Safeway is planning to tear down the Silver Fork, a Rainier Valley institution, to build a gas station and minimart.
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • Safeway is planning to tear down the Silver Fork, a Rainier Valley institution, to build a gas station and minimart.

The first the owners of the Silver Fork diner heard about their imminent closure was from a customer. "What's up with that sign outside?" a patron asked server Malina Bash last week. "What sign?" replied Bash, the granddaughter of owners Larkin and Estella Potts.

Outdoor Performing Arts Festival featuring over 100 artists, food trucks, a beer garden and more!
Celebrate the return of the live arts in a safe, outdoor setting. Capitol Hill, Sep. 18-19.

It was one of those ubiquitous, white, "Notice of Proposed Land Use Actions" signs. The restaurant is to be demolished, the sign says, replaced by a 4-pump Safeway gas station and convenience kiosk. A quick call to their landlord confirmed that the property was being sold and their lease would not be renewed. The Potts now plan to close down the venerable Rainier Valley institution by the end of September.

"I'm gonna miss coming down here as much as you," Larkin Potts sighed when I told him how much my daughter and I would miss the place. But if the Potts seem resigned to their fate, many of their loyal customers—including some of Seattle's most powerful politicians—are not. Some community members are rallying to find the Silver Fork a new home, while others are hoping a grassroots campaign might yet save their favorite breakfast spot from the wrecking ball.

Submit a comment to Seattle's Department of Planning and Development by filling out the form here, and let Safeway know what the Silver Fork means to the community by sending an email to Sara Osborne, the public and government affairs director for Safeway's Seattle division.

I mourned the news of the Silver Forks impending closure over a hot bowl of buttery grits.
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • I mourned the news of the Silver Fork's impending closure over a hot bowl of buttery grits.

You have to look beyond the menu to fully understand the Silver Fork's vital role in the community, although the menu is a good place to start. Of course there are pancakes and eggs and bacon and other breakfast standards, but you'll also find biscuits and gravy, chicken fried steak, and the most authentic diner grits in the city: Salty and creamy, with a pool of melted butter floating atop. More upscale restaurants sometimes reference or replicate such classic fare (and at more upscale prices), but the Silver Fork is the real deal, like the many post-Great Migration southern-black-style diners still found in urban neighborhoods throughout the Northeast and Midwest. As an East coast transplant, from the moment I first walked through the doors more than a decade ago and smelled the bacon on the griddle, saw the thermal coffee carafes on the tables, and heard the 1970s-era R&B playing on the speakers, I instantly felt at home, despite the fact that my daughter and I were often the only two white faces in the restaurant.

There is no other place like the Silver Fork in all of Seattle, and as such it has been a central gathering place for the city's African American community almost from the day the Potts first turned on the griddle some 24 years ago. "It's a community restaurant, in the truest sense," says former King County Executive Ron Sims, who could often be seen at a back table with King County Council member Larry Gossett and other community leaders. Other regulars included Norm Rice and Gary Locke, as well as sports figures like Bill Russell and Ken Griffey. "But you left your title at the door," insists Sims. "You were no better or no worse than anybody else. Everybody was successful. Everybody lied about their kids."

On any given morning you might find church groups, business leaders, high school football coaches, and other community organizers huddled around a table conducting business over eggs and coffee and grits. The Silver Fork is the Rainier Club of the Rainier Valley, the place where important business gets done. And everybody in the place is important.

My daughter and I weren't exactly regulars, but we were regular enough that the servers knew our usual order by heart: Short stack, bacon, eggs scrambled dry, side of hash browns, toasted english muffin, coffee and a hot chocolate (no whipped cream). My favorite time to go was Sunday morning, just before the post-church rush, in time to watch the tables fill up with small, hungry children decked out in their Sunday best.

"You don't cuss in here," says Sims. "You did not cuss in front of your families. People had a code of conduct."

Not that the latest news doesn't make it tempting to spit out a few four-letter words.

Its a bad sign for patrons of the Silver Fork.
  • Goldy | The Stranger
  • A bad sign for the Silver Fork.

The Potts say they had a deal to purchase the property about a decade ago, but the owners backed out at the last minute. They'd heard talk for years that Safeway—which sits across the parking lot from the restaurant—was interested in building a gas station on the site, but the Potts say they were never told the property was on the market, let alone given the opportunity to make a counter offer.

Sara Osborne, the public and government affairs director for Safeway's Seattle division, says that a confidentiality agreement prevents her from commenting until the property sale closes, but describes her company's plan to demolish the Silver Fork and replace it with a gas station as a "corporate decision based on where we have customers that want fuel."

It's an explanation that doesn't sit well with Sims, who says he plans to boycott that Safeway location. "They just lost my business," says Sims. "I won't patronize a store that would do that to a cornerstone of the community."

Sims has had complaints about Safeway underserving minority communities since he first moved to the area in the 1970s, calling Safeway's aging Othello Steet store "appalling." A 1990 investigation by the Seattle Times found the Othello store, in one of Seattle's poorest neighborhoods, to have some of the highest prices in the city, describing it as "a totally outdated store, old fixtures, small departments with no service."

Safeway has since built two "super stores" on Rainier Avenue South, and the Othello store was allegedly renovated a few years back. They got a Starbucks counter. Yay. But the cramped, half-century-plus-old building is largely unchanged, and I can tell you from personal experience that selection and service still falls far short of Safeways located in more affluent neighborhoods.

"It's Safeway sneering at the community, spitting on it," says Sims, still sore from his previous battles with the chain, and newly embittered by the news of the Silver Fork's impending closure. "Safeway has never been a community place. Never ever, in my opinion, has it been committed to the welfare of Southeast Seattle. Ever."

"They are telling everybody in the New Holly community: 'We don't care about you. But we'll take your money.'"

"Othello is certainly on the top of our minds," counters Osborne in defense of Safeway. "But you don't want to invest too much in a store that is already standing when it is under consideration for a new replacement store in the same community in the future."

As for the Silver Fork, can anything be done to save it? "I don't think there's anything legal to do to stop it," says Seattle City Council member Bruce Harrell. Harrell says he has reached out to the Potts, offering to help them find the diner a new home and the financing to build it. "They have a recipe that works," says Harrell, and he's confident they could duplicate their success elsewhere in the neighborhood.

George Griffin, a community member, is also offering to the help the Potts... if they want it. "I'm just so tired of seeing African American establishments gone, just like that," says Griffin, who hopes to tap available community development funds to build a new Silver Fork within a mile or so radius. "Let's try to save a small business that's not only a good business, but is iconic," Griffin told me by phone.

But is there time? Osborne says she thinks the permitting and planning process could take from six months to a full year. Maybe longer. In the meanwhile, says Osborne, "I would think that we would want a tenant." And that at least suggests an opportunity.

Support The Stranger

While the city's comment period on the proposal only lasts another week, it's Safeway where public pressure would likely best be applied. Osborne says she wants to talk to the Potts, and she gave me permission to post her email address to take comments from the community (she asks that you include your phone number). Sims' cynicism aside, perhaps Safeway can be convinced that ill will generated by demolishing the Silver Fork is not worth the profit from a new gas station. Or at least, maybe corporate headquarters can be convinced to extend the Silver Fork's lease long enough to give the Potts time to explore their options.

Either way, now is the time to let Safeway know that that the Silver Fork is more than just another greasy diner: The Silver Fork a cornerstone of the community whose demolition won't be forgiven lightly.

Submit a comment to Seattle's Department of Planning and Development by filling out the form here, and let Safeway know what the Silver Fork means to the community by sending an email to Sara Osborne, the public and government affairs director for Safeway's Seattle division.