by Nancy Leson for Seattle Times.
If you’re one of those people who never understood the lure of Lunchbox Laboratory — the burger-joint some consider the best in town — you’re not alone. There are those who found the Ballard hole-in-the-wall too small, too spendy and way too funkadelic. Others were offended by gruff service and fear of cardiac failure. Even the Lab’s fervent fans were known to balk at its erratic hours. “When they sell out, they close — so call ahead” suggests the 2011 Seattle Zagat Survey, published last week touting the Lab’s “`amazing’, cooked-to-order creations `huge’ enough to `feed two adults.'”
Bet you can eat just one. A bacon-burger deluxe with curly-fries and a handmade strawberry shake at Lunchbox Laboratory in Ballard. [Seattle Times/Greg Gilbert]
Of course, no one has complained as vociferously about Lunchbox Laboratory than the man whose love/hate relationship with food — and his restaurants — has been well documented. “I hate being owner of this place,” owner-chef Scott Simpson told me last week — days before shuttering his joint Sunday in preparation for its big move to South Lake Union. “I’m a terrible businessman. I’m awful at it!”
Simpson made his name as the original owner of the Blue Onion Bistro (since sold, later closed), followed by the short-lived fine-dining-place Fork. And everyone who follows such things knows he’s been looking for a way out of Ballard since he moved into the ramshackle shack at 7302-1/2 15th Avenue N.W. Well, he’s finally found an exit-strategy — thanks to a new business-partnership that has him jumping out of the managerial fire and back where he belongs: into the kitchen with his French cast-iron frying pans.
Providing the platform for his jump is John Schmidt, owner of Southlake Grill.Schmidt’s South Lake Union grill has not been as popular — nor as profitable — as others in his cadre of Neighborhood Grills: among them the Green Lake Bar & Grill, Eastlake Bar & Grill, Lake Forest Bar & Grill and Crossroads Bar & Grill (another, in Bremerton, is slated to open this spring). In South Lake Union, Schmidt says, “You need more of a cutting edge, a hip, urban product.” He’s convinced he’s found one, thanks to Simpson. “We were trying to find a solution to South Lake Union and Scott was looking for a larger facility,” explains Schmidt. “It was a perfect marriage, a symbiotic combination of needs. He had the product, we had the space.”
Southlake Grill at 1253 Thomas Street will soon close and re-open as the new Lunchbox Laboratory. [Seattle Times/Greg Gilbert].
Indeed he does: 5000-square feet of it, including two bars, seating upstairs and down, and a sidewalk patio. Southlake Grill is slated to close after service January 16 and reopen January 24 after a swift cosmetic-makeover as Lunchbox Laboratory: the 150-seat full service-restaurant version.
Simpson is jazzed. “I’ve been working with [restaurant developer and investor] Arnold [Shain] on this idea for two years,” says the 38-year-old chef, outlining his expanded menu, ideas for crazy cocktails and plans for a second-story banquet-room-cum-arcade housing video games like Pac-Man and Space Invaders.
“We’ll keep the burgers pretty much as wacky as they were,” he says, describing an expanded menu including the take on TV dinners he’d hoped to do at the original Lunchbox Laboratory. He’s also planning to serve Kobe-beef corndogs and souped-up sandwiches like an Elvis-inspired cross between a Fluffernutter and a Monte Cristo — made with peanut butter, bacon and bananas. And considering reincarnating specialties Dr. Scott’s Maple Duck — among the dishes that blew this critic away at the original Blue Onion Bistro.
Simpson will be bringing along a four-man kitchen crew and his female front-woman, Allegra Waggener — as well as their collection of pop-culture kitsch. But the key to the new restaurant’s success will lie firmly in the hands of Schmidt and company.
With help, Allegra Waggener and Scott Simpson hope to do it all over again, bigger — and better. [Seattle Times/Greg Gilbert].
“This is all about the Lunchbox Lab finding an opportunity to expand its menu and better accommodate its customers,” insists Schmidt, who’s weathered big-time expansion pains as co-founder of the Taco del Mar chain. Lunchbox Lab is not another Neighborhood Grill, says Schmidt: it’s an opportunity to put a savvier operations-team behind a brand that deserves a broader platform. “We don’t anticipate changing what we do, and Scott doesn’t anticipate changing what he does.”
That being said, “It’s going to be a very tightly run restaurant. Running out of the ground duck burgers by 2 p.m. isn’t really going to be an option anymore,” says Schmidt, who plans to keep the place open from 11 a.m. till 11 p.m. daily. “As a faithful customer, you should not notice any change in product coming out of the new kitchen.”
As for further expansion plans, Simpson insists they’re in the works. Schmidt’s take? “My brother [James] and I started Taco del Mar, then these neighborhood restaurants. Growth is what we’re about.” However, “Right now, protecting the integrity of Lunchbox Laboratory is our priority. Let’s move Scott in, give him a better environment to do his menu, make sure we get that correct — and then we’ll see what the future holds.”
by Nancy Leson for SeattleTimes.com
At 28, chef Scott Simpson gained a fervent following as the original owner of the Blue Onion Bistro, selling upscale comfort foods and culinary kitsch in a converted gas station in the Roosevelt district. At 33, he gained acclaim for his funky-yet-formal dinner house, Fork, offering foie gras torchons and lobster corn dogs on Capitol Hill.
