Linda, a fortysomething bombshell with a messy blond bob and slight frame, doesn't seem like a rich businesswoman--at least you couldn't picture her at a corporate board meeting. Like the twentysomethings who frequent her bars, Linda dresses fashionably, but is super-casual. And obviously, she has an uncanny ability to tap into youth culture. "I just think of places that I would like to hang out in," she says, sipping her mocha at Bauhaus cafe. "I think it's more instinct and gut than market research or something." Her instincts are working.
Linda's Tavern, located on Pine Street across from Seattle Central Community College, is packed every night, and has evolved from a simple country-themed bar to a neighborhood landmark with food and liquor. "It's my baby," says Linda proudly, juggling my questions with multiple cell phone calls. In fact, Linda's Tavern, which first opened in 1994 with the financial backing of Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, doesn't even need to be hip anymore. It's just there, a second home for many. She also owns the Baltic Room, which opened in 1997, and financially backs Le Pichet. Though she just sold the Capitol Club in November, she added the Breakroom to her holdings this month [In Other News, Kathleen Wilson, Jan 9].
Linda downplays her track record. "I was just an art student," she says, though a brief look at her history confirms her knack for business. She grew up in a small town in Colorado, where she and a friend started a punk-rock clothing company called Fashion Disaster in their early 20s with $5,000. The business was anything but a disaster, and just two years later, she opened a cafe in Denver called Cafe 13. A few years after that, she moved to Seattle to open a clothing shop called Basic on a funky street she'd heard of called Broadway. Soon she became part of the growing Seattle scene, and eight years later, she sold her Broadway clothing company to start Linda's Tavern. She was the first bartender.
Today, Linda owns three businesses, a half-million-dollar Pine Street penthouse condo with palm trees and a view, a silver Mercedes convertible, and half of a New York City apartment. "Thank god for Jet Blue," she jokes, commenting on the new discount airline.
Business has been good to Linda. She has a large and devoted staff of employees, some who have been with her for 13 years. However, her recent purchase of the Breakroom (she partnered with local entrepreneurs Wade Weigel and Jeff Ofelt) has left some former employees disgruntled.
A few weeks ago, Linda fired three employees from Linda's Tavern for making plans to buy the Breakroom without consulting her. "It just seemed like a conflict of interest," she says, visibly uncomfortable. "If they would have talked to me, no problem." A week later, the employees were gone and Linda bought the place herself. Ruthless? Maybe. "I'm a serious businesswoman," says Linda, "but I don't think I'm terribly competitive. There are enough customers for everyone." Linda explains that she received the offer on the Breakroom's lease about the same time she fired the employees, and it was just awkward timing. Mary Kate Mershant, fired from Linda's with two other women, says, "It seemed cutthroat. We didn't do anything wrong and didn't use company time. We were just a couple of girls with a dream to own our own bar. I loved my job and enjoyed everyone's company."
As the Breakroom changes to Chop Suey, Linda has high hopes for the new club, as well as for Capitol Hill. Her preteen daughter goes to local art school Seattle Northwest, her businesses are here, and she loves the place. In fact, her Chop Suey business partners, Weigel and Ofelt, are also heavily entrenched in Capitol Hill. (Between them, Weigel and Ofelt own the Cha Cha Lounge, Bimbo's Bitchin' Burrito Kitchen, the Rudy's Barbershop chain, Spaghetti Red's, and the Ace Hotel.) "I just want the Hill to keep its charm," she says. "No big corporations, no Starbucks."