Seattle-based ADDO (pronounced like ‘auto’) has broken norms ever since it opened. Chef / Owner Eric Rivera initially ran ADDO out of his apartment before entering brick and mortar space in 2018. From day one, ADDO has embraced creative cuisine while keeping a finger on the pulse of supply and demand.
I discovered Chef Eric Rivera in a Wired article in November of 2019. This was pre-pandemic, obviously. Even then, I was heavily impressed by his non-traditional way of running a restaurant. Efficiently using technology as a tool, offering unique experiences, pay-ahead reservations. You don’t see that a lot.
When COVID hit, ADDO was impacted just like everyone else. While every celebrity chef scrambled to offer Instagram Live cooking classes and cried about their loss of revenue, Eric was curating creative experiences for customers to execute at home. They currently have 38 different At Home Experiences to choose from. Not only do I respect what Eric has done with ADDO, he’s also one of my favorite critics of a backwards industry. I encourage you to check out his Twitter.
While Eric is frantically backlogging creative ideas, he’s still light-years ahead of many restaurateurs who are stuck in the past. We talk about the struggle of being an early adopter, the need for customers to adjust their expectations, and accepting that change is (and has always been) the only constant. There’s also a lot of cursing.
You can read or listen. Thank you, Chef!
TATIANA SWEDEK: How did you start in the industry?
ERIC RIVERA: I started out kind of later. I was about 26. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a place to go, I didn’t have anything to do. What can I go to in the industry even if everything goes to sh*t again. What can I be? I started pursing cooking. During that time, you know, culinary school and working in restaurants at every level. From casual stuff to 3 Michelin Star restaurants and everything in between. Kind of getting to the point where I was tired of listening to everybody else – having them direct me and telling me that things I wanted to do weren’t what the industry needed. I just ‘f*ck it, I’m going to do it for myself then.
TS: Love that. What ADDO your first endeavor as a restaurateur?
ER: Yeah, all on my own. I helped other people open restaurants and do the whole thing. From fast food restaurants all the way to hotels. This was my first full project on my own where it was very much like ‘Okay cool, how’re you going to open it? How are you going to keep it going?’ And everything in between. It’s been pretty crazy.
TS: Yeah, I think you’re very much so ahead of the game in terms of pay ahead reservations, no tipping, and really executing on dining experiences. I hate the words ‘experience’ because it’s tossed around so much, but that’s exactly what it is.
ER: It’s exactly what it is. It’s tough to be an early adopter of it. A lot of the stuff we’ve done, we ‘re like the first ones in. It makes it hard because, even at the front end of the pandemic, we were doing stuff already that people were like ‘What the hell is this?’ You know? They had no rhyme or reason of what things really are. I’m like ‘No, it’s just this, it’s not a big deal.’
Even for the first month of the pandemic, it took people a while to understand like ‘oh, sh*t. I actually have to take this home and cook it the rest of the way.’ That was like a big learning curve for people because they just saw it coming from us. They had learned that from every restaurant, too. It was just part of their daily routine. It was kind of crazy.
TS: No, that’s interesting. People just kind of assume they’re just picking it up?
ER: Yeah. And having to communicate and create a whole different line of messaging for them. And [for] people who have never cooked in their life. We’ve had people where we’re delivering things for them and their e-mailing back for something like a seafood boil. They’re like ‘what do you do now?’ And it’s like…are you kidding me? Even though it seems very simple. Like, yeah, you just put things in a hot pot and you just boil it. Crazy, right?
It’s kind of maneuvering things like that and find the points where we’re efficient so we don’t have to sit there and play Butterball Hotline – picking up phones and e-mails, when people are picking up at 2:00pm and eating at home at 4:00pm or 5:00pm now. That’s a whole shift, too. Everything about it is completely different. That’s why I’m always kind of railing on people who are just trying to keep on going backwards. You guys just don’t understand.
TS: Yeah, they old way is not going to work. It wasn’t really working that well to begin with.
ER: It really wasn’t. You know that. You’ve seen it with the way businesses shift things with corporate dining and lunches and all this other stuff. It just gets to the point where you’re like: okay, how much money are we throwing away right now? We kind of need to tighten things up.
