Couple cooks up way to restart restaurant

The sudden closure of CreekTown Café gave the Wordens an opportunity to start South Fork Grill.

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Owners Chris and Jodi Worden (far left) react to the surprise gift of a wine table on the patio of South Fork Grill during a celebration of their first year in business.

WALLA WALLA - Hard to believe a restaurant known for its refined dishes and home-grown ingredients was conceptualized over hot dogs.

With unemployment hovering like a storm cloud over Jodi Worden, a four-course meal hardly seemed practical when she and her husband, Chris, made out the guest list for a special gathering at their home after the sudden closure of CreekTown Caf.

The August 2010 get-together was a catharsis, of sorts, for the shell-shocked employees of the restaurant reeling from the unexplained closure of one of the community's most beloved local dining destinations. But the Wordens, who had both worked as servers there, were having a particularly hard time letting go.

Both longtime veterans of the industry, their ascent up the food chain started during their teens in Walla Walla. They had collectively worked through pizza chains, the local Sea Galley and Jacobi's, embarking on a trail of restaurants and lounges on a path that took them out of Walla Walla and delivered them back again.

When CreekTown Caf opened as an elegant dining destination in a Southgate business complex, the restaurant became more than a place of employment. It also became a backdrop for some of the couple's greatest milestones.

Jodi had been there since the opening in 2002. Two years later, after she married Chris, the patio outside the dining room was the site of their reception. When Jodi gave birth to the couple's third child in 2005, Chris stepped into her place on the work schedule. He juggled his full-time job as a firefighter/paramedic for the city and shifts at the restaurant to hold Jodi's employment while she was on maternity leave.

He ended up doing that for 10 months before she returned. Then he stayed on as an employee after that.

Their world was tossed the July day last year when a sign was posted on the door announcing a temporary closure that turned out to not be temporary at all.

So they brought their colleagues together over hot dogs and beer with a question in mind: What about a new restaurant in the same place with the same staff to continue what had been started eight years earlier?

Just a couple of months later South Fork Grill opened its doors in the business complex at 1129 S. Second Ave., where CreekTown Caf had built a reputation as one of the finest restaurants in Walla Walla's wine country.

With Chef Nimal Amarasinghe among them, the restaurant continued with some of CreekTown's most popular dishes, including chicken marsala, prawns and scallops. But it went back to basics for lunch with a focus on burgers, salads and sandwiches.

About 75 percent of the CreekTown Caf staff was on board. Many of those who didn't return had found other jobs in the meantime.

Minus fewer than a handful of those, that same group of employees chipped in together earlier this month for a one-year anniversary gift for the Wordens. They presented a custom-made wine storage barrel with a glass top etched with the South Fork Grill name and logo.

"I'm lucky," Jodi Worden marveled. "I don't know how else to say it."

The celebration that has continued this month marks more than a one-year milestone. It comes at one of the most difficult economic periods in the country's history.

Consumers have less discretionary income, and competition for it is fierce. Sales at South Fork have never quite reached what they were at CreekTown, Worden said. Meanwhile, the cost of providing the service has only gone up. Food costs have continued to escalate. For a spell, the restaurant stopped garnishing drinks normally served with limes because the price skyrocketed to an outrageous $60 for two dozen.

If not for her husband's salary with the city of Walla Walla, Worden said continuing the restaurant wouldn't even be possible.

At the same time, the rewards have never been greater either. The restaurant provides stability for more than 30 full- and part-time workers. Amid stiff competition, it has remained an anchor of Walla Walla's celebrated culinary scene with Worden's attention to detail and customer service.

"She's just a very natural manger," Chris Worden said of his wife. "She just amazes me. I watch her deal with (challenges). She's very fair and understanding."

The transition from server to owner has been among the hardest challenges, she confessed. With more demands on the back end of the business - inventory, navigating food costs and more - she misses out on her favorite part of the job.

"I kind of miss being on the floor as much as I used to be," she said.

On the other hand, the administrative side of her has helped initiate special events that have become part of South Fork Grill's signature. Its Whiskey Wednesday events are an example, and new monthly winemaker dinners are in the works. Last weekend was a record night for the restaurant, she said.

The day is drawing closer when the guests at South Fork Grill will no longer know it as the former CreekTown Caf.

"I feel like there's a lot of support from anybody who comes in here," Worden said.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

If you go

A celebration of the one-year anniversary of South Fork Grill, 1129 S. Second Ave., concludes tonight with a special curry night. For details visit southforkgrill.com or call 522-4777.

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