Photo by Gary Hilsie. Maltby Café employees and their families gathered recently to celebrate the cafe’s 25th anniversary. Twenty-five years ago, a small group of young women who’d met and become friends when they joined a soccer league, liked stopping in at the Maltby Café for breakfast after playing soccer.
Tana Baumler mentioned to her friends that the restaurant was a gold mine in terms of location and ambience, but it lacked a good layout and had poor customer service.
Then, one day in February 1988, Sandra Albright was having lunch there when she noticed a newly placed “for sale” sign. After several discussions and with no business plan in place, the group of friends bought the restaurant on June 15, 1988.
Fast forward 25 years, and that small gold mine of a restaurant tucked into the basement of an old school gymnasium has firmly become one of the best restaurants in America, as evidenced by the slew of awards and accolades that adorn the wall just inside the entrance and the steady flow of customers.
What had been a restaurant with a turnover of five owners and five different names the preceding five years became a national treasure for foodies from all over the world in search of the perfect home-style breakfast, brunch or lunch.
Of the Maltby Café’s many awards, three stand out to co-owner Baumler: the American Egg Board’s awards for best in Washington and best in the U.S.A.; making the list for USA Today’s ranking of Top Five Breakfasts in America; and being honored with Best Breakfast by Evening Magazine’s Best of Western Washington for 16 of the last 18 years. When so many restaurants fail, it is worth noting what has made the café a success for a quarter of a century. It began with the perfect collaboration of three friends, each with unique strengths they brought to the business.
While Baumler had previous restaurant and cooking experience – she’d owned a pie making business in Montana before moving to Washington, Sandra Albright brought strong retail management experience, and a love of gourmet cooking and entertaining. Barbara Peter, who worked for the Northshore School District’s payroll department at the time, had accounting and bookkeeping experience.
“It worked because we’re each different personalities with different strengths,” said Baumler, adding, “We had totally different backgrounds that all came together. The three of us have done a great job of working together and maintaining our friendships.”
Next were not only assembling an outstanding team of employees but also learning how to be good bosses. Baumler explained that they make a point of providing some of the highest wages in the industry in the state, coupled with good benefits.
“We found that the more we offer, the happier employees we have,” she said. Happy employees love their job, and that’s reflected in the way they treat their customers, she explained. In turn, the café’s employees have remained steadfastly loyal, with many of them working for Baumler and her partners since they opened in 1988.
Then came the menu. When the café first opened, customers had 10 menu items to choose from for breakfast and lunch that had been served by the previous owner. Within a month, Albright and Baumler began evolving the menu to tailor it more for a Northwest style of cuisine.
Now, the menu has well over 100 options for ravenous breakfast, brunch or lunch eaters. Still served, though, from that original list of 10 choices are the almost salad-plate-sized cinnamon rolls created by baker Scott Berry, an original employee when they first opened. While Berry is no longer with the café, his cinnamon rolls remain his legacy.
“We quickly realized we had to create menu items you can’t get anywhere else. For example, our bread pudding is made from our cinnamon rolls,” said Baumler.
Customers will also say it’s the Maltby-style Swedish pancakes, the Maltby bar cookies, the cinnamon rolls, plus several other menu items that make the café unique.
Baumler also takes pride in her staff’s unwavering commitment to customer service. “The wait staff love their customers! They get worried when one of their regulars doesn’t show up,” she said. She also taught them the importance of anticipating a customer’s needs so that a customer hopefully never leaves feeling unsatisfied.
Because of that level of customer service accompanied with outstanding food, the café has had the luxury of customer word-of-mouth to promote the business. “Our customers are our best advertising,” Baumler said, adding, “We don’t advertise except locally to support local weekly newspapers.”
Customer raves led the Maltby Café to enjoy increased sales every single day of the first five years it was open. It wasn’t just the good customer service that made customers talk. It was the food.
While certain aspects of the restaurant have changed over the years, key elements have remained the same. Most of the items on the menu are homemade in the restaurant, including the biscuits, cinnamon rolls and homemade hamburger buns, the freezer jam and salad dressings, all the pies and desserts, and the meats that are roasted to perfection and the soup stock that is made from scratch daily.
And while they don’t classify themselves as a true farm-to-table restaurant, Baumler said they try to buy as much of their ingredients as locally as they can.
Baumler loves to travel, and so several menu items reflect experiences she’s had in her journeys. Order tea at Maltby Café and one finds a shallow, rectangular basket brought to the table with a teapot, cup and saucer, accompanied by a lemon drop candy, just like she experienced when she was 19 years old and traveling with a girlfriend in England. At the time, she told her girlfriend, “If I ever have a restaurant, I’m going to have these tea baskets.” She kept her word.
While consistency of food fare has remained the same, some things have changed. When Baumler first opened the restaurant she often had her daughter riding in a backpack while she worked. That daughter, Keesha Laws, who was two and a half years old at the time, now helps with waitressing, managing, and the books.
Baumler’s daughter, Tessa Curtis, who was five when the café opened, became the chief financial officer when co-owner Peter retired.
To celebrate the café’s milestone anniversary, the co-owners held a celebration for all their guests, employees, suppliers, vendors and the local community on June 30. Five hundred people attended the event, Baumler said.
“We had Maltby Pizza serving pizza, Snoqualmie Ice Cream served gelato, and Canon del Sol, the first Hispanic winery in Washington, served two wines,” she said.
It was a nice way to give back to the community that has supported the three friends who took a chance on a “for sale” sign all those years ago and began what has become one of the best restaurants in America right in our own backyard.