I could see that coming the last couple of years here in the city. We’ve been booming here in Seattle but it’s been a bit different. Say a random person has restaurants. Say it’s 10, 20 or 30 of them. I don’t think you’re going to be very good right now. I don’t think you’re going to be doing so hot. The thing is: How much of that market did they saturate themselves? How much of a position did they get themselves into? What is it that they did in order to do all that? I’m not going to feel sorry for them. I’m not going to say “sorry, that’s so sad.” No, you f*cking did this to yourself.
TS: Yeah, for sure. I agree with you there. You know, those are the ones that are going to end up going away. You shift your thinking. A lot of people are thinking these “leaders” in the industry aren’t actually leaders. Sure, they made their impact whether it’s positive or negative or whatever it may be. But it’s time for a new generation and a new way of executing hospitality.
ER: I think a lot of people want to attach brand status to chefs and restaurant groups. That’s not the way it goes. There’s not that many restaurants that’ve been around 50 years, 60 years, [or] 100 years where people still bank on them today. It’s very few and far between when that happens. Even then, we have a restaurant here in Seattle like Canlis [which] has been around for sixty-something years. Even on their side, they’re struggling to understand how they’re going to be able to use their dining room again. They have an avenue of clientele who are going to buy anything from them so they’re fine. But when you’re so specific in the way that you hold your dining, you’re going to have to shift everything. It’s going to be a very, very long time before someone like that, someone who has been in the industry for so long, is going to be successful.
TS: What phase is Seattle in in terms of re-opening?
ER: We just did two? It doesn’t really matter. That’s the thing: it could be Phase 55 ½, no one really knows what it means. Is it like an occupancy thing? Or how many lights you need to install? How many masks you need to be wearing at work? Everybody has different regulations and guidelines for it.
TS: And they’re all made up!
ER: Yeah, they’re all made up. It’s interesting because there was a period of time for like two and a half months where nobody was saying anything. Everybody was like ‘oh, we’re closed and we’re going to be closed.’ Then overnight it was like: ‘here’s Phase 1 and you’re going to do that on Friday.’
Excuse me? It’s just very half-hazard and very like ‘you got to figure this sh*t out on your own.’ Which is totally fine. The problem is that there are so many other restaurants that create variables that aren’t good for ALL of the restaurants. There are so many employees who are looking to get back into work and, even before that, there are places that don’t pay anything. So, you have one person going to two or three places to work and that creates that other variable. There’s just a lot of stuff.
TS: That’s one thing I appreciate about you. You care about the staff. I don’t think a lot of restaurateurs actually care. And it definitely comes from the consumer first – that pressure to re-open.
ER: Yeah, that’s why I’ve been railing on it so bad. It does require the consumer to change their expectations. They’re going to want to say like ‘oh the local government people (that don’t really know what to do) is saying that you can go with 50% dining at a restaurant.’ I’m like you f*cking people [government officials] have never been here. That government official, or whoever that is, is saying it’s cool and saying ‘oh no, you’re free. It’s fine.’ And it’s like no, you don’t understand. If I take your benefits away and I take your paycheck away, I guarantee they’d be a lot more cautious.
TS: Yeah. You can’t stand that far apart in a kitchen. That doesn’t work.
TS: That’s just how the industry has been for so long. They’re prioritizing the customer over the staff. It’s been backwards and you’d think that right now would be a time to shift and change that mentality. At least it’s getting talked about now.
ER: Yeah, it’s definitely part of a conversation. The reality is, on a level of restaurants that are opening right now, a small or national chain is going to be better off than a small restaurant around the corner. They’re going to have a better shot at being able to take their money from an entire corporation across the United States and say ‘fuck it, we’ll open these six, open the other 20 later and open the rest or 40 then.’
On their side, it’s a numbers game. They’re publicly traded and can do whatever they want. It makes it kind of hard because lumping everyone together makes it really hard to compete. I see people out there being like ‘oh yeah, we’re going to drive to wherever and have a beer and oh my god dinner is so good.’ I’m just like holy sh*t. You’re taking that chance on yourself. Really, nothing is that special. It’s a nostalgic ideal of having a moment of peace at a table, having someone serve you and you don’t have to do sh*t. It’s been so hard that you’ve been doing it for the last three months? At the end of the day, it’s not f*cking worth it.
TS: Did you ever do the Animal Farm At Home Experience?
