As we continue our look into tourism's value to the community, let's take a look at the restaurant industry. Restaurants are a key cog in the tourism wheel. When folks come to the Walla Walla Valley to visit for more than one day, they have three basic needs: a place to rest their head, transportation and food and drink.
The latter serves not only as a need but also a luxury, if the food and beverages are tasty. Walla Walla excels in this area with a variety of excellent eateries, many receiving national acclaim. To further focus on the relationship between tourism and these vital restaurants, we spent time with co-owner and chef of Someone's in the Kitchen, Gene Soto.
SITK opened July 24, 2008, primarily as a cooking school that offered some food to the public. But soon, it became apparent that there was a need for another quality lunch spot, Soto said. Folks kept coming in and asking if they served lunch and so Soto and his partner, Katie Gonzalez, changed their business model and offered a full lunch menu with added seating and specific hours along with the cooking classes.
Soon, staff and management were handling a bustling restaurant.
How much demand existed for this type of restaurant? Soto says that about two months after SITK opened for lunch, a patron came in and told Soto and Gonzalez that they had beaten her to the punch. She had already found the space, developed a business plan and logo for a business very similar to SITK. The demand keeps growing as the restaurant has extended it days and hours of operation and now serves a full breakfast menu.
The business model appeals to not only locals but also tourists.
"We get a lot calls from tourists wanting to know if were open certain days of the week. What do we offer?
The last two weekends (Spring Release and Balloon Stampede) we definitely saw tourists." Soto said. "The fact that we're open on Saturdays now with the Farmers Market open is really helping to draw some tourists."
The relationship between the restaurant and the Farmers Market is reciprocal. Much of the menu items come from local growers.
"It is important to us that we're supporting the local farmers. We like to keep things within the Walla Walla area. We know where the products are coming from. We know whether it's either grown organically or naturally," Soto said.
When locals and tourists take a break in their day to enjoy one of SITK's wonderful sandwiches, salads or soups, they appear before them without much of a wait. But how that meal got there is quite a process.
For instance, if one chooses a delicious turkey sandwich, the turkey was ordered at a specific time so that it will be fresh - it has a very short shelf life - the same with the lettuce, tomatoes and everything in between the bread.
The bread was baked partly the prior night and partly in the morning to guarantee freshness. The soup on the side was started at 3 in the morning.
In addition, SITK has limited refrigeration space, thus Soto must be precise with his orders. Due to the cozy confines of the restaurant he does not have the capability to store 20 pounds of salmon for future use. So, ordering incorrectly could cost the restaurant some significant coin.
Soto, a career chef, and Gonzalez, an accomplished restaurant manager, visited Walla Walla many times before choosing it as the location for their dream restaurant/cooking school.
He says the two were consistent tourists of Walla Walla while they resided in the Yakima Valley.
Walla Walla's wine industry and tourism, along with its vital downtown and great quality of life figured into his and Gonzalez's decision, says Soto. "It's a nice fit," he says. "We (his family) really like it. I have two children and they really like it here."
SITK's Walla Walla story is not unique. There are many restaurant success stories involving local residents or folks attracted to the area because of its business and domestic attributes.
The increase in tourism never could have occurred in Walla Walla without the strong contributions from local restaurants - from small cafes to the fine dining establishments. Tourists come to Walla Walla for many different reasons, a main one being the excellent restaurants.
Andrew Holt is tourism services manager for Tourism Walla Walla.