In digital-drunk Seattle these days, everything’s rising — rents, buildings, eyeballs, salaries, stock holdings. Even the Space Needle, a World’s Fair antiquity from the hippie era, is getting a posh face lift.
Downtown, a phalanx of cranes towers over construction sites. And one recent morning, not long after sunrise, the sky bled from pink to blue, with the Olympic Mountains peaking above a thick layer of fog that sat low by Puget Sound, creating the illusion that one could swan dive into a pillow of clouds.
But Jason Wang never sees all this; he has fired up the burners around 5 a.m. in a basement cafeteria for the last 47 years, his exposure to the outside world limited to the ankles and wingtips that whip by his sidewalk-level windows. No clouds, no cranes — just bread, broth, meaty concoctions and an infallible internal ticker that tells him exactly how far along he needs to be to prep for up to 600 meals during a frantic four-hour window of midday sustenance.
Wang’s parents opened Bakeman’s Restaurant in 1970, when he was 18 and fresh out of Lincoln High School. He worked alongside them from the get-go, and eventually inherited the operation. Now 66, he’s ready to retire, and was hoping to pass the luncheonette down to his two sons. But after a year of shadowing Dad at work, they weren’t interested.
“I figured the two of them could hire another cook, but they just feel like they don’t want to work that hard,” said Wang, who’s shuttering his still-successful business simply because he’s reached an age where it feels right to do so. “It’s just too much.”
So, on Dec. 22, Bakeman’s will serve its last turkey sandwich. Or maybe meatloaf — the two have run neck-and-neck in an ongoing popularity contest that stretches back to when the Kingdome was a sapling, not an imploded mass of concrete rubble. And for Seattleites of a certain age, Bakeman’s passing will be no less significant than the spectacular detonation of that enormous gray pigeon-poop magnet.
It will be missed, as well, by city residents of more recent vintage. Cathie Hamilton, from Manhattan, moved to Seattle in 2005 after a stint in San Francisco. She plans on sticking around for the foreseeable future, in spite of the fact that she finds it difficult to make friends in this infamously frosty city.
“Seattleites are a really different breed,” Hamilton said while consuming a $5 turkey and cranberry sandwich (Wang makes everything in-house, even the bread) as Wang hounded nearby customers into ordering more quickly. “It really is the Seattle Freeze.”
But at Bakeman’s, she feels like she’s back home in New York, and finds Wang’s in-your-face manner a welcome antidote to Seattle’s pervasive ponderousness and passive-aggression.
“To make the line go faster, you need to order faster,” Wang explained. “People ask too many questions. If you don’t like how we do things, go somewhere else and eat. One customer who came in every day always asked what kind of soup we had. I told my employees to tell him to read the sign. He told me he wanted them to tell him. I told him to go somewhere else, but he still came in every day. You tell people not to come back, they still come back.”
Michael Moss is one of those people. He’s been coming back for the past 20-plus years, and paradoxically describes the wiry, hyperactive Wang as “surly but gentle.”
Turkey sandwiches used to be Moss’ go-to order; now he’s a meatloaf man. He sat alone, grinning conspicuously as Wang told an entire line of insufficiently decisive customers: “No thinking. Just start talking. Don’t wait for me to ask.”
“This is the type of place chefs would love,” Moss said. “It’s just homemade; you’re in someone’s kitchen. He makes everything except for the [saltine] crackers.”
He also doesn’t waste money on décor, instead letting Bakeman’s bring you right back to the sterile, brightly lit school lunchroom of your adolescence.
To reach the front door you descend a short flight of stairs, then walk a bit farther down upon entering. You check out the menu on the wall and decide what to order. (If you’re a regular, you already know — and have known for years.)
Bakeman’s is not a mere sandwich dispensary. For just $8.50, Wang serves plate lunches like lamb shank and pot roast with potatoes, gravy and veggies that could be sold for three times as much at a trendier joint.
“That’s just something special I do for the customer,” he said, noting that he hasn’t raised the rate on these entrees since 1995. “I don’t want to overcharge people. I want people to say, ‘This is the best price.’”
It takes a while for a Bakeman’s novice to realize that the best way to deal with Wang is to throw whatever mud he’s slinging right back in his face. More often than not, he’ll crack up and maybe even hold up the line for some playful verbal sparring.
Whatever shells Wang’s customers are hiding beneath when they walk in, he takes a sledgehammer to. It’s the culinary equivalent of getting handed a microphone in front of a roomful of strangers and being forced to sing an REO Speedwagon ballad you barely know the words to.
Moss says some of Wang’s employees are “genuinely surly,” but once they survive what must surely be a taxing probationary period (it’s not unusual to witness Wang bringing one of his charges to the brink of tears), their skills are so specifically synched to Bakeman’s breakneck operation that Wang has overlooked even the most egregious transgressions to retain them.
“I treat them like my kids,” said Wang, who’s gone so far as to keep employees who’ve stolen from his till or failed to pay him back on thousand-dollar car loans.
Once Bakeman’s closes, Wang plans a three-week trip to Hawaii, and a handful of regulars who snowbird in Arizona have offered him a place to stay should he venture to the desert. But Moss doesn’t think Wang’s the retiring type, a notion seconded by Wang himself.
“I did a two-week trip one time and got a little bored,” Wang said. “I don’t know how to relax.”
Herein, Wang concedes that if he finds the right situation and a smaller location, Bakeman’s may be reincarnated. Such a venue “has to be downtown,” he said, adding, “A lot of people only have half an hour. I want people to get their food fast and get in and out. We charge less and we need the volume.”
Ah, the volume — if Wang feels it’s getting threatened, well, he’ll threaten you. This is what happened on that cloud-pillow morning shortly after the 10 a.m. opening bell: A regular was interrupting Wang’s ace sandwich assembler with a nonstop flow of conversation — “What will you do when this place closes? Will you move back to Atlanta?” — compelling Wang to bluntly, yet (somewhat) politely, tell him to shut up.
The regular calmly gathered his belongings, sweetly exclaiming, “Love you, Jason,” on his way out.
Seely is a special correspondent.