Having recently celebrated 20 years in business, we reached out to Portage Bay Cafe owners Amy and John Gunnar to take a look back at how the business has evolved over the last two decades, as well as where they see it going as Seattle continues to grow and evolve itself.
Since the beginning, Portage Bay Cafe has focused on local, organic, and sustainable practices, and has consistently been named one of the best restaurants in Seattle.
If you asked Amy, however, you might be surprised to find out that the restaurant’s first few years were, “no cakewalk.”
John, a Portland native who studied journalism before moving to Seattle at the age of 24, had worked his way up as a bar manager at the Seattle-based restaurant Cocina Cocina. There, he met Amy, who was working as a hostess.
Thus began a partnership that has led to two kids and four cafes in the greater Seattle area.
When the Gunnars purchased Portage Bay on Roosevelt, it was a no-frills, diner-esque eatery that was mostly enjoyed by hotel guests. It wasn’t making a lot of money, and the original owner wasn’t very attached to it.
But the Gunnars were eager to have their own business. On Oct. 18, 1997, on John’s birthday, they opened their version of Portage Bay Cafe. Amy was nine months pregnant at the time.
Amy said the restaurant’s first few years have come to be a blur, but she remembers community members being supportive.
“We were lucky enough to have a lot of people in the neighborhood who were happy to have the restaurant reopening for lunch and for brunch on the weekends,” she said.
The first days of Portage Bay hardly resemble the way the restaurant looks now. At first, the restaurant served dinner: Fish ‘n’ chips, burgers, club sandwiches and other items were sold; salads were also popular. The Gunnars were still doing a lot of the cooking and dishwashing themselves.
But after John and Amy started easing into their roles as restaurant owners, things started shifting.
Early on, a lifestyle change proved inspirational: Shortly after opening Portage Bay, John, wanting to eat more healthily, became interested in organic foods.
Per the recommendation of Amy, he checked out Whole Foods, which had recently opened a new location on 65th, to see what his options were. John was inspired by what he saw.
“I realized, first off, there are a lot of our customers here at Whole Foods,” he said. “And secondly, I can’t eat at my own restaurant because I’m trying to eat organic, and we don’t have anything organic. So, I said, ‘Let’s try to do organic.’”
This idea stuck. By the end of the decade, Portage Bay was using organic ingredients in almost all their dishes. Though it could be difficult to find distributors, the Gunnars worked hard to see their newfound ambition through.
At the outset, they partnered with Full Circle, an organic foods business that started operating in 1996. They also researched different farms in the area, and were attentive toward businesses spotlighted in farmers markets.
In the years since, they have additionally found Puget Sound Food Hub, a cooperative which helps restaurants connect with farmers, to be helpful.
“We look for the small farms that are organic and sustainably run,” longtime chef David Miller said, adding that shared values are pivotal during the selection process.
The Gunnars’ decision to emphasize organic foods quickly paid off.
“Business started taking off, virtually from the beginning of bringing in organics,” John said.
House favorites like the Bananas Foster French Toast and the beloved Migas scramble were featured on the menu, which evolved as the years passed.
The increasing notoriety in the community could at times be overwhelming, though. Because Portage Bay was so consistently busy, the Gunnars, who at that point had two kids, found that they weren’t able to invest as much time in their family as they would like.
Since they were usually busiest during the day, they made the hard decision to close for dinner. Though the shift was initially nerve-wracking, putting more focus on the brunch and lunch menus was beneficial.
“We were lucky — it turned out to be a really positive move for us,” Amy said. “It really allowed us to focus on what we were doing well, and allow us to spend time with our family, which made us better managers, better owners.”
By the mid-2000s, the Gunnars were considering expanding: They were so busy in the mornings, people would sometimes wait for more than 90 minutes for brunch.
They were now so successful that operating in more than one location wasn’t impossible. Soon, they opened a second location in South Lake Union, where the company also now runs a bakery from 2 to 10 p.m.
“We make all our English muffins and wheat bread,” Amy said.
In the years following, the Gunnars have opened new locations in Ballard and 65th.
To eat like you “give a damn” has long been a key part of the Portage Bay brand. But the Gunnars think it’s important to extend this sort of care to the surrounding community, too.
Portage Bay recently participated in the Seattle Pride Parade, and are sponsoring the 10th annual Lake Union 10K, an event which supports Girls on the Run of Puget Sound. They also support a number of state universities, high schools, music and sports programs, and more.
The Gunnars said that being involved with the community is the right thing to do.
“I think it’s everyone’s responsibility to be part of their community,” Amy said.
John added that he and Amy are often inspired by a desire to better support their diverse employees, and that they are always looking to find new ways to support the community.
The Gunnars are always looking for ways to improve Portage Bay, too. John says that he would like to expand further down the road, and hopes to see one or two new locations open in the future.
Amy considers Portage Bay a crucial part of her life. When asked about her favorite memory involving the business, she found it difficult to pick.
“It’s an extension of our family,” she said. “It’s like asking, ‘what’s your favorite memory of your family?’”