With Mother's Day around the corner, we headed to Sumner, WA to visit with Bruce Patterson, owner, and chef of the Windmill Bistro. Windmill Bistro is a charming restaurant nestled away in a lush garden setting that can only be described as fairy tale-esque. During our interview, Bruce talks about the challenges he faced while transitioning from working in resorts to becoming a small restaurant owner, why he still makes most of his food in-house, and what motivates him every day. Read his interview below!
Bruce Patterson on the back steps of Windmill Bistro
Walking up to the front of the cottage-like restaurant, vibrant peachy pink tulips and perfectly trimmed hedges line the pathway. The outdoor seating area looks out onto a bright green lawn that features a gazebo and an old-fashioned windmill covered in ivy. It's the perfect location for a Mother's Day brunch or a warm wedding in August. Bruce also shares the grounds with Windmill Gardens - a year-round nursery which keeps the restaurant bustling with new and familiar faces.
It's the first day of the bistro's patio season, so Bruce and I walked outside and sit at a table next to babbling stream and garden with vine plants and colorful flowers.
Can you tell us about the story of Windmill Bistro?
The story of Windmill Bistro was long before I got here. It's been a restaurant for about 10 years and had a couple of different owners before me. It will be 6 years in September that I've taken over.
What is your background in the service industry?
I came from Arizona and worked down there for 20 plus years at some fine resorts and worked my way up. I have been in the industry since I was 15 so it has been 36 years now.
Was it a big change coming from Arizona and working in resorts to coming to Washington and owning and operating your own restaurant?
Oh, yeah. Climate wise, clientele wise...I had to put my ego aside when it came to the menu and really concentrate on what the customers wanted and not what I wanted to put on the menu. That was my biggest challenge when I first got here. I had all these grand ideas but they just didn't sell. We do music on the weekends, and I would eventually like to get a younger crowd in here. I'd like to start focusing more on entree heavy meals and change the dinner menu a little.
Windmill Bistro kitchen
And you do catering here as well?
Yes. I'm the sole caterer on the property and we do weddings. There are summers where we do a wedding a weekend. They get married in the gazebo and then we set up in the grass and move all of the tables around. We do a big charity event in June called Girl's Night Out with 600 women and they spread out throughout the grounds. We have four food stations and four wine stations which are hosted by the Sumner Rotary. It's a huge undertaking and when you see the kitchen you'll wonder how I do it!
*Side Note: Bruce's kitchen is about 400 square feet (pictured above)!
What types of challenges has the restaurant faced along the way and how did you overcome these?
Being seasonal is always a challenge. Every winter it slows down because a lot of my business is based around the nursery. Right now, people are gearing up for summer so I'm getting busy. In the winter, I just have to come up with clever ideas for wine, dinners, coupons, etc. It's just your basic slow season and that's why I'm steering more towards a heavier dinner crowd. That's where I really need to build my business. My lunch business is really good but we are working with a consultant right now to try to come up with a better marketing plan because my wife and I have done everything we can do alone to build the restaurant. Before this, I had never owned a restaurant so a lot of these challenges I'm facing are driving business here and keeping them.
What continues to motivate you in the service industry?
That's a good question! After 31 years, I keep getting out of bed to do this?! It's when people say it's the best meal they've ever had. It's the repeat customers and knowing their names. People bring in cookies and jams! Many of our customers are guests that were at our wedding... It's the relationships. A lot of it comes from having the ability to make people happy.
What is a new ingredient, cooking style or food trend that you are currently excited about?
I'm kind of old school. I cook with fresh ingredients and everything is from scratch from salad dressings and cheese to sausages. Nothing is frozen. As far as cooking styles, I'm not really following the trends. Maybe I need to but my clientele doesn't call for it. Being the chef and owner, I'm often in the kitchen I'm sometimes just trying to stay afloat, to be honest with you. I don't have an army. I'm hands on and would like to maybe come out on the floor more but then I have to pay somebody and will they do the things the way they need to be done? I might be a little bit of a micro manager but if it's my recipe and my reputation on the line, then that salad dressing needs to be correct. I'm not into shortcuts. I make a lot of things in-house, probably more than I need to! It brings me here at 6:00 am and I have to get a lot of stuff done before I open.
Are you offering a Mother's Day brunch?
I've been working on the Mother's Day menu today. It's not a brunch like you may be used to such as a buffet because I don't have space, but I combine lunch and breakfast items and they are typically things not on my everyday menu. I'll have a couple different Benedicts, french toast, pancakes, entrees that you can choose from. If you don't want breakfast, you can have pasta or something else.
Do you see yourself expanding or focusing on Windmill Bistro only?
Just here. I find when you spread out, you start to spread yourself thin and it leads to shortcuts because you can't be at both locations. I believe that one location would suffer unless you could hire a chef who had the same care as you do. It can be hard, and if people are not invested, they're not as dedicated and may cut corners by throwing food away, being wasteful, etc. I saw that a lot while working in the resorts because it was not their money.
Do you repurpose food scraps when cooking?
Definitely. We use as much as we can, and I don't make a lot so it doesn't go bad. We are making dressings every other day because everything on the menu is made to move.
Visit Windmill Bistro at 16009 60th St E a, Sumner, WA 98390
Windmill Gardens Special Events Room
Windmill Bistro Entrance