Prospect Street Cafe
Owner: Spencer Santenello
Address: 114 Prospect St.
Web address: www.prospectstreetcafe.com
Startup date: July 7
Square footage: 1,350
As an avid surfer, mountain biker and snowboarder, chef Spencer Santenello strives to make food that is nourishing and healthy, but is decidedly not “health food.”
At his new restaurant on Prospect Street, which sprouted in the same space as the former Wild Garlic restaurant, Santenello prepares menu items such as maple mustard seared salmon with shiitake mushroom risotto and wasabi sweet pea puree, hoisin glazed baby back ribs with jasmine rice and Asian slaw, and grilled New York strip steak with caramelized onions and white truffle-parmesan mashed Yukon gold potatoes. His influences are as abundant as his ingredients — Asian, Mediterranean, French and Italian.
Santenello has been cooking for 16 years on the big island of Hawaii, where he cooked for the Four Seasons and became the head chef of a small restaurant called the Keei Café, as well as owning a personal chef business on Kauai, surfing all the while.
Last January, he rode the career wave all the way to Bellingham to start his own restaurant. His girlfriend and business partner, Rhonda Ballard, had grown up in Seattle and liked the idea of moving back to her home region. Santenello grew up near Burlington, Vt., a city he said is similar to Bellingham in its aura and proximity to mountains.
“I wanted to open a small, creative restaurant, and I thought Bellingham would be a good place to do it,” he said.
After looking at a smattering of spaces to lease, Santenello and Ballard finally narrowed down their search to the former Wild Garlic restaurant. They wanted a space with 40 to 50 seats, one they could remodel but not from scratch, one a little out of the way that could be built from word-of-mouth advertising and one that had low overhead so they could focus on spending the bulk of the budget on ingredients. He also liked that the space was near the waterfront and faced the sunset.
“It really ended up being the perfect spot,” he said.
The end result is what Santenello calls relaxed and casual without pretensions, where you can wear casual clothes after a day of snowboarding for a dinner of fresh, local, well-prepared food.
It took the couple three months of working seven days a week, eight to 12 hours a day, to get the restaurant ready — a longer time than Santenello would have liked. The final product is a low-key, lounge-type dining room, with Ballard’s contemporary paintings hung on the walls and lamps strung from the ceiling.
Since they opened on July 7, business has been a bit slow, but with many return customers, Santenello said. But he’s not concerned. He built in a slow start to his business plan intentionally, wanting to focus on getting the food right and growing slowly and steadily through word of mouth. In time, he will do more advertising, he said.
“The best advertising so far has been that I’m here every day, crafting food with a lot of care,” he said. “I just enjoy the process, you know? It is almost like a baby, I really enjoy seeing how it grows.”
Neiner Neiner Weiner
Owner: Peggy Gustafson
Address: 1259 Barkley Boulevard
Startup date: June 8
Square footage: 400
After running Hot Diggity Dog hot dog carts at local fairs and festivals, Peggy Gustafson decided she wished she had a Neiner Neiner Weiner kiosk.
That is what she really wanted.
‘Cuz if she had a Neiner Neiner Weiner kiosk, everybody’d fall in love with her hot dogs.
And so Neiner Neiner Weiner kiosk was born.
The hot dog chalet presides over the new Barkley Crossroads shopping center Gustafson developed with her husband, Don, like a sunny island in a sea of concrete. A sunglasses-clad hot dog mascot waves from its sign, beckoning customers to order a Neiner Brat Weiner, a Beanie Weinie or a Dog in Heat Weiner, and then top off their lunch with a deep-fried Oreo cookie or deep-fried Twinkie.
Gustafson, an independent insurance broker for the last 20 years, started the Hot Diggity Dog carts as a side project that grew into the idea for a permanent stand. Over the course of eight months she toured hot dog stands in Palm Springs and Southern California, as well as studied a similar establishment called Zog’s Dogs in Whistler, B.C.
While hot dog stands rule the streets in Southern states and along the East Coast, Gustafson said it was time for the dog dynasty to expand.
“I figured it was time to bring them to the Pacific Northwest,” she said.
Eventually, she hopes to open two or three more Neiner Neiner Weiner kiosks in the area and then franchise the operation.
At the stand, customers order and sit either at the counter or at several concrete tables under the sun. In the winter, customers can eat their dogs either at the stand under infrared heat lamps or inside Gustafson’s upcoming venture across the way — the Koffee Klutch & Deli, which is currently under construction.
Since she opened the stand on June 8, she said she has almost been afraid to advertise because of how slammed the business has been. Customers love the Neiner meals that come with a wiener, a side dish and a fountain drink, as well as the deep-fried Oreos, she said.
“I tried to make it really fun,” she said.
And if the hot dog mascot is any indication, this stand is so cool, it has to wear shades.
Bay City Creamery
Owner: Mark Franklin
Address: 1135 Railroad Ave.
Web address: www.baycitycreamery.com
Startup date: June 13
Square footage: 1,610
After spending 25 years working as an engineer for Mattel, a job that required extensive travel in Asia and Mexico, Mark Franklin decided it was time to focus more on his three daughters.
He moved to Bellingham after visiting one of those daughters while she attended Whatcom Community College and began searching for a business opportunity.
Always a self-starter, he had owned an apple and nectarine orchard in Orville, Wash.
“I’m the kind of person that if I tend to see something I want, I try and go do it,” he said.
He found what he wanted, or at least the possibility of what he wanted, in The Malt Shop — a burger and ice cream corner store on Railroad Avenue. He was attracted to the social, fun atmosphere of the ice cream business and purchased it in April 2007.
But he wanted to update the shop — both its design and menu — so he began working with local interior design firm Bierman Design Inc. to transform the funky ‘50s joint into a warm, contemporary and casual restaurant and espresso bar, while retaining the homemade ice cream element.
“I wanted something different, something more elegant that would appeal to me,” he said.
Franklin operated the restaurant as The Malt Shop until June, when he closed the store for its interior facelift. He reopened June 13 as the Bay City Creamery, complete with a new look and new menu.
The space now has mustard-colored walls, sleek black tile flooring and modern-looking chairs and tables. But it still retains whimsical elements, like a striped carpet in the dining room and a flashy pinball table.
Instead of burgers, fries and iceberg salad, Franklin began serving panini sandwiches and salads — a move that didn’t go over too well with some customers who missed the $3.75 burgers.
But as Franklin focused on serving high-quality paninis, continuing to sell the store’s homemade ice cream, and introducing Tully’s espresso drinks, he noticed his clientele demographic beginning to change. He now sees more college students and more female customers, and is taking their suggestions into account for a revised fall menu, which will include more combination options and greater salad variety.
This fall he will also begin a major advertising campaign and may add an acoustic open-mic night for students.
The recipe for Franklin’s success seems to be transforming a corner shop standard into a downtown hotspot, topped with cool ice cream treats.