Tina White’s mother danced on the Moulin Rouge stage in Paris and White carried on the tradition in her own way. Her quick footwork happens in the tight spaces between tables at Homeskillet, a tiny but popular breakfast and lunch restaurant that she owns with her husband, Kirby White, at 521 Kentucky St., in the Sunnyland neighborhood.
Up until February, the restaurant was 950 square feet total. It seats 32 people and is often full, leaving tight quarters for Tina White and the restaurant’s other servers. In February, Homeskillet added 450 square feet of prep cooking space, but the small dining area didn’t grow.
“It ain’t broke so we’re not going to fix it,” Tina White said. “People always say, ‘You guys need to expand.’ We like how small we are. All the little places that expand lose what made them special in the first place.”
There’s a lot that makes Homeskillet special. The centerpiece of the restaurant’s decor—procured at a “whiskey tasting Star Wars-themed prohibition party”—is a patchwork, stuffed rhinoceros head that hangs above a blue brick mantel. Ceramic giraffes, seahorses, an ear of corn, wind-up walking dentures and other trinkets cover most spare surfaces in the restaurant. The collection changes occasionally as customers leave new figures.
Homeskillet’s popular dishes include Pulled Pork Tater Tot Hash and Eggs, and the Hot Green Mess — macaroni and cheese topped with pork green chile and served with tater tots. Though it includes fresh and local ingredients, the menu is heavy in gravy and fried food.
“The one thing we learned from cooking in all the various places we’ve cooked in is that, say what you will about health food, people love cheese, gravy and things that are fried,” Tina White said. “That’s universal.”
The Whites met in Antarctica in 1999. They had both signed on for a season of cooking at McMurdo Station, a U.S. research base 2500 miles south of New Zealand. They cooked for more than 1,000 scientists and support staff with mostly canned, frozen and dried ingredients.
A container ship follows an ice-breaker into McMurdo Sound once a year to deliver food. When ingredients run out, they’re gone for good. The conditions, Tina said, lead to creativity. After running out of fresh cream, Kirby made clam chowder with a canned whipped topping. With the right amount, the soup turned out creamy and diners didn’t notice the hint of vanilla in the topping.
After their first season at McMurdo, Tina and Kirby moved to Bellingham, where Kirby had attended Western Washington University. They had both been working seasonal jobs for years.
“When Kirby and I met each other the most permanent thing about each of us was our storage units and our web addresses,” Tina White said. “We were perennial couch surfers and car livers.”
They went back for a full year at McMurdo because the government provided an around-the-world plane ticket to employees who worked through the winter, when planes don’t fly in and the station’s population drops to 200.
After finishing the year in McMurdo, they got married in a brew pub in New Zealand and continued traveling around the world on a six-month trip that included cooking classes in Thailand, trekking in the Himalayas and exploring Mediterranean cities in Europe.
Once back in Bellingham, the Whites bought a fixer-upper in the Sunnyland neighborhood and Kirby White went to work on it. He later became a contractor with the skills he learned working on the house, and Tina White made and sold scrimshaw — art carved into ivory — which she learned in Antarctica. They continued to work seasonal cooking jobs.
“It was OK but it wasn’t a living,” Tina White said. “I started thinking of other ways to make money and I thought I could run a little food truck.”
They bought an Airstream trailer, but before they could transform it into a food truck, they had an opportunity to buy the little building that became Homeskillet. The building’s diminutive size was a plus to the Whites; they wanted to run it on their own. (They currently have eight employees).
Friends were skeptical about the restaurant’s location, Tina White said. It’s across the street from a fuel distribution center and steel-sided industrial buildings fill the neighborhood. They figured they’d at least try it for a year to see if they could make it work.
Homeskillet has been busy since it opening in May 2012, Tina White said. On weekends people waiting outside the restaurant can outnumber the customers inside. Earlier this year Evening Magazine featured the restaurant.
Homeskillet is a reflection of the Whites’ personalities, said Chyloe Willingham, the restaurant’s first employee, referring to the decor, menu and business philosophy.
Part of that personality is honesty, she said. Tina White is upfront with customers about what the restaurant can’t do. Large parties that arrive at Homeskillet are turned away; the restaurant has two tables that seat four and the rest seat only two. They recently took out their two largest tables, which sat six, because they were “gumming up the works,” Tina White said.
A sign inside warns customers with food allergies that their food may come into contact with other food allergens in the small kitchen.
“I think honesty is in short supply out in the world of business and it’s kind of refreshing to be like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, we’re making it up as we go along,’” Tina White said. “And the folks who don’t get it — there’s plenty of places out there and we only need 32 people to fill our restaurant.”
Staying small comes with challenges. Five days a week, Kirby White is the restaurant’s only cook, preparing 150 to 300 meals a day.
In the kitchen, Kirby White stops moving only to read an order. Then he’s back to manning the restaurant’s six burners and grill. His hands fly from utensil to pot handle to egg, cranking out meals six at a time. The pace is frantic and leaves him drained at the end of the day.
“I like to relax on the couch with my dogs,” he said between cracking eggs into one skillet and sliding a scramble out of another skillet onto a plate. The Whites’ five dogs each have a namesake sauce at the restaurant: Jack Attack, Betty’s Backyard BBQ, Scooch, Chi Chi Boo and Loretta del Fuego.
Before adding 450 square feet of prep space in February, the restaurant had just one 4-foot by 2.5-foot prep table. Kirby White and other employees cut 750 pounds of potatoes per week at that space. To keep up with the pace, they had to prep before and after the restaurant’s open hours, especially before weekends.
For Kirby White, the expansion freed up a little space, and a whole lot of time, he said. That means more time to relax on the couch and throw a ball out the French doors for the dogs.
Oliver Lazenby, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or firstname.lastname@example.org.