Business

Power of the pivot: How iconic Seattle restaurant Canlis launched 11 business ideas in 11 months

3 Mins read

Pivot might be the most overused word of 2020. And Seattle restaurant owner Brian Canlis for one is frankly a little sick of hearing it.

“It was great, like back in March,” said Canlis, co-owner of the iconic Seattle fine dining restaurant that bears his family’s name.

Canlis joined Seattle Storm CEO and General Manager Alisha Valavanis last week at a GeekWire virtual event aptly (or annoyingly) titled: Pivot: Stories of Resilience in an Unprecedented Year.

There’s no questioning that nearly every business was forced to adapt to changing economics brought on by this year’s pandemic, whether a professional basketball team or a legendary restaurant.

At the GeekWire roundtable, Valavanis got things moving with a true basketball definition for the pivot.

“You need to pivot to create space and handle the ball without traveling,” explained the 4-time WNBA champion owner and one-time 3-point shooting ace for Chico State.

GeekWire co-founder John Cook (top left) interviews Brian Canlis (top right) of Canlis restaurant and Alisha Valavanis of the Seattle Storm at a GeekWire event last week on pivoting and resilience.

With that definition in mind, Canlis described one of Seattle’s most amazing pivot stories of the year.

With a touch of humor and dose of humility, Canlis explained how his 100-person company adapted and survived by launching 11 offbeat business ideas in 11 months. Longtime Seattleites never would have imagined that the restaurant perched above Seattle’s Lake Union would develop everything from a drive-up burger stand to a crab shack to bingo nights to yurt dining.

The Canlis story is inspiring, one that every entrepreneur who endured 2020 can draw upon. But it’s not so much the wild ideas over the past 11 months — some of which have garnered national media attention and many of which have soothed Seattle’s soul at its greatest time of need.

Instead, as Canlis explained at the GeekWire roundtable, it really has more to do with the boring and firmly-rooted pivot foot.

The changes Canlis and his team made this year — under enormous stresses across the restaurant industry — would not have been possible without that non-moving pivot foot firmly attached to the ground. (Note: The U.S. government’s Paycheck Protection Program also helped fuel the radical experimentation at Canlis, showcasing how creative energy can arise in the hardest of times).

In the case of Canlis, the proverbial pivot foot was a combination of 70 years of entrepreneurial history, a commitment to the Seattle community and a communicative team that congealed when times were hardest. Here’s the wisdom from Canlis:

When you pivot, everyone talks about the other foot. I don’t know which foot is which, but the one that stays still is the one that doesn’t get a lot of glory, right? It’s the other foot that is yapping around all over. And that’s what the media wants to cover and that’s what people talk about: ‘where is your foot traveling.’

But we are talking all of the time about … the foot that is standing still. And to us, that is the mission statement of our company, which is to inspire all people to turn toward one another. And what this time has given us is more confidence and freedom that if our one foot really is planted firmly, we can do so many things with our pivot foot that are still who we are as a people, as a family, and who we are as a brand.

And it has been enlightening to discover the freedom that you can go do a stinkin’ ridiculous bingo show and hang my brother from the ceiling on a harness over a famous piano player. It works because the entire thing is rooted in who we are as a people and a company for 70 years and our mission statement. And so I think the pivoting only works if you know deeply who you are as an organization, and that never moves. And you stay planted.”

Watch the entire GeekWire roundtable, featuring inspiring insights from Valavanis and Canlis here:

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