Spokane North Notes
A weekly bulletin of the Spokane-North Rotary Club
April 25, 2016
Editors: Chuck Rehberg and Sandy Fink
Photo: Jim Minkler
Program Coordinator: Brad Stark
Farewell and good luck!
  Congratulations to Jim Minkler on his selection as the new president of Grays Harbor College.
          Jim was selected April 22 from four finalists out of 40 applicants for the community college presidency.  Minkler currently is Vice President of Learning and Chief Academic Officer at Spokane Falls Community College.  Jim told the club April 25 that his new post begins July 1.  He has been at SFCC 17 years.
          Minkler joined Spokane-North Rotary in 2003 and is a past president of the club.  For many years he has chaired the Gerald Saling Scholarship program, which often has drawn more than 50 qualified applicants each year.  Jim also served several years in the challenging post as program coordinator, continuing the club’s goal of providing outstanding weekly programs.  He and wife, Yoko, also have been longtime members and board members of the Spokane-Nishinomiya Sister City Society.
Grays Harbor College, with an enrollment of about 2,000, is based in Aberdeen, a coastal city of 17,000.  The college is named for Capt. Robert Gray, who discovered the bay in 1792.  Aberdeen, with homage to its Scottish namesake, was named for a salmon cannery, according to various websites.
          Upon hearing the announcement, one Rotarian said Aberdeen may be “the rain capital of the state.”  Jim replied: “I think I’ll invest in an umbrella.”
Club notes
          Funding updates: With less than six weeks to go until the June 2 fund-raising dinner, coordinators Jodi Harland and Robbie Jackson urged teams to finalize corporate donations and complete gathering items for auctions and gift baskets.  To facilitate printing of programs and acknowledgements, all pledges and items should be obtained by May 16, Jodi said.  Each member is asked to sponsor five guests and names should be forwarded to Jon Heideman and Nancy Hanson.  Three check-in stations, assigned alphabetically, will speed the arrival process at the Mexican-themed event.  The venue is The Backyard, 1811 W. Broadway.
          RIP: President Lenore Romney noted the passing April 5 of John Clemens Pederson, Jr., husband of former club member Sherill Pederson.  John was a 27-year Rotarian in other clubs. Sherill, who worked at the Inland Northwest Blood Center, joined Spokane-North in 2007.  A memorial service for John is scheduled at 1 p.m., Friday, May 20, at His Place Church on East 16th Street in Post Falls.
          Scholar deadline: Jim Minkler noted that this week is the last time to apply for one of the club’s two $1,500 Gerald Saling Memorial Scholarships.
New ideas in old settings
          “The Onion Story” is like, well, peeling back the layers of a tasty onion…without the tears.
          Sonja Halverson shared The Onion Bar and Grill story with the club April 25.  She also shared some draft root beer and a bottle of 40th anniversary “Bloomsday Blonde” ale as well.  The story and the brews were well-received.
          Halverson, a Spokane native, said she has been in the restaurant-hospitality industry more than 30 years, starting at her parents’ Waffles N More restaurant.  When they retired and sold the business, Sonja did catering, worked for the Masonic Center and Glover Mansion/Red Rock Catering (which does the club’s lunches).
          She joined The Onion in 2013 as general manager of the north Division outlet and recently was promoted to regional manager of Landmark Restaurants, overseeing operations at The Onion restaurants and rebranded Area 51 Tap Houses.
         To begin to peel The Onion Story, start with some history, and a tale of three businesses.
          First came the “elegant” St. Regis Hotel, built and Main and Bernard in 1907, and marketed as Spokane’s finest hotel, second only to The Davenport, which opened seven years later.
         Sonja noted that somewhere along the line hotel standards slipped, and so did staff clothing at the St. Regis.  By the early 1970s, when Onion founder Larry Brown visited the renamed Union Tavern and Hotel, a naked maid was cleaning rooms and a nude hostess was greeting guests.  “It was a brothel,” Halverson said.
         The Union Tavern operated on Trent from (post-Prohibition) 1934 to 1958, before moving to the St. Regis site.  Brown bought the business in 1974 and acquired the neighboring Ideal Shoe Store.  In 1978 he turned the “U” in the “Union” sign upside-down, to make it The Onion, thus launching one of Spokane’s first gourmet burger and brew restaurants.
         The Onion Bar and Grill history offers classic business lessons of pleasing customers and changing with the market.
         When state liquor laws changed,  no large wall was needed to separate the bar area and the restaurant.  The open room allowed patrons to see the elaborate 1904-era back bar and the 1937 Harley-Davidson 1200 cc “flathead” motorcycle, purchased in 1998, on elevated display.  A similar bike was purchased in 2003 for the North Side Onion.
         Opening a gourmet burger and beer place timed nicely with the coming of age of baby boomers (born from 1946 to 1964).  Halverson said that by 1984, when the North Side outlet opened, Onion owners noticed boomers wanted to bring their families as an alternative to drive-through, fast-food outlets.  Menus were simplified, some prices dropped, kids’ portions and options were added and wait times were cut to accommodate antsy youngsters.
         Servers wore “No Problem” buttons and wait staff was told to “do whatever it takes to exceed customers’ expectations,” Halverson said.  “It’s kind of what we do.”  She cites the example of a young patron not getting a table-side birthday greeting. 
         Servers found the address on the family’s check, took a birthday cake to the house and serenaded the honoree with “Happy Birthday.”
         After merging The Onion operations with the two Frank’s Diner outlets operated by Ken Belisle, the business now has 180 employees.
         The newest “layer” of Onion attractions are rebranding spaces to the millennial-friendly Area 51 Tap House theme – “51 taps of deliciousness,” said Halverson, adding for those who may be confused by the name’s UFO history that “no aliens are involved.”
         She said “41 percent of millennials eat out twice a week and they want a social event, with alcohol.”  Marketing includes social media, word-of-mouth, and suitable “selfie” photo ops.  Halverson said she does lament tables for two where each party is transfixed on his or her own cellphone.  “It’s a sad situation. I ask them, are you talking (or texting) to each other?” Sonja said.
         Changes and challenges never end in the restaurant business.
         Halverson said if a $15-an-hour minimum wage is imposed in Spokane, “we are not sure how we’ll handle this, exactly.”  Higher prices and smaller staffs are possibilities, she said, noting Idaho restaurants, with a much lower minimum wage, are not that far away.
         Costco’s planned departure from its North Division site across from The Onion also might mean that the restaurant “takes a hit for a while,” she said.
         In response to other questions, Halverson said The Onion has looked at possible Spokane Valley sites.  “The Valley is in desperate need of something like us,” she said.  The South Side also might be a good spot for “a 100-seat tap house,” she said.
         Halverson also was asked “whatever happened to (servers saying) “thank you” and “you’re welcome?”  She accepted the comment, conveying that courtesy never goes out of style.
         As a final branding reminder, Halverson distributed business cards entitling the bearers to have “each person at your table receive one of our giant scratch made (of course) onion rings.”