ER: I wanted to. We got backlogged for a while. We get backlogged pretty quickly. There’s a lot of stuff that I want to do, but then it doesn’t track well. Meaning, if we have 10 or 12 different things in the week that are happening, it just limits our ability to add more things. So, gauging people, their ideas and the reality of if they’re going to buy or not – that’s the hardest part for me. I could just be the ‘pasta place’ but people want more than that. I do have to be able to give them that within a portfolio that we offer each week and month to month.
TS: What has been the most successful of the At Home Experiences?
ER: The Pantry stuff was good for the first month and a half or two months. That’s slowed down. Things like flour and that kind of sh*t - people can get it anywhere now. That’s shifted into people wanting more of the experience at home. The Oregon Trail thing we’ve been doing has been popular. The strategy based dinner game. Any of that kind of stuff. That’s where I’m working and racking my brain. F*ck what else can we do? That’s where the demand is right now.
We’re also heading into summer. There are a lot of things I’m having to strategize right now. What are people doing? Where are they going? People aren’t in school right now. They have more free time. It’s nice outside; they’re going to go camping or they’re going to go to the beach. So, how can I attach what we’re doing to that? When someone is at home for 24 hours a day, it’s easy to throw 10 different things at them. Now getting where we fit into their life is more flexible. That’s been really hard. Typically summertime, unless you’re a patio place or a place with a view, here in Seattle is going to be pretty slow. But it’s going to seem that much slower because there’s no tourism. It’s dealing with a smaller pool here now.
Additionally, restaurants aren’t even open. Or ones are closing because people are getting sick. It’s this constant strategizing thing. It can happen day by day or week by week or minute by minute. I’m always like ‘sh*t, what am I doing?!’
TS: Yeah, like you come up with one thing and are like ‘oh, I now need to rejigger this and start from scratch.’
ER: Every day. It’s like a four-month long Groundhog Day. You know what I mean? That’s a thing that is happening in real time. I’ve been in restaurants where we plan out the next season of menus and that would take anywhere from 30 days. You basically get three hours to do that now. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. You just f*cking have to. That’s the thing. I don’t have any expectation of anyone helping us out: Angel investors or investor – we don’t have any of that sh*t. We’ve got to roll the dice every day. It involves a lot of work from top down. It’s a whole package that gets pushed forward constantly. That’s why when I see the higher-end chefs or the bigger name chefs who have platforms, avenues and all this other stuff – they’re not even doing a tenth of what we’re doing. But we have to do this because we have no other option.
TS: How many people on your team?
ER: It fluctuates because we have people that go to work at other places now. We had some part-time people that came on who are now going back. It fluctuates between about 6 – 10 people. It’s tiny.
TS: That’s a lot for that many people.
ER: And the thought process behind the restaurant from day 1 was very different. It was basically managing it out to increasing things and ideas over a period of time. It’s always something that’s been changing. That’s the function of basic business: supply and demand. Going like: “well, I can’t serve Puerto Rican food.” Seattle is like the whitest area.
TS: Oh yeah. I’ve been
ER: They don’t give a f*ck about Puerto Rican food. So, in addition to Puerto Rican food, there has to be these 25 other things. I have to cook other styles of cuisines that are comfortable to them in order to keep this thing going. If I don’t do that, we’re not a real business and we can’t do anything. It’s always a function of trying to make it all work. That’s really just basic business.
TS: It’s crazy that Americans can broaden their taste buds.
ER: It’s kind of crazy because I was having issues with our pasta program. We make our own pasta. It’s super dope and really good. But we had a lot of feedback like ‘what is this? What’re you making?’ Well, we’re going to do it the way we always do it. It’s chef’s choice. We don’t have menus. We never had menus. People would show up to a 12-course tasting menu and be like ‘f*ck yeah!’ Now it’s completely different because people want to be in their home, read a menu and buy whatever it is.
It makes it hard because it takes that level of creativity away from us. So I’m just like: ‘alright, f*ck it. Here’s what’s going to happen: we’re going to do a new pasta program and it’s just going the be called The Classics.’ I don’t want to do that, but I have to. If I just said [inaudible] ‘Bolognese and pesto pasta,’ we’d have 200 orders in a second. But if I’m saying it’s going to be this cool fermented bean thing that we do, people are like ‘ah, that sounds weird.’ It’s just the function of it.
TS: Yeah, that’s crazy. But you’re doing good stuff and I truly respect you man. Keep it up and thank you for taking the time.
ER: Any time. And reach out next time you’re in Seattle.
TS: I definitely will.