New restaurant, Little Radio in downtown Tacoma, ready to power up
The statewide shutdown of construction could not have come at a more precarious time for Ken Thoburn and his business partners at Tacoma’s Wingman Brewers, which celebrates its ninth anniversary this week.
While their brewery operations continue mostly unchanged at Wingman Brewers on Puyallup Avenue, a restaurant and bar project they’ve been working on for several months on the other end of downtown Tacoma – Little Radio – landed in limbo.
The restaurant’s construction at 728 Pacific Avenue is halted for now.
Like so many other restaurant owners, uncertainty colors every conversation among Little Radio’s business partners/operators: Ken Thoburn, Paul Jackson, Derrick Moyer, Jim Shoemake and Michael Hilborn.
So many questions.
When can construction begin again?
Will the kitchen floor get finished at the right time to keep the rest of the project on track?
What about the recipe testing?
And all the permits they still need?
They have more questions than answers, but what is certain is that just like countless restaurant owners existing in this shaky in-between place right now, the Little Radio co-owners have been forced to rethink their business model and they believe they’ll come out better for having done so.
“It has made us more efficient,” said co-owner Ken Thoburn last week from his Wingman Brewers facility at 509 ½ Puyallup Avenue. They’ve kept the brewery open doing curbside beer sales, and their wholesale beer operations continue.
“We do have a lot of obstacles, but you’ve got to stay as positive as possible, otherwise it feels really dark. We’re still going to be here after this. We’ve got to focus on the future,” he said. And that includes taking time to reevaluate, as needed.
“We’ve been able to save money we otherwise wouldn’t have. We do lose opportunity since the restaurant isn’t open already. But it’s just been a matter of – how do you make the best of a bad situation? What now do we have time to look at? How do you rethink everything and do it right while you have this time on your hands?”
While they’re in this period of uncertainty, they’ve managed to keep all Wingman and Little Radio employees on the payroll, even employees who have not yet officially started work at Little Radio, but they’re not all doing their exact job descriptions. Their Little Radio chef, for instance, is delivering retail beer orders instead of recipe testing.
But at least they’re all still employed.
“We care more about our employees than we care about opening 5,500 square feet of restaurant. When this lockdown looked like it was coming, we thought, ‘how should we change our business model? How much money do we need? And how many of our employees will be affected?’ It seemed like the best thing was to keep everyone busy and keep things moving as they were previously, just in a very different capacity,” said Thoburn.”
“The result of that, due to Covid-19, and the exorbitant expense of building, is that Little Radio will look very different when it was Tacoma Cabana, but it’s not the entire building we can open up immediately,” he said.
WHAT WILL LITTLE RADIO LOOK LIKE?
Little Radio encompasses the former home of Tacoma Cabana, which operated from 2012 to 2018, on the same side of the street as Wooden City and Odd Otter. It’s nestled into a neighborhood that serves as downtown Tacoma’s entertainment epicenter with Matador, The Forum, Meconi’s and The Office steps away. The building historically was known as the Viant & Pierce Building.
The space is split into two areas the Little Radio owners originally intended to have fully functional upon their grand opening, but that plan was scrapped in favor of opening just the right half of the space for now.
“The space that was Tacoma Cabana and the hallway where the nightclub was before they moved in, and downstairs – there’s three bathrooms – that will be what we open,” said Thoburn. “And the left side of the building, of that space, we have good plans for it. We are really excited to bring that to Tacoma, but it’s just going to take some time.”
Little Radio’s opening footprint, which encompasses a front dining room, a narrow hallway and back lounge, will mirror the original Tacoma Cabana layout when it opened (it later became The Fern Room in 2018 and then ultimately closed in 2019. Its owners Jason and Robyn Alexander operate Devil’s Reef, one of Tacoma’s finest cocktail destinations).
Before the shutdown, they made solid progress on Little Radio. They installed a heavy-duty grease interceptor that the building always had lacked. That’s an expensive piece of equipment that allows for heavier duty cooking (read: serious cooking, not snack food, which is what you can do without an appropriately sized grease interceptor). They completed asbestos abatement. They sourced varying woods that will lend warmth to the space.
THE LOOK AND FEEL OF THE DINING ROOM
You won’t be able to turn your head without spotting some kind of reclaimed wood – from the built-in banquettes to the service bar to the hallway that will be lined with an old barn floor.
