Foodie landmark Canlis continues to reinvent itself as it fights to survive


In the months since the pandemic first hit the United States, Seattle’s foodie landmark and multiple James Beard Award winner, Canlis, has become a burger shack.

It turned into a bagel shed.

It has switched to home delivery of its top-of-the-range starters.

It turned into a virtual bingo hall and later offered a piano livestream.

It has become a drive-in movie theater.

He was selling weekly boxes of farmers’ produce.

He threw a crab shack in his parking lot.

And now, Canlis is undertaking what is perhaps its most ambitious (and successful) hub: Canlis Community College.

“We went deep,” said Brian Canlis, who runs the 50-year-old restaurant founded by his grandfather with his brother Mark. “We needed an idea for the fall. We had our very first profitable idea, which was the crab shack, but there was always a finish line because it’s an outdoor restaurant and we live in Seattle. We started thinking in July about what we would do for the fall.

For the past five years, the restaurant has run an internal staff training program called Canlis University. The two-week effort includes food and wine training and even appoints a valedictorian at the end.

“People love it, but it’s not fitting right now,” Canlis said.

But that program spawned the idea for Canlis Community College, a massive campaign of live classes in food, wine, history and social studies; socially distanced field visits; frozen TV dinners to eat during class; life skills classes, an on-campus store, and even intramural sports. There’s also a kids’ TV show, in which the restaurant partners with the Seattle Zoo and Aquarium and the Canlis brothers go “on an animal adventure,” he said.

“There was no idea too crazy,” he said.

Customers responded. So far, 11,000 people (“and growing,” Canlis said) have paid $25 to sign up and access the educational content. Excursions, merchandise and meals are extra.

Earlier this week, for example, the restaurant’s $200 kits for the Wine Drinking 101 class, including a branded bottle opener, crystal glasses and six wines, sold out.

As a nonprofit “community college,” Canlis used tuition to pay for its mortgage, utilities, and reduced staff for the fall months. Any money earned beyond that break-even point is donated to a local hunger relief and job training organization, he said.

The fall program is running with a significantly reduced team of approximately 25 employees. Previously, Canlis had 110 workers, Canlis said.

“It’s temporary,” he said. “Our team knows it. We call it “autumn break”.

Canlis has a plan to continue operating through the winter even as the pandemic continues, he said. But he was tight-lipped about the details.

“I’m legally bound not to say what’s going on for the winter because there’s a domestic partner and they have rules,” Canlis said. “We are going to redo a gastronomic version for the first time. It will be here at the restaurant. It won’t necessarily be indoors.

Few segments have been as impacted by the coronavirus crisis as gastronomy. Many independent white tablecloth establishments have closed since March.

But Canlis said he has no doubt fine dining will return once it is safe to do so.

“Gastronomy has always played a role in the fabric of our communities, whether it’s a once-in-10-year meal that has to count because the celebration warrants it, or it happens more often than that” , did he declare. “Gastronomy is the most ultimate expression of caring for another person. In my world, it’s the greatest form of catering and people will need it. They will need it again. And we can’t wait.” to start doing it again. But it’s not the time yet.”

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