Skillet Diner’s Josh Henderson – from Food Truck Pioneer to Seattle Restaurant Maven
He’s a Food Truck Hero, Puts Cheese on His Fries…
I first met Josh Henderson in a West Seattle apartment during a fundraising dinner party about 6 years ago. At the time, Josh was trying to finance expansion of the original Skillet Food Truck business here in Seattle as well as up and down the West Coast. There was the allure of the iconic Airstream, a great brand and logo, a cheesy gravy creation from the north called poutine, and the alluring bacon jam. My wife and I were intrigued, and Josh was certainly passionate about his mission, but ultimately decided to put our funds towards eating at Skillet Diner vs. owning a part of it. Damn, I wish I could unwind that decision and be a part of what has evolved from that simple food truck years later.
As many of you who follow Josh know – the original Skillet Diner business was born by two guys who kitted out an old Airstream trailer bolted onto a two wheeled platform towed by a truck. It parked where it could on private land in order to serve its loyal customers and, in exchange, it fed the local businesses lunch for their parking space. Back in the day, before there were the multitude of food trucks in the Puget Sound region, it was a rogue business dealing with the bureaucracy of public health and government while trying to generate a customer base and survive.
I distinctly remember looking at the Skillet website back then while trying to find where they were parking that day – was it the alley in SODO? Or in front of the bike shop in Fremont along the ship canal? It was a scavenger hunt for food in those days and a completely different world for the food truck. There was no Seattlefoodtruck.com site pinpointing the location of the multitude of food trucks that exist today. Survival was indeed of the fittest and a few pioneers, including Josh Henderson and Matt Lewis of Where Ya At Matt? have gone on to open their own bricks and mortar restaurants here in Seattle. Regulations have evolved and the business is much easier to get into today vs. in 2008. Welcome to the 21st century Seattle!
That One Restaurant, Felt Good in His Hands…
I have to admit, when I first heard the name of Josh Henderson’s partnership it sounded like some kind of think tank or new age hippie commune. In fact, what started as a simple food truck has evolved into a burgeoning ‘empire’ of restaurants in Seattle. The Huxley Wallace Collective is Josh’s brainchild that focuses on combining the aesthetic elements of his restaurants with the culinary design aspects in order to create an amazing dining experience for his customers. Of course, many of us in Seattle know of Skillet Diner and it’s locations in Capitol Hill and Ballard as well as the counter in the newly redesigned Armory space in Seattle Center. But in the last six months, the Collective has brought us both Westward and Little Gull Grocery on Lake Union as well as The Hollywood Tavern in Woodinville. The former is seafood-centric complete with a cool, marble raw bar and the Greek influenced menu of Zoi Antonitsas (late of Madison Park Conservatory) – try the gigantes beans if you go. The latter focusing on good roadhouse food such as burgers and fried chicken sandwiches (which I tried and was delicious!). Both restaurants are well designed and the influence of Henderson and team is clearly demonstrated – especially in Westward with its ship hull behind the bar feature and the portraits of seafaring legends such as Steve Zissou and Gavin MacLeod of Love Boat fame shown prominently on the walls.
Bought a Beat Up Roadhouse…
Josh Henderson and I met at the aforementioned Hollywood Tavern to share lunch and conversation on a light grey Friday afternoon. It sits just around the bend from Red Hook Brewery and across from Chateau Ste. Michelle next to the slickly designed Woodinville Whiskey Company. The space formerly (and lovingly to locals) known as the dive bar Mabel’s now resembles something you’d expect to see in Napa vs. a townie haven. For many, it’s a welcome change of scenery. Josh and I dove into some good conversation over some even better food…
So why did you get involved in food?
I grew up here in Lynwood/Edmonds, and went to Western and got a music degree. Primarily because I knew I could get a degree in music as I’d been playing all my life so Western was it for me. After school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I wasn’t going to go the performance route or teach elementary school kids. I’d worked in restaurants since high school and loved the energy and frenetic nature of them. I never had an opportunity to go to a ‘best of the best’ school and wanted to challenge myself so I chose to go to the CIA. I told myself I was going to commit and was going to work at it and I wanted to prove to myself that if I tried, I could do something amazing. It was a pretty important moment for me – I graduated top 5 and speaker of the class. I knew I had some ability to be a leader. I also made some strong connections and friendships I still have to this day.
Where did you get your start in the restaurant biz?
After I graduated from the CIA, I bounced around for a long time trying to find out what I wanted to do. I sold wine, was a chef at a number of hotels and restaurants and did some catering with big food companies like Aramark. It was OK but honestly I had a hard time sticking with the same thing.
Around 2005 I was living in LA and I started cooking for photographers. I traveled around the country in an RV and would show up at location and feed a crew of 15-20 people on a shoot. The money was exceptional and I worked long hours but I loved it. I worked hard – 15 days on, 10 off. I loved working like that. People ask if I ever get a day off but I don’t know if I want a day off. I have no desire to disconnect.
