Interview with Business Owner Ken La
I'm here at the Salmon Bay Cafe, and Ken La is joining me, this is his place. And I wanted to find out, what's the story here? How long has it been here? What makes it special? Tell me a little bit about it.
This place has been here since 1970, and prior to that, this was a showroom for boats, for the boating community around here, and then that got turned into a diner that served primarily the fisherman and the shipbuilders around here. And they have been like that for the last 40 years or so.
You can kinda feel it in here. It's got such a great vibe. I think the character and the atmosphere of this place has sort of the quintessential Seattle feeling to it. I really love that.
Yes, so the Scandinavian community, the fishing community, has been in Ballard for a long, long time. So given any day, you can see still that group coming in. You have a shipbuilder coming in with their overalls, work boots, you know. And staining up the carpet. That's how we go. At one point, a lot of t...
he seating will have a hole in it. And I was told, I didn't witness it, but I was told that they come in with a screwdriver in their pocket, and when they sit down, they poke a hole in the seat. And that's how the duct tape had been on the seat for a long, long time.
Huh, that's pretty cool.
Yeah, so some of our regulars come in when we reupholster all of the seat, and they say, "What happened to the duct tape?" So I think that for this Halloween we're probably gonna put duct tape on the seat.
Oh, that's a fun idea!
Yep, that should bring back memories.
Dress it up, yeah, that's great. Your dishes, your food, to me, seems also like the place. You've got a lot of classic things on the menu. Is that, obviously intentional, I mean it's delicious, I already had a bite of some of it.
So this has been a diner, and it's serving the working class. So everybody needed to fuel up for the workday, so the portions are quite generous here, and people note about that, as well. Also, fresh ingredients, obviously.
Yeah, I noticed. Everything looks so fresh and vibrant.
So, even for the fruit, if people don't want potato, we can sub out for the fruit, and the fruit is fresh cut every day.
So the inside of the place, in general, you've got these colorful dishes, you've got the turquoise chairs, you've got like the whole theme going on. I mean, it's a pretty cool place. Great light coming in. Tell me about the vibe of the place and the people that it attracts. What kind of crowd do you get here?
So during weekday, we have a lot of workers. Lunch break, breakfast, family. Weekend we have a wider range of customers coming in. We have younger family that moving to Ballard. Ballard is changing quite a bit. So we have younger families, we also have a lot of the older folk that have been in Ballard for a long time and know and love this place, and they come in here. So we have a wide array of customers. From people who work around here, people who live around here. Some will be traveling in because they know this place.
It feels like with so much change going on that we're almost losing a lot of those classic places where people could go, not just for a year or two, but for decades. There's people who, from what I understand, have been coming here literally for 30 and 40 years.
That's true. And this is one of the, I think, I believe, one of two diners left in Seattle.
When I took over the place, I saw potential of changing it. But then seeing the interaction, seeing the clients and the customers coming in, I'm like, well, this is something special that should be preserved and should be continued on like this. As opposed to, you know, changing it into another really fun and hip place.
Yeah, I mean, I think there's a foundational element to having these kinds of places. I grew up in New Jersey, where diners were every several blocks, and they were the place you went with your family for dinner, for breakfast. But you always went, every week. And you knew what it was gonna be, and it was a great place to go and just have that time together. And now everything's become almost so hip and so cool, and changing so much around it that it's almost hard to find those experiences. Especially out here on the west.
Right. So, I like to joke with our customers, "Well, this is the place where you won't see "tweezer in the kitchen." So we're not placing our food with the tweezer.
You're not in there delicately putting each piece of crab into the omelet?
And a micro green to garnish it off, finish it off. But one of the comment that I got from the customer, it was really funny, he was like, "You know, this is what we need. "Someplace that we could go and not have to dress up, "and also serve honest food."
Never thought about that term, "honest food." It's something that you would get and fill you up for the day.
And I love that about, you know, the community around here, and what we do within the community.
Speaking of the community, you have one table in the back that, every day, Monday through Friday, has had the same crew. Tell me about those guys, what's that story?
Those guys, we call them the Toast Boys.
They come in every morning, Monday to Friday, at the same time. This is a group of guys, of men, that have been coming here for decades. They grew up in the neighborhood, they went to Ballard High School, and they still keep in touch. Now they live everywhere in the city, but they come every morning to have coffee together, read the newspaper together, chat about whatever topic of the day would be. It's just great to see that kind of interaction. They started out as a pretty big group, and unfortunately, one of the four left did pass away last month. But, you know, the interaction between them is so much fun to just witness, because when they get together, they kind of fall back into that high school. They're teasing each other, a little bullying.
We never really grow up, do we?
No! That's always the fun part in watching them interact with each other.
I appreciate you having me here, 'cause these are the kind of places, when you're thinking about a travel story, as a photographer, or you're talking to an editor at a magazine, like where do you go that has so much character inside and out? And people forget that it's more than just the booths, and the duct tape story's a great one, I love that. But it's also the people that come into the restaurant and bring the life into it. You know, people like yourself, people like the Toast Boys in the back. I think it's important, when you start to think about those things. And again, there's not many places like that, where we can find those characters coming to life day after day, for 30, 40 years, it's amazing.
And honestly, when you walk around the restaurant, you see a lot of photographs on the wall. And pretty much every single one of them have a story behind it. I have yet to find out every single one of them yet. That's my mission. But it's really, really great story behind every single photograph, so.
Well, all the stuff on the wall also brings out the character, right? That's one of the things I'm planning to do now is take a walk around, get some shots, and I think at the end we're going to have just a beautiful essay about your place. It's a really great place. Ken, thank you so much for having me here.
It's a pleasure, it's such a great story to tell, and I'm very excited about telling this story. There's so much life here. We just learned about the Toast Boys, who've been coming here for 30, 40 years, and they sit in the back table. We've learned about the history of fishermen coming in, and the duct tape on the seats. Which there's none now, but it looks great, and as we learned from Ken, come Halloween, he's gonna dress it up like the old days. But there's so many important pieces here in Salmon Bay Cafe that I think we have a lot of opportunities to get great details, great shots, and really just tell an incredible, beautiful story.