More than twenty years ago, John Grollmus walked east down Sherman Avenue late at night, moving away from darkened storefronts out into the quiet residential neighborhood. Like nearly every night, he was headed home after a long shift cooking at a restaurant in downtown Coeur d’Alene.
On that night, he noticed something different. “The signs were up in the windows,” he said. “It was a funky antique-shop-slash-restaurant. We hadn’t really considered it before, but then it came available.”
Grollmus and his friends Brad Fosseen and Jeff Meagher had grown up together in Spokane, worked in restaurants around the northwest, and now they felt ready to pool their (relatively small) savings to make a run at restaurant ownership.
“We were able to get in with a pretty low investment, though it felt like a lot at the time,” he remembers. “It was pretty simple; we just made it a comfortable neighborhood spot where we would want to eat great food and be with our friends.”
Success has come, and stuck, through a delightfully unpretentious atmosphere — Moon Time originally just used the antique shop’s tables — and menu items that folks in the neighborhood crave. In some cases these cravings approach the level of addiction: exhibit A is the roasted corn pasta salad that has developed a regional following.
“That was one of mine from the early days,” Grollmus says. “Brad and I would sort of compete to see who could make the best side dish for a special.”
Also in the early days, Grollmus would sometimes pull the “apron switch” trick when it got busy. With a staff consisting of just the three friends, if the dining room filled up, he would take off his chef’s apron, put on a server apron, and work out on the floor until the orders were all in. Then, he’d go back and cook the food.
“Things have changed a bit,” he says. As soon as they could afford it, they not only hired employees, but built a reputation for being a great employer. “We offer, or subsidize, insurance, and we do our best to be flexible. If one of our bartenders wants to head to Europe for six weeks, a lot of employers would say, great, but you won’t have a job when you get back. We’re excited when we can help people enjoy work and enjoy life. So they end up staying with us longer. Same with customers: we want them to feel like guests in our home, so they want to be here.”
To say these choices have worked out is a massive understatement. Twenty years later, Moon Time is still a North Idaho staple and The Elk Public House has been an anchor gastropub in Spokane’s food scene since before people used the term “gastropub.” Their empire also includes El Que, The Two Seven, The Porch, and most recently, the acquisition and refresh of Geno’s, a historic little place near Gonzaga University—a project that brought in a fourth partner, Marshall Powell.
These friends have made a career of following their instincts. Move into walkable neighborhoods, and work hard to become a part of the neighborhood culture. Bring together a reasonably priced menu of unique flavors, and a tap list full of craft beer favorites—with a few esoteric selections and cask-conditioned ales. Create a low-key and comfortable vibe, where guests and workers actually want to stay a while and come back often. And sometimes, just completely ignore conventions that corporate restaurants rely on: Geno’s is the first and only pub they have owned that features a fryer.
A pub without fries? These guys have proven it can work.
INB is proud to have helped make the financial side easier for Grollmus, Fosseen, Meagher and Powell so the team could follow their instincts and create a sense of community worth celebrating.
“When we celebrated our 20th anniversary with live, outdoor music at the Moon Time [June 2016], it felt like a high school reunion,” Grollmus remembers. “We had cooks, servers, regulars coming back who we hadn’t seen in years. One guy flew in from Europe just to party with us.”