Tell me about the process to get the Skillet truck started in Seattle
I did the photo shoot catering stuff for 3 years and was doing some teaching on the side when I got the idea about doing the Skillet food truck. I came across the Airstream in Arlington and bought it. Then bumbled down the road of starting the food truck.
Looking at the old business plan now – I realize that they are completely worthless. We do them for banks I think. It became rapidly apparent that any type of replication would have required way more capital than we had. Just the physical nature of business – the cook calling in saying he ripped the door off with a phone pole – was just too costly and difficult to manage. We weren’t going to grow with no capital and limited profitability and we were really just trying to figure it out which was the hard part. And honestly, we were figuring out how to run a business period.
The struggles with the city of Seattle were mostly with my patience level and the need for money coupled with timing and ability to figure out what to do with us. If I had taken a year to plan and talk through it with them it would have been better. But I didn’t have time and needed cash and permitting wasn’t as important to me. It wasn’t their fault – they just weren’t ready for us and they have pretty well defined process looking for square pegs to fit into square holes.
So how did you evolve the concept and create the first Skillet Diner?
Change happens because you figure out different/better ways to do things. It became apparent that street food had a low ceiling from revenue and profitability standpoint. We realized that we would need to scale or predominantly do catering. It also felt like the brand strength of street food was something you couldn’t just let go. I was very committed to the concept. The brand had close to 8000 twitter followers at the time, so I knew we had brand equity. I didn’t want to deviate from the Skillet brand in opening the diner. So, I figured we needed a location, had the brand strength and we needed another outlet to sell it. It was then that I started looking for diner space and it really kicked everything off for us.
So what is this Huxley/Wallace collective thing?
Skillet is now a myriad of different partnerships that owns the two diners, the counter at the Armory, the street food truck and bacon jam. Each of these has different ownership groups. In order to keep Skillet going I had to sell my soul in a sense. Over the years, Skillet Diner has become more of a partnership group than my own thing. I felt like I still had the brand to generate interest in projects because people still associated me with Skillet. And I had a strong desire to not just be known for Skillet Diner and was concerned about what happened to my name if it didn’t go well down the road.
That’s how Huxley came about. I wanted to do something creative enough and still have the ability to make some money. A strong piece of it is about the design aspect of the space. It goes very much hand in hand with the food. All great restaurants combine those elements. It’ easy to have a restaurant that is chef focused but doesn’t focus on design or service – a lot of people go this route. But a true restaurateur does the whole thing. Danny Meyer in NY is the poster child for that. He hires amazing chefs that are well known, well regarded and the restaurants are also well respected. I don’t want to phone it in on any one of those aspects. I could have built this place (The Hollywood Tavern) for 500K less with the same food but it still wouldn’t be the right space. Customers deserve more and I think you’ll need to start doing more of this as they want more of a holistic dining experience. They want food, ambiance and the experience.
What do you love most about the restaurant biz?
I love the creative aspects and that’s what I’m kind of addicted to. And I also just love the family atmosphere of restaurants, meaning the staff; the crews and people that we get to know. They are my colleagues and it’s awesome to build the memories with them throughout the year.
What do you like least about it?
There’s a lot of little things that are frustrating sometimes but nothing that is overwhelming. The unpredictability of things – figuring shit out constantly when you think you know something but you really don’t. A restaurant is so unique depending on where you put it. You may think you have it figured out, then you may put another one in a different place and be totally wrong on every point which can be annoying. But, you have to be smart enough to change and I’d hope that we are. You need to recognize and adapt to change. It’s pretty basic – people tell you what they want with their wallets.
What is your #1 goal with your restaurants?
To provide for my kids and for they and my grand kids to not have to worry about money. For me, it’s a focus on family and building a legacy that’s rooted in quality and amazing creativity with an incredible work environment where people feel valued and respected.
I’d like to take a month off and go live in Europe with my wife and kids. For me that’s the big thing. I want to create a sustainable business that will be around for the next 20, 30, 40 years. One restaurant is tough to do that with. Inevitably there will be one that closes and hopefully we’ll be large enough that when one misses it won’t take the whole ship down.
Have you ever thought about expansion outside of Seattle?
I would love to open a restaurant in a place that I’d like to visit – Hawaii, NY, somewhere I’d have an excuse to go. For sure it would be hard to do that and moving outside this area is scary as shit. We’re not there yet but we could do it. Skillet Diner is the one that we could most easily license if done right and systems were there with consistency.
What is your philosophy regarding food/cooking?
I really need to have my own restaurant so I can go cook – a home base of sorts. My philosophy is simplicity and not taking yourself too seriously. If we’re going to do a fried chicken sandwich make it a fucking good one. If I’m cooking we won’t have 3 Michelin stars but maybe someone cooking for me can do that.
