An Interview with Restaurant Owner & WSU Culinary Educator, Jim Harbour

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As we pull into the parking lot of Pullman's South Fork Public House, I am surprised by the location. The restaurant is flanked by an Ace Hardware and Dollar Tree - an expected placement but one that was strategically planned by restaurant owner and Washington State University college professor, Jim Harbour. We are meeting for lunch to talk about his newest venture, CASK - a small tapas bar specializing in local beer and wine, complete with a unique 102 square foot kitchen and beautiful rustic interior.

Read his interview below to get a taste of his journey, his accomplishments, his challenges and his sense of humor. 

What has your journey been like up to this point?

I've always been a restaurant rat. Ironically enough, my parents knew nothing about restaurants but after meeting someone randomly in California, we moved to Orange County when I was in the 7th grade. I hung out with a bunch of prep cooks and helped slice onions and peel potatoes. Somehow that's when the addiction to the madness began.

At 16, I started delivering pizzas. That is until the company found out that I was 16... They put the kibosh on that. In typical restaurant fashion, that same place suddenly needed a prep cook so they called and asked if I was interested in starting immediately. I've never left [the industry] since.

How did you get to where you are today?

I have a degree in Hospitality; it's just all I've ever done.  Out of college, I went to work at a place called Huston's, which is now Hillstone and did that for a short time. Then, I moved to Spokane, ran a place there for 6 years, and started at WSU as a professor. Eleven years ago, I opened my first restaurant and then South Fork seven and a half years ago. Since then, I've opened three more with one of them failing miserably. 

Which bring me to my next question. Can you describe your vision for each location?

South Fork Public HouseIn a nutshell, this one was meant to fulfill the niche which we have here: a need for medium price points and open to everybody. In Pullman, everyone thinks you have to go after the college kids and that's not necessarily the case. There's a ton of money in Pullman. Well, either a ton of money or no money. If you're a farmer, you either have a lot or a little. College students seem to have either more money than you or I combined or no money at all. So, I wanted to build a place that would be fancy enough for a date 12108887_10153330599114751_3014983622928827307_n.jpgnight yet approachable enough for farmers coming out of the fields with muddy boots. That's why you see exposed plumbing hardware and price points from $9 to $26. And somehow, we pulled it off.

Everyone thought we were crazy, you know, being in a strip mall. The big thing in my mind though is that everyone on the East side of the mountains eats early and people care about parking. We're not city slickers. We don't park and walk. South Fork's parking lot is huge since it used to be a Safeway. Farmers drive large trucks and they're not going to parallel park their car downtown, so it's easy in and easy out, and for these guys, money is no issue. They go out to lunch every day. That was the goal, to break the rule because you can't try to be everything to everybody.

Porch Light PizzaPorch Light is our version of the fast casual pizza concept. No one else is doing it here. It's a cool building close to campus. A lot of other people have done it like Mod Pizza, Pieology Pizzeria, and Blaze Pizza. They are all doing the same thing - we are just doing our own version. 

16473560_1326997897338485_3948157361916690999_n.jpgCupcake and Yogurt ShopI had a cupcake and yogurt shop. The goal was to take two of what I thought were hot trends still - cupcakes and yogurt - and put them under the same window. Now my kids will be going to community college...

Can you tell us a little bit about your newest restaurant, CASK?

This one is a very nice tasting room for a local cidery that just got out of the retail world and wanted to stick with wholesale. It's a really small, cute place, and offers beer and wine only with all small plates. The kitchen is 102 square feet total, 6 ft x 17 ft. I can literally touch both sides of the wall standing in one spot.

South Fork alongside Birch & Barley do a decent happy hour, but CASK will definitely fill that niche a bit more. We will be open from 3 -10 pm to try to fill that void. That's the dream... We will see. 

What types of challenges have you faced along the way and how did you overcome these?

Well, the biggest challenge I ever faced was the amount of money I lost in the cupcake and yogurt shop. I just came out of a panel discussion with students, and I was very lucky. I told them, you never take money from people who can't afford to lose it. So, if you're going to take money from your uncle, dad, aunt, cousin or buddy and they can't afford to lose it, you damn well don't take it! There is always a good shot you might lose it. In that spot though I had a good partner and we were able to make it work.

Alongside that, the other trials and tribulations are HR based. Good people are hard to find and hard to keep, especially in Pullman. Many people come here to get their degree and leave. Inherently, you have a turnover that you can't control, and you have to be proud of them when they graduate and move on.

There is also a lot of discussion in the restaurant industry about minimum wage, tip credit, and the equal care act. What bothers me is that I'm seven miles from a place [Moscow] that doesn't have to play by the same rules as we do and to me it's crazy. We have had success so I can't complain. I teach my students, the rules of the game have changed but the game is still the same. How can I provide great service and food at a price point that gets them in the door?