In the six months between Fork’s 2006 debut and denouement, Simpson gained so much weight he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t sleep and he could barely walk a block. “My legs hurt so bad, I thought they were breaking off,” he recalls of those months. “My whole body was in pain.”
Suffering from diabetes, heart problems, liver ailments and severe depression, the young chef sequestered himself in his apartment, leaving his fledgling business in the hands of his hired help — and ate his way to 469 pounds.
In June 2006, Simpson sold the restaurant. And after that, he never left the house, relying on Domino’s delivery for sustenance. “I was a total shut-in. For six months in a row I ate pizza every night. Eating was my comfort, my solace. I created that for myself by not being social, by making food my entire existence.”
Then, after a lifetime spent struggling with his weight and bipolar disorder, which was recently diagnosed, he decided he’d had enough.
Inspired by the massive weight-loss of another locally known chef — Sazerac’s “Big Dawg” Jan Birnbaum — Simpson went on a liver-cleansing diet, flew to Mexico and underwent gastric bypass surgery, eventually dropping more than half his weight. Complications from the surgery almost killed him.Today he’s 35 and a sturdy 200 pounds, healthier, happier and intent on doing what he’s long dreamed of — opening a little roadside burger joint. His latest venture, a 16-seat takeout cafe called Lunchbox Laboratory, is set to open this week off a busy commercial strip in Ballard.
Simpson spent the past six months gutting and remodeling the 1,800-square-foot space at 7302 ½ 15th Ave. N.W., once home to the original Ballard Brothers Burgers. He’s torn out the adjoining driveway and built a patio set with picnic benches under a heated tent. The kitchen is outfitted with fast-food service in mind, and the interior with chalkboard menus and his trademark collectibles — everything from a hog’s rear end to a kiddie drum set to a wall full of vintage lunchboxes stamped with images of King Kong, Lassie and the Cabbage Patch Kids.
Out front, a tall neon sign advertises “Lunch, Dinner, Brunch & More” and features a square-jawed, toque-wearing chef missing a tooth and sporting the kind of black eye one might have gotten in a bar brawl. Simpson admits it’s a wink at the kind of chef he once idolized, and a nod “to the beating I’ve taken this last year” — a year that’s “been one of the best and worst years of my life.”
Helping Simpson run the business is his fiancée, Allegra Waggener. They met a year ago, and she’s been both a steadying hand and a helpful visionary for Lunchbox Laboratory. Waggener’s managerial experience at such finer fast-fooderies as Dish D’Lish and Specialtys will no doubt come in handy as they hit the ground running.Their menu will encompass hand-ground burgers made with beef, turkey or lamb seared in French cast-iron skillets and topped with the likes of “crispy farmhouse bacon” and balsamic plum onion relish. We can expect a long line of “experiments” in comfort-food classics, like a rotating list of “TV dinners” built as a square meal with protein, veg, starch and dessert and served on compartmentalized china.
Vegetarians can munch on an “Ultra Vegetarian Patty Deluxe” embellished, if they wish, with one of two styles of fries — fat and stubby and shoestring. Plus vegetable gratins, mac ‘n’ cheese and “candyman carrots.” Kids are sure to clamor for housemade corn dogs, and milkshakes made with homemade ice cream, flavored with peppermint sticks or Ovaltine.
And everyone can help themselves to condiments stored on an old Nesbitt’s soda cooler: brown sugared carnival mustard, spontaneous combustion-fire ketchup, housemade vinegars and a variety of flavored salts — including one scented like bacon. In the coming months, Simpson and Waggener hope to roll out their “lunchbox program” — customized lunchboxes to-go, offering grade-school-worthy versions of retro favorites like tuna-fish sandwiches, or PB&J made with housemade nut-butters and jellies.
But how will Simpson, who has fought with a food-obsession in ways that nearly killed him, fight the urge to splurge on his own creations — now that his stomach is “the size of a golf ball”? And how will he keep his creative side from combusting, as it’s done in the past?For now, he says, “I have no worries, no stresses, no inhibitions. I’m very excited to be back in the kitchen, back cooking.” He’s eating healthfully, in small portions, and is happy to find that his palate is much improved since his weight loss. “I can really taste food, distinguish little things I couldn’t before.” Good food is the key again, he says: in moderation. “I had no self-control, and that was my problem.” Now, when he eats too much, it hurts. “You can eat little bites of food, and it’s like you ate a whole turkey.”
At Fork, he recalls, “I wanted to do something artistic. It was a cool, weird experiment — and it wasn’t for me. My art is comfort food.” And unlike restaurants serving foie gras torchons and lobster corn dogs, he notes, “Burgers don’t go out of style. You don’t wake up one day and say, ‘Burgers are so out, let’s eat pork belly sandwiches!’ ”
Looking back on his years as a restaurateur, Simpson recalls that at Blue Onion, “I cooked the kind of food I wanted to eat myself.” Now, he says, “I’m cooking the food I wish I could eat.”Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or email@example.com. More columns at seattletimes.com/nancyleson.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company