It’s all about doing the best with what we have and the market around us. Being true to the identity of the restaurant which takes time to recognize and stick with. Figure out what the ‘non-negotiables’ are and what will we not compromise on. Find the balance, don’t push too much on people and try to refrain from degrading the integrity of cooking. The craft is so honorable and I hold it in such regard. We’re adhering to principles and quality so people can come and say things are done right.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
It helps to have money – that’s one. And don’t be afraid of failure – you probably will in either little or big ways. Always focus on the best product you can get away with in what you are doing. You can’t argue with delicious. It’s an amazing business and it’s hard but all work is hard. Work is work – it’s just a different four walls I have than anyone else.
What would you have done differently when starting out?
The biggest things is clearly defining roles within our partnership. Taking the time to clearly defining them down to the ‘how many hours a day will someone contribute’ level. The capital piece was big. There was no way I was going to get more money than I had at the time when I was starting the food truck.
One thing I would do completely differently is understand the very basic margins of I needed to hit to just stay afloat. Just break even. Don’t compromise those. If you have a burger that you are selling for 8 bucks and it should be for 10 – then sell it for 10. It’d be much better to be able to go down swinging than to be fooled into thinking you are doing OK. Going back I’d blow up that model in a heartbeat. People are willing to spend 15 bucks on the street for something if it’s good – people are going to buy it. In this world, there’s not a lot of delicious. There’s some, but there are tiers and there’s a limit to how many truly excellent places there are out there.
What/who is your inspiration?
Right now, it would be someone like Danny Meyer. I think my motivation is improving upon the life that I had. I want to do better than my dad did and my kids better than me and so on. Giving my parents a better life down the road as well. That’s the big driver for me.
What is your favorite ingredient?
I would have to say pork. As weird as it is, I’d have to say chicken as well. The best chicken that I’ve had in a restaurant was at The Whale Wins. Renee Erickson’s roasted chicken is just phenomenal. I love black pepper too. Those two together can do some good stuff.
What trends in the biz do you see on the horizon?
What I hope for is the rise of the neighborhood restaurant. The really good neighborhood restaurant. To me, that’s the biggie. It’s a little trickier to do as it’s so reliant on one person, the chef, to be really good. But I think that it’s the thing that will happen next. My hope is that it evolves into something that reinvents neighborhoods. Think about an area with a couple of retail stores, a bakery, a small sundry store, etc. Grocery stores won’t be able to cater to all the business needs of customers. You want to go down to the guy on the street that you have a relationship with and buy your stuff.
What trends/fads are played out?
Bacon. I don’t know. It’s amazing but when you start seeing it at Wendy’s on ‘baconators’ and the like it has kind of jumped the shark. I also think people’s level of quality and standards have risen more and more. Restaurants that don’t focus on technique – the chain restaurants of the Applebee’s genre are a played out trend.
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
I feel like the farmers right now are giving the best of what our region has. It’d be nice to see a lot more local Asian ingredients. There’s a ton of interesting Asian greens that you don’t see a lot of that I think would do well. The majority of Seattle’s top chefs don’t do Asian. They do quasi-Italian or French or Northwest style food. Like in San Francisco – there’s such a strong Asian influence. Flavor enhancement in Asian cooking that could influence western styles of cooking can elevate what we do here.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
Pasta. And please salt your water.
Who is the best chef in Seattle right now?
What is your last meal?
Black pepper and Parmigiano pasta with bread and butter with sea salt. I know that’s like doubling starch but hey – it’s my last meal. If they could throw some crispy chicken skin on top that would be amazing. I probably should be drinking a white but I think I want a pinot. A big stinky pinot.
The Potatoes Ingredients: Instructions: The Gravy Ingredients: Instructions:
Josh Henderson’s Poutine Recipe
A La Skillet Diner
Yeah He’s Gotta Keep Rockin’, He Just Can’t Stop…
I truly enjoyed reconnecting with Josh Henderson after all of these years and hearing about the evolution of both he and his vision. It’s truly an incredible story when you think about it – starting as a roadie caterer in the desert, opening a guerrilla food truck, and then realizing a dream with not one but now five physical restaurants all within a 10 year period. Oh, and by the way, he had time to get married and have a couple of children during all of this. Josh has a drive and passion that are admirable qualities. I’m sure this will be evident with the opening of Quality Athletics Sports Bar in Pioneer Square this fall. I’m excited for him and to see what he does next – look out Danny Meyer!
If you enjoyed this interview with Josh Henderson then please check out my other articles in the series at Chef Interviews and stay tuned for future conversations with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs! Next up, Jerry Corso from Beacon Hill’s Italian gem Bar del Corso coming soon!