamped from its previous rented kitchen in West Seattle’s Triangle neighborhood.
Claycamp contends that the landlord of the previous West Seattle kitchen space grew disenchanted with his team principally through an incident involving some ducks.
“We had ordered ten ducks from a purveyor in Duvall. But there was a mix-up and the farmer delivered them live. I got a call from my guys at the kitchen who said the ducks had arrived and were still quacking. I thought they meant they were just really fresh. Needless to say, the landlord wasn’t too happy to show up and discover ten live ducks in his kitchen. We had to leave after that.” Claycamp says that the farmer offered to dispatch the ducks right there in the parking lot. But lacking the hot-wax-dipping machine necessary for removing the feathers, they declined. “As soon as my kids saw them that was the end of it. So we brought them back to Vachon, put them in the back yard and were going to let the kids keep them as pets. But we came out the next morning and they were gone.” The ducks had apparently decided that the nearby country club was a more comfortable place to live. “We never did get those ducks back.”
The downtown kitchen continued to serve as much-needed space for the Swinery’s butchering operation. But as much as it was an essential resource, the arrangement was less than ideal. For starters, the location was in real estate limbo with developers planning to eventually demolish the building to replace it with a high rise. When that would actually occur remained to be seen. But the logistics of processing meat downtown and running back and forth to make deliveries in West Seattle meant that customers often would have to special order items for pick-up at a later date. It also presented challenges to the Swinery staff, in terms of inventory management, versus the ease of simply going into a kitchen at the back of the store and restocking. The Swinery had always planned to have its entire operation under one roof. But the unforeseen construction expenses with the initial build-out, and lower revenue than expected in the first few months of operation, meant that they had to shelve plans for subsequent phases of construction at 3207 California until now. Pending completion of the electrical work and the new walk-in coolers out back, and final plumbing inspections and permits, the Swinery (which writes about that situation here) will finally have its entire operation under one roof in West Seattle.
With all of the significant challenges of construction finally behind him, the reopened Swinery will also benefit from the lessons learned in the initial five months of operation. Claycamp admits that significant mistakes were made and that he has written a new business plan that takes advantage of variables, such as consumer demand, that were previously a challenge to quantify.
“We really didn’t know what we were doing in the beginning. We were getting whole sides of beef and we didn’t have the facilities or the meat rails that we needed. And frankly we didn’t have the experience. The amount of financial resources was huge. Each cow was $2,500 and we were plunking down all of this money without knowing what the real demand would be. Let’s be honest, we were chefs posing as butchers.” Claycamp says that it was taking his team up to 26 hours to do a whole beef breakdown whereas a professional butcher, with only one man working, could do the same work in two hours.
He also notes that butchered meat wasn’t even on his original business plan, just charcuterie (cured meats). But somewhere along the line he came up with the idea to offer sustainable meats from small family farms, all within 300 miles of Seattle. Claycamp says that he initially developed direct relationships with purveyors. But that resulted in costs that were too high for him to be able to make a profit. The Swinery now buys its meats from a cooperative which collectively sources sustainable meat from local farmers.
Claycamp says he also faced challenges with consumer expectations, balancing his goal of breaking down whole animals with the desire of customers who sought only the “Hollywood” cuts of meat. A whole animal would only produce so many top sirloin steaks, for instance, and then the Swinery would have to find creative ways to sell the remainder of the cow, often the unfamiliar cuts, while making customers wait until the next cycle to get the specific cuts they wanted. This made meat deliveries inconsistent, confusing customers who could walk into a local supermarket and purchase the cuts of meat they wanted, at lower prices, anytime they wanted to.
