Sunday, July 14, 2024

Adventurers cannot reach a peak without the climb.

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In 1948, American mountaineer Fred Beckey attempted the first ascent of Prusik Peak, an 8,000-foot granite summit towering over the west end of the Temple in the Enchantments. In this rocky cathedral, Beckey needed a prayer to access the summit horn. As the legend goes, Beckey lassoed the mountaintop and tied a Prusik, a slide and grip knot invented by Austrian mountaineer Dr. Karl Prusik after whom the peak is also named. Beckey claimed the peak, adding to his record of the most first ascents.

While metaphorically limited, Beckey’s daring first ascent lends comparison to opening a restaurant. Both involve risk, hard work and the unknown. Ben Herreid and Spencer Meline have embraced the uphill battle on Thursday, July 13 when they opened Prusik Kitchen & Bar on 9th Street.

“In the restaurant industry, you’re a manufacturer and a retailer and you’re working with perishable ingredients and you’re working on really low margins,” Herreid said. “We always say it’s playing the game on hard mode, but we don’t know a whole lot of people who want to play that game and so there’s opportunity there, because we give it our best and it’s something we enjoy doing.”

Together the business partners also own Larch, an upscale, low ceiling pasta place virtually neighboring Prusik. Herreid views Prusik as a more whimsical option where patrons can dine mid-week to celebrate everyday life more than anniversaries. Prusik will be the trendy casual nephew to Larch’s more formal great aunt.

“We envision being able to have somebody just come in off the river in flip flops and pop in and have a really nice meal whether that’s just an appetizer and a drink or maybe being able to go through the menu more in a traditional dinner sense,” Meline said.

On a June Thursday, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell serenaded the two owners, as they stood in the then-unfinished Prusik, surrounded by tools and sawdust, and recalled their journey. For around 50 years, the dining was Tumwater Inn before becoming the Tumwater Bakery. They tried to buy it in 2017, but lacked the financial footholds, so they opened Wildflower near Lake Wenatchee, which they have since closed. The Larch building was smaller, so they adapted it to a finer dining venue. Now at Prusik, they can return to their original vision.

“Here we want to be able to have a fun menu that focuses maybe more on small plates sharing and we’ll still change with the seasons and have great ingredients, it will just be a lower price point essentially,” Meline said.  

“This will kind of be our creative outlet for dishes that wouldn’t necessarily fit the m.o. over there,” Herreid said. “We can kind of go a little bit wilder, cut a little bit loose on doing some weird fun things.”

Among the weird and wild is a toasted coconut ravioli crusted habanero shrimp. Some may also prefer the halibut nuggets with Spanish paprika and lime aioli or the fried Buffalo short rib mezzaluna ravioli. Herreid lamented restaurants that chain themselves to laminated menus, cementing selection and price. Prusik prefers printed “nimble” menus which can evolve based on demand, cost, and product availability. In a Bavarian-themed town, Prusik does not have bratwursts. Instead, the owners strive for originality and dishes handmade from scratch. Prusik will also offer original craft cocktails and a unique selection of Roman street pizzas.  

“We’ve been able to create a business environment where servers and cooks take pride in what they do because we’re not dumping frozen chicken fingers into a fryer and throwing them on a plate,” Meline said.

Herreid and Meline met when their culinary paths intersected at Visconti’s. Meline started at Ivar’s in the Seattle area and moved up the ladder during eight years of work. After being passed up for bar manager, he quit and hitchhiked from Snoqualmie Pass to Pennsylvania. Shortly afterwards, a friend invited him to climb Prusik Peak. The locale enchanted him, and he moved to Leavenworth where he dropped off his résumé at Visconti’s which hired him immediately.

Herreid entered the dining arena in Vermont. After working at Subway, he opened a replica version with local meats and cheeses that he called “a financial fiasco.” After working for several years in advertising and sales, he became vocationally frustrated. One day, he walked into Marzano Italian Restaurant in Tacoma wearing his snazzy businessman clothes and asked for any available job. The lone opening was for a dish washer. Herreid pounced and stayed there for eight years, ascending the ranks. Later, his family moved to the Leavenworth area, and he became the chef at Visconti’s where he met Meline.

Having experienced the grind of the restaurant business, both men want to create a welcome atmosphere not just for diners, but for their employees.

“A month from opening, it’d be nice to see this place busy on a Friday. Five years from opening, it would be nice to see four or five other restaurants in the country that are run by people who have worked through the system here,” Herreid said. “If we’re not growing, we’re not growing the opportunities for those guys to keep moving up the pyramid.” With a constant influx of tourists and locals, Leavenworth does not lack for options. As Herreid and Meline begin their ascent of another restaurant in a crowded field, they hope the vista that diners view from their tables proves simultaneously majestic and unique.  “I don’t want people to walk into this restaurant and find an item and say, ‘Oh, wouldn’t you like their mushroom Swiss burger at Prusik as much as the one wherever else?’ because that item is on thousands of restaurants’ menus across the country,” Herreid said. “I want them to come in here and say, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen this before.’”

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