Flying Tomato restaurant won’t permanently close, it has a new home
The short version of this story is this: The Flying Tomato Bar and Grill in Graham, a 15-year-old family-friendly restaurant with a classic Italian menu, has found a new home in Spanaway.
For those who caught the social media announcement that the restaurant is closing for good, a follow-up post two weeks later (that you might have missed) told this good news: The Flying Tomato is moving to the old Little Park restaurant space in Spanaway.
The timeline? Several months. That gritty-around-the-edges space requires plenty of remodeling, but if we’re lucky and remodeling goes as planned, we’ll be eating spaghetti and meatballs in eight to 10 months in the revamped Spanaway space.
How this move came to be was born, as just about everything is these days, out of the pandemic. Flying Tomato owner Gary Walker was doing everything he could to survive when dining rooms closed last year, and he was doing OK after doing a big pivot. He built several pop-up restaurant concepts, all under The Flying Tomato’s roof. Walker called them “online restaurants.” He served through third-party delivery apps.
“We had one called Omelets Only, Wing It was a wings menu. There was Flying Subs and then there was the Bomb Bakery. And Walker’s Burgers. Really, we were using all the ingredients we had anyway. Pizza toppings can be turned into omelets and sandwiches. When the dining rooms closed, we survived that way,” said Walker.
A NEW LEASE ON RESTAURANT LIFE
When his third five-year lease came up this year, he talked to the property manager about continuing a one-year lease because of the uncertainty of what’s ahead for restaurants. They could not come to terms for a shorter-term lease and the landlord secured another renter (Walker has been told it will be leased to Davita). Walker said he’s not bitter about the situation. This is a precarious time and circumstances are pushing restaurants into unpredictable territory.
“I’m not going to lie, I was crying. I just never thought I’d be taken out that way,” said Walker. He and his family started packing up the restaurant and served their last meal on Aug. 10. They sold most of the equipment via an online auction.
And then he got wind that the Little Park space was available.
When Little Park fell in his lap, it was serendipitous. He had looked at the restaurant space – Little Park closed its doors in 2019 after more than 50 years of service – about nine months ago, and he had heard that a housing program was eying the Little Park space, but ultimately, he thought it was a space he could not pass up, especially after he got approval for a small business loan. With incredible traffic along adjacent Pacific Avenue South and a huge parking lot, the space has all the elements for a destination family restaurant.
Fortified with the loan he secured, he bought the property, which means he’ll never be subject to signing a lease again, which is a first for the longtime restaurant owner and manager.
Walker spent a good chunk of his early restaurant career at the place where I feel like maybe 72.9 percent of all longtime career Pierce County restaurant workers started their careers: the regional Italian restaurant chain, Cucina! Cucina! He worked as the general manager of the Tacoma Cucina! Cucina! He later moved to manage the Issaquah Cucina! Cucina! Then opportunity knocked when acquaintances purchased Mama Stortini’s, which was operating in University Place at that time. They hired him to manage the restaurant and he became a partner. He worked there through the move from University Place to Puyallup, where the restaurant still operates. Then, he sold his Mama Stortini shares and he opened his own place, The Flying Tomato in Graham, 15 years ago.
THE NEW FLYING TOMATO IN SPANAWAY
Much of the new restaurant at the Little Park space will feel familiar: The menu of Italian classics will stay intact, and so will the pizza menu. There will be beer, wine and cocktails.
What about that cute spinning prize wheel that lived in the dining room? Kids would give it a twirl and the wheel would award the spinner a fun prize. They sold that at the auction, Walker thinks, but there might be a second generation spinning prize wheel in the dining room. Kids will still be doted upon.
Walker had to abandon the massive pizza oven, which he bought from an old Cucina! Cucina!, because it was just too big to move.
“It’s a beast to move, that thing. When I opened Flying Tomato, I had to get it in before the windows went into that place. I’m going to get a smaller version,” said Walker. He said he’s securing that new smaller pizza oven and it will most likely be a gas-wood hybrid like the old one.
He added. “As for the food, “It’s the same menu, although breakfast, lunch and dinner. We’ll incorporate some of the flair. We’ll put some of the old Tomato into the new Tomato. We’ll have the wood-fired oven and do pizzas. We’re going to let it fly.”
The interior will get a makeover that will be a bit different from the comfortable digs at the Graham Flying Tomato. “We’re going to remodel with more of an industrial, sort of industrial look,” he said. His children, who have grown up at the Graham restaurant, are all assisting with the design, as is Walker’s wife.
The restaurant will seat at least 70 to 75, which is about the same size as the former location. A big bonus is a giant parking lot that is a gem of a find in today’s tight commercial restaurant market where large parking lots are getting so much more difficult to find.
“It’s a great parking lot. It’s super busy. It’s very easy to get in and out. There’s a lot of traffic over there. There was something inside that was calling me to that location. My wife said, ‘This is a whole new chapter in our life, so long as it’s not Chapter 13,” said Walker with a laugh.
Watch the restaurant’s social media here for updates.
The Flying Tomato Bar and Grill
Former location now closed: 10224 198th St. E., Graham
New location in Spanaway opening in 2022: 17106 Pacific Ave. S., Spanaway