It also added considerably to the Swinery’s labor costs. When a roast would go unsold after a couple of days, the staff would re-package it as a marinated roast. If it did not sell after two more days, it would be re-cut for kebobs or used in beef stew. “Each time an employee had to do that it just added to the labor costs,” he says. Ultimately the Swinery was forced to amend its strategy from buying whole beef to buying “boxed” beef, with as many of the popular cuts as they needed. And Claycamp has reduced his 11-person labor force, realizing now that the huge team he assembled to run the Swinery, including lauded chef Brian O’Connor (now at Kevin Davis’ new restaurant Blueacre downtown at 7th and Olive) was more than he needed and contributed to a large portion of his business costs. “Now we’ve just got a couple people for the front of the house, a couple of people in the back and a person to do the books. That’s it.”
Claycamp acknowledges that he had some problems keeping up to date with his purveyors, but that he has worked out payment plans with them, many of whom will continue to provide the Swinery with meats. He says he will continue to stock his previous product lines but with some new enhancements. Thundering Hooves of Walla Walla (still, at 296 miles, within his goal of 300 miles for sourcing) will provide regular beef as well as dry-aged. The Swinery previously dry-aged beef and will continue to do so with primal cuts. But Claycamp explains that receiving seven-day-dry-aged beef will help with consistency. “In the past we had various cuts of beef that were dry aging for different lengths of time. And the beef loses volume as it ages which resulted in really odd amounts of loss that were impossible for us to calculate. So this will help us make the process more reliable.” Along with local chickens, ducks, and squabs, the Swinery will now be offering rabbits as well.
But the Swinery is perhaps best known for its pork, the basis for its bacon and house-made charcuterie, sourced from a small family farm in Port Orchard. And Claycamp is excited about a new development at the pig farm: The farmer will be eliminating all soy and corn from the pig feed and will be finishing them with hazelnuts. Some of the best hams in the world are produced in Spain, where the pigs eat diets of mostly acorns; this imparts a delicious, nutty flavor. Claycamp says he is anxious to see how the hazelnuts will enhance the flavors of his pork.
The Swinery will no doubt be using a lot of that pork as it ramps up production of its popular artisan bacon. Claycamp has announced that his bacon will soon be sold nationwide via mail order, in 1,000 markets, through Foodzie.com. He will also be selling a new bacon product: Tubs of bacon-chocolate-chip cookie dough.
Customers familiar with the Swinery may notice some physical changes to the shop too. The menu chalkboards have been moved, and a new hanging rack for charcuterie, made of a metal ladder recycled from a firehouse, is now hanging from the ceiling behind the deli cases. Colorful new shelving will feature new products, including more dry goods and cookbooks. And a recipe kiosk at the back of the shop will offer ideas, while at the same time the Swinery will be offering herb bundles and cut vegetables along with their meats.
Claycamp says he has not completely abandoned his plans to offer duck-fat or bacon-fat popcorn (which he told us about last year). But he has had issues with where he’d put a popcorn machine in the small shop. He also says he is continuing to look at participation with the West Seattle Farmers Market, though there are still issues with available space and the cost of the necessary portable mechanical refrigeration.
One of the biggest new developments at the Swinery will be the opening of the long-promised walk-up window. Claycamp says he plans to offer items like $5 Swinery burgers and smoked beef ribs, right off the barbecue. The menu will be an abbreviated version of the downtown walkup menu. The plan is for it to initially be for lunch only, starting in about two weeks. But Claycamp soon hopes to expand to breakfast items, perhaps engaging the local high-school audience, and then later hours at night. In addition, he says the Swinery will expand its evening hours and offering to-go dinner options, such as whole roasted chickens, smoked pork loin, as well as sides like roasted duck-fat potatoes. He says prices on prepared foods will be lower across the board than they were in the past.
Also returning soon will be the Swinery’s chicken-liver paté, removed over the winter in response to complaints by the Health inspector. Though Claycamp was adamant in our interview last summer that his issues with Health Department compliance were behind him, he says that he has continued to navigate the sometimes tricky waters of government compliance, which he claims has less to do with actual food safety issues in his kitchens and more to do with what he views as sometimes seemingly arbitrary categories and rules.
