How Canlis, A Famed Third-generation Family Business, Thrives At Top Of Seattle's Fine-dining Scene

Posted: Jul 30, 2018



Stepping into Canlis, considered by many to be Seattle’s most consistently great restaurant (“Seattle’s finest, fanciest restaurant for over 60 years”­­– The New York Times) in the late afternoon, before service commences, feels like stepping onto sacred ground. Set in a unique midcentury building that was designed for the restaurant’s 1950 opening and has been thoughtfully renovated over the years, Canlis is both a culinary innovator and the keeper of traditions such as the Canlis Salad, which they continue to serve tableside as they have for decades. (That's the salad Sam Sifton once spent his column in the Times teaching readers to prepare, because, he wrote, “a Canlis salad, properly prepared, is a revelation.”)

I was here to interview Mark Canlis, co-owner with his brother Brian, who are the third generation of the family to run the restaurant. (“Canlis,” by the by, doesn’t rhyme with “Chablis,” though they serve some fine ones. It’s a closer rhyme to “tanless,” a frequent condition in vitamin D-deprived Seattle.) Mark served me water in an elegant glass, and we got down to business.

Micah Solomon: The level of food and service that so many Seattleites enjoy at Canlis could maybe happen through dumb luck occasionally, but not for 70 years. What are the secrets of Canlis’s ability to create and maintain excellence?

Mark Canlis: A lot of it has simply been God’s favor on this place. Most people around here wouldn’t believe that, but it’s still the answer I’d give. I also feel that if you want to provide a great customer experience you have to care more about the customer than you do yourself. Most guests can smell from 50 paces a false or otherwise self-serving “service” experience–one in which the one doing the serving is really more concerned with themselves or their company than the person right in front of them. Finally–and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to see how true this is–taking care of employees is a direct investment in your guests.

Can you share some tips for succeeding as, and in, a family business?

I've actually got seven:

One: Keep family first, even if it destroys the business. If something goes wrong, at least you’ll still have your family.

Two: Figure out the values of the family and create a business that will support and encourage those values.

Three: Be clear on the company’s mission.

Four: Just because you’re in the family, doesn’t mean you’re in the family business. Don’t let family work in the business unless they deserve to.

Five: Most family won’t deserve to work in the business, so think it over hard.

Six: Family businesses have their advantages. Find them and act like it: use your size and structure to your advantage, use your culture to your advantage.

Seven: Meet regularly as a family to only talk business. And meet regularly as a family and only talk family.

Tell me about the interplay of tradition and of staying on the cutting edge, and how this plays out at Canlis.

Everyone wants to frame tradition and innovation as opposites, because it’s easy to imagine them that way. But that’s lazy thinking. Look at a few old brands that clearly defy it: Ferrari. Berlutti. Boeing. Even Apple. At their core, style, innovation, cutting-edgeness if you will – these things are the tradition. Tradition give boundaries, context, richness: all things that can help the creative process of staying relevant and cutting-edge.

Many of my readers are entrepreneurs or business leaders themselves. Could you share an example with them of when you made a mistake or something went wrong–and how you solved it or learned from it?

Like your readers, we’ve made endless mistakes. I don’t think a mistake matters as much as what you do afterwards. I once got really upset at a guest. I still think they deserved it, but the way I reacted was silly, immature, and frankly, “not Canlis.” The next day I stood in front of the team and talked about my mistake, what it felt like, how I got there, what I’d do differently. Everyone wants to hear about mistakes business leaders have made. I’m endlessly more interested in how leadership owns up to their mistakes. It’s one of the few times we get to see how human our leaders are–if they let us, if they allow themselves to be seen vulnerably.

I know that culture is important to you. Can you care to share your thoughts on what the Canlis culture is and why it matters?

Canlis is a place where all of us are trying to become people who are trustworthy, generous, and other-centered. I’d love to know how many organizations you’ve worked with that can describe who their staff are trying to become. My understanding is that it doesn’t get discussed much. And if you’re Canlis, we think that’s a real missed opportunity.

I’d also point you to the vision statement of Canlis: “Canlis strives to be the best restaurant in America. Our people are flourishing, growing emotionally, relationally, and professionally. We serve one another in a way that makes people feel valued and restored.” There’s a lot of growing encapsulated in there.

I expect you deal with a particularly demanding clientele, or at least a clientele that is expecting the best, considering your existing reputation for excellence. Does this get tricky?

I don’t find it trickier than fans expecting their championship team to come back next year and win it again. It’s a fun position to be in, and it takes hard work every day to even be in the running.

In spite of your price point and the elegance of your setting, you don’t strike me as ostentatious or fussily fancy in your service style. Can you tell me your philosophy that leads to this? And do you feel that this lack of ostentation is particularly well aligned with the sensibilities of today’s guests?

Service, at its core, is relationship. I don’t know many people who are interested in fussy, fancy, ostentatious relationships. A relationship, at its core, is about trust. And I wouldn’t trust someone who was showy, pretentious, conspicuous, overelaborate. And, yes, I'd say it’s clear that today’s guests agree.

By Micah Solomon
July 28, 2018
Source Complete Article: Forbes.com



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