Overall, I can't complain about anything. We've been blessed that the first one out the gate was so successful. 

What has been your greatest accomplishment? 

I think my greatest accomplishment has been - besides my lovely two children - that I drove around the country for three and a half months in a van after college. Next to that, I would say this is my greatest accomplishment. To roll the dice on the south end of Pullman, in a strip mall next to an Ace and a Dollar Store, and to do the kind of numbers we do is ridiculous! Whatever we have done here, this is hands down my proudest professional accomplishment. 

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What is a new ingredient, cooking style or food trend that you are excited about right now?

You know, I would say it's not very current but I use our sous vide machine a lot because it decreases the technical ability to make a good meal. We use it when we cater because you can hold things and in doing so, they just get better. Often times at our catering events we have one sous vide item. You can let it sit there and when it's time to sear, can serve the best piece of meat that you've maybe ever had, let alone at a buffet. So, we tend to use that technology a fair amount. 

As far as other food trends, it changes by the week. Currently, we are making waffles out of french fries by taking cold fries, chopping up 'em up with a little bit of egg, sour cream, cheese, and serving it with the ingredients on top of that. Creations are perpetually changing and I'm always surfing the internet for something. I'm a very proud Pinterest person. If you look at every single restaurant I've opened you can see exactly where the inspiration came from.

We jumped on the Korean taco theme and everyone went bonkers for it - it was a number one seller for days. All I did was make a Korean BBQ sauce out of pepper paste, put it on our pulled pork and throw it on some tacos. Consumers want to try different things even in small town USA, not just Portland, Seattle or typical Food Truckie places. As long as you make that barrier of entry low and they can try it without committing a lot of time or money into it, people will definitely step outside the box.

How do you see the Pullman food scene growing and/or changing in the next few years? How do you hope to influence this?

I think the food scene in Pullman has a ton of opportunity. There are a lot of restaurants that have been doing the same thing in the same spots for a long time which is not necessarily the best use of space. I think with a little bit of progress, a little bit of turnover, and a little bit of innovation, Pullman will move forward and grow. Pullman has an insane amount of growth opportunity. There's so much untapped capacity because people don't have places to eat. People will drive the seven miles to Moscow in a heartbeat because that is what we've been trained to do. I just hope more people throw some skin in the game and try to live the dream because there are just so many people that don't have a place to eat.

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My mark is always to try to fill some void, some niche, and my focus has always been on what I think the community wants….how can I fill that and be proud. I was very proud of the yogurt shop but the community didn't want it as badly as we thought they would and we just missed the mark. Whatever I touch, I always want to be proud of and just pray that the community wants it. 

What advice do you have for those looking to start up a new restaurant?

I always tell my students to go make your mistakes on someone else's dollar - someone who can lose it or afford to lose it. Go work for the big chain, go work for the big player, for the people. Go play, go explore, go screw up, go make bad decisions on someone else's dollar. Get that out of your system at whatever age you are before you rally the troops and raise your money and go do it on your own.

People always say, get a job and stick with it, but the more jobs you have when you're young, the more you realize what you like and what you don't like, how things work and how they don't work, how you would like to do it and how you wouldn't like to do it. Bad jobs are just as powerful as good jobs because you learn what you don't like. The biggest one is to get out there and be a life-long learner. If you're a food person, always be playing with food. Always take notes. I use Pinterest to keep my ideas organized. Also, if I'm in Seattle, I will just have a running log of ideas if I'm at a restaurant or food show. I'll take a picture, save it, organize it, and then when you're bored you can look back and remember all of your ideas. 

What continues to motivate or inspire you in this industry?

The guests. I think I have the disease of loving to entertain people and I think that's why I love this industry. It's also why I like to teach. I like to entertain, educate, and make people smile, as well as guide them through a good dining experience.

It's also the challenge of all the different models. We have a full-service restaurant, a limited service restaurant, and now a hybrid of tapas beer and wine, so to me, it's the challenge of all the different models. Then, it's the challenge of building something the consumer and the guests want. It's the creation and development process, the building of it and dreaming of it... All fun. Execution is fun. Maintaining? Not so fun. 


Visit CASK at: 588 SE Bishop Blvd Suite G Pullman, WA 99163

All photos courtesy of the CASK, Porch Light, and Southfork Facebook pages. 

Chloe is the Social Media and Marketing Coordinator for Bargreen Ellingson. She is an avid reader, loves London Fog lattes and her budgie, Brodie.
Topics: Restaurants & Bars Interviews News & Trends