Claycamp explains: “The issue with King County Public Health (KCPH) had to do with glass jars. The way we packed the chicken liver pate was that we put it in glass jars when it was cold and it went right into the fridge. But according to King County, anything that is in glass jars is automatically considered canning and they don’t regulate that. They sent us to the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). But the WSDA said we’re not canning because we’re not vacuum packing with a hot seal. It is just basically cold packed and put in the fridge. They didn’t want anything to do with it and sent us back to KCPH. Personally, I don’t see a big difference between a glass jar and a plastic jar sitting side by side in the fridge. But that’s KCPH’s rule, so I’m caving and I’ll just get the plastic jars.”
King County Public Health was not able to comment on the specifics of this case by late Wednesday. However, Public Information Officer Hilary Karasz told me generally that the overall goal for the 10,000 restaurants regulated by KCPH is “to make the food more safe.” Karasz says that they often work closely with restaurants and food producers to develop HACCP plans, which are basically safe food handling plans for specialty products whose production deviates from standard practices.
She acknowledged that KCPH inspectors have occasionally been challenged with a bit of a learning curve, especially with newer procedures, such as sous vide cooking (a method of cooking food at low temperatures in a water bath which originated in France), especially when those procedures are not widely employed throughout King County. Claycamp says that he has been working tirelessly with KCPH on an overall HACCP plan which will address all of his products which require special preparations. He says the iterative process has been extremely detailed and has seen many versions. “There have been a lot of commas to correct and sometimes we’ve had to amend single words. But I think we’re finally there.”
Lastly, cooking classes will soon be returning to the Swinery, reflecting Claycamp’s talent as a teaching chef and the referencing the classes he offered for seven years with one of his previous businesses, the Culinary Communion. The new classes will be smaller and the schedule simpler than the extensive roster he offered in the past. Though he seems excited about the prospect of having students again, the mention of his previous venture seems to conjure for Claycamp memories of the difficulties associated with it, some of which spilled over and burdened the Swinery.
He says he was and is still committed to making good on obligations to those people who were owed refunds when Culinary Communion closed. Many have taken advantage of credits offered for Swinery products in lieu of cash refunds, he says. “There are still some contractors and investors from the CC who remain unpaid,” he says, “Legally we don’t have to pay those guys at this point but they are friends and I want to make sure they are paid off. With individual students, most of them should be square at this point. A few of them have chosen to not come in yet. But if they know how to get squared up when they want to.” Claycamp says that he feels good about resolving the situation with the students who were owed refunds, but that it was hard on the new business to do so. At a time when any nascent business would be struggling to grow in its initial months, he says, the Swinery was sometimes seeing thousands of dollars in product each week go toward servicing its past obligation to students.
Credit-card-processor issues caused more severe problems.
Claycamp says that when the closure of the Culinary Communion was announced, many students who learned they would not be getting refunds had their credit-card processors issue chargebacks on their accounts. But the chargebacks had not been settled by the time they vacated the space and moved the family to Vashon Island. The utilities were shut off and the bank accounts were closed. So the bank automatically put Claycamp on a “black list” shared by credit card processors.
“The only way we could get credit card processing for the Swinery was to go back to the original credit card processor and agree to a plan in which they would take 15% commission on every dollar for a full year. And we’ve been required to do this past the point at which we’ve paid off what we owe them. We paid them off in December but we’ve got another nine months of this,” Claycamp says, adding that at one point the Swinery toyed with the idea of going to a cash-only system. They posted an item on their blog to solicit feedback from customers. But then they learned that the contract with the credit card processor prohibits them from going cash-only. So 15% of all charges will continue to be collected into a reserve fund until it is ultimately refunded.
Despite the roller-coaster ride, Claycamp still maintains his optimism that the most difficult challenges are behind him. He is especially happy with the newly renovated building and the white, gleaming new kitchen that is a result of all of the headaches.
“I still feel good about the location. Sure, there is the challenge of us not being in one of the junctions. We’re sort of inbetween. But the customer traffic has been strong and the people coming in have been enthusiastic. Now it’s finally all back online. I feel good.”