“Our carpenters, they turned an old cattle barn floor into a beautiful hallway. It’s like walking on the inside of a wine barrel. It’s really beautiful what they were able to do with that stuff,” said Thoburn.
They were able to get their hands on old-growth Douglas fir, which Thoburn said is one of his favorite decor elements of the new space. “We didn’t want something people would feel weird about putting their beer down on. We wanted big beer hall style tables made from it,” he said.
“There have been fires every summer in Oregon. They often have to clear an area for staging to bring in helicopters and water. They cleared this area of huge old-growth Douglas fir trees. The bark on them was all burned, it’s a really unique look on the trees. The state auctions them off to be used. The look of old growth for nerds like me is so much better. The grain is so much tighter. It isn’t something you see a lot of anymore.”
“This will look like the kind of tavern that Jack the Bear would walk into and sit down at the bar,” said Thoburn, giving a nod to Tacoma’s famous downtown bear that resided at the Tacoma Hotel in the late 19th century.
The name and theme of Little Radio pay homage to another slice of historic Tacoma. That space was once home to the Little Radio Shop, which was founded by Ernie Little at the Viant & Pierce Building in 1937. At the time, it neighbored Olafson’s Pet Supply.
Today’s Little Radio will be simple and comfortable.
It’ll also be family friendly. “We want families to come in and we want it to be comfortable for everybody,” said Thoburn.
The back area, if they choose, also has the space to hold a barrel-aging room, but they’re waiting until after they open before they decide if that’s a good use for the rear dining space that also will host events. “We hope to be able to host music, art showings and comedy,” said Thoburn.
LITTLE RADIO: WHAT TO EXPECT
Little Radio, when it opens, will be a something-for-everyone destination appealing to date-night seekers and families alike. It will carry the beers from the sister brewery, Wingman Brewers, and will aim high with its cocktail program.
“We’re planning for 15 taps,” said Thoburn, with taps not devoted to Wingman brews devoted to local cideries and breweries. “The current plan is for at least two of the taps will be specialty beers made just for Little Radio – an AM & FM brew.”
He added, “We also want to include some local nitro cold brew from Bluebeard Coffee.”
The plan calls for nonalcoholic specialty beverages. They’ll produce “some in-house produced non-alcoholic sodas/seltzers for folks who want to try something hand-crafted but may not want an alcoholic beverage.
The cocktail and food menus are still under design by Little Radio partner Jim Shoemake, mixology program manager, and Victor Mitchell, the restaurant’s chef.
They plan for menus that are approachable and unfussy, but made with higher-end seasonal ingredients. Their goal, Thoburn said, is to appeal to a broad audience. They intend to have offerings for gluten-free and vegan diners alike.
“We are planning on serving lunch and dinner. There probably will be some quarterly seasonal changes as more local food is available,” he said.
They will offer counter service, but not table service, which will continue that casual approach, Thoborn said. He’s not a big fan of television screens and has no desire to become a sports bar, but he said they are looking at adding a large removable or retractable screen so they can continue hosting soccer viewing parties.
When it opens, it will be a vision brought to life many years in the making. “In the beer industry, we say, every eight years you’ve got to do something new,” said Thoburn. More than a year ago, the brewers started talking about Little Radio after a project they were researching in Lakewood didn’t work out as planned. “This is us keeping moving forward.”
There’s quite a bit of work that still needs to get done before opening, but they have to wait until the state gives the green light for construction projects to restart.
“The trades people can’t come into our building right now. There’s so much electrical, plumbing and carpentry that needs to be done. The floor still needs to go in. That might take another month at least. But my guess would be, if they can go back to work, we’re probably a month away from the completion work and it might be two months until we can open, if everything works out.”
“And believe me, everybody plans on being in there on May 5 or whenever the soonest is that we can all get back to work,” said Thoburn.
Keep an eye on progress at the space on the restaurant’s Facebook page or Instagram.
Where: 728 Pacific Ave.
Opening: A month or two after this steaming hot mess is over
Where: 509 ½ Puyallup Ave., Tacoma
A MESSAGE FROM THE OWNERS
RESTAURANTS OPEN RIGHT NOW FOR BUSINESS
Have you checked out my list of restaurants open and operating with takeout, delivery and curbside service during this shutdown? Check out the story here.