While many restaurants battled with bills and staying open in 2020, the owners of Osteria La Spiga celebrated a milestone achievement. The Seattle Italian restaurant in business for more than 23 years paid off investors in the middle of the pandemic.
“We are completely free and clear of business partners for the first time in our career. We’ve always had investors and business partners, even back in Italy,” says Sabrina Tinsley, co-founder of La Spiga. She and her husband Pietro Borghesi opened their gorgeous restaurant at its current Capitol Hill location on 12th Avenue in 2006. The executive chef describes what it is like for them to have a debt-free business. “After we signed the papers, we just felt so free and liberated. We started making decisions a little differently based on our personal needs rather than on pleasing our investors.”
Tinsley recognizes what a blessing it is to own a restaurant doing well despite the challenges of COVID shutdowns, restrictions and protocols. “We feel so fortunate that business is strong and that we have a steady staff that takes pride in the restaurant,” she says.
Although La Spiga went into the pandemic in a robust financial position, some past struggles with the restaurant had taught the husband-and-wife team critical lessons. “We had a certain skill set that we were able to develop during the economic downtown of 2008 because we were really going through tough times. We were hemorrhaging money,” says Tinsley. “Times were good previous to that, but we didn’t have a real strong control on the business.”
The restaurateurs responded to the 2008 money crisis by streamlining their portfolio of investors. One investor taught them valuable survival skills they applied during the pandemic. “I think mostly it was labor costs and understanding when to cut back for the benefit of the company. Number one is making sure your business survives so that you’re there for your staff when it’s all over,” La Spiga’s co-owner says.
Shifting for Survival
The uncertainty of 2020 pushed Tinsley and Borghesi, the restaurant's general manager, to make tough choices to stay in business. They operated their large restaurant with 30 employees. La Spiga’s owners went through a lot of inner turmoil over the decision to lay off most of them. “When we came to the realization we were going to have to let our staff go, we were only comforted by the fact that most of them were eligible to collect unemployment,” Tinsley says.
The Seattle restaurant closed for about one week in March 2020 as pandemic dining restrictions went into effect. Tinsley and her husband used the time to put strict safety protocols and a takeout-only operation in place. Bar manager Dominic DeFilippo ran the takeout platform with Borghesi. The couple’s son, Micki Saverio Borghesi, joined his mother in the kitchen. “I trained him to work the line. He was 16 at the time and had never cooked at the restaurant before. It was pretty comical.” La Spiga was operating with only four people and still offering plenty of pasta made in-house. “We streamlined the menu by removing the more curated appetizers and focused on our top sellers. We were doing everything possible to keep the doors open.”
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In addition to takeout orders, the restaurant put together meals for Community Roots Housing and World Central Kitchen. Tinsley calls it a pivotal experience that helped the La Spiga survive last year while the restaurant remained closed to in-person dining. “We would do meals on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and it was anywhere from 600 to 900 meals a week,” she says.
La Spiga’s co-founders were fortunate to receive support themselves last year. They were able to get in on both rounds of the Paycheck Protection Program grants. An agreement worked out with their landlord mattered even more. Tinsley and Borghesi negotiated a manageable deal that allowed them to pay a little less than one-third of the regular rent on their lease. “The fact that she was willing to negotiate down and help us out meant so much to us. If that had not happened, then we wouldn’t have been able to make ends meet, for sure,” the chef says.
Open for Dining In
Diners are returning to the 6,000 square feet of glass, wood and iron that once housed an auto body shop. The stunning interior space designed by Borghesi’s brother, Francesco, gives patrons room to spread out in the building. “We’re blessed with a very large space, and we were able to separate guests appropriately, so they felt safe coming back,” says Tinsley. Diners are coming in even with King County’s mandatory proof of vaccination mandate in place. Borghesi’s lively personality, the beauty of the expansive space and the high-quality dining attract loyal guests.
Last August, Daily Hive included Osteria La Spiga as one of the seven best places to get homemade pasta in Seattle. The online review states, “Known for its authentic, northern Italian cuisine, the food at la Spiga is a gastronomic tribute to Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. Each pasta dish is handmade in-house using fresh organic local eggs and sustainably produced Shepherd’s Grain flour.”
As business increased, Tinsley and Borghesi began rehiring staff, starting with employees not getting unemployment checks. The culture the couple established made it easier to bring back dedicated people, especially in the kitchen. “We are definitely conscious of all of the things that are toxic about the restaurant industry. So we are doubling down on our commitment to creating an inclusive and equitable workplace,” says co-owner Tinsley.
La Spiga’s founders chose to keep the streamlined menu, even with 20 employees now on the payroll again. “We think we’ll keep it this way. Guests are satisfied with the selection, and we are able to better manage our labor and food costs,” Tinsley adds.
Chef Changes Focus
In her opinion, the quality and consistency of the food, hospitality and service are the same or even better since Cuisine Noir Magazine published an article on La Spiga in 2013. “My husband is Italian, so we’ve always followed the Italian hospitality model. We make people feel like they are a part of our business, starting with the staff and getting them to take ownership of our philosophy and guest experience,” says Chef Tinsley.
Some essential employees, including the sous chef and pasta maker, have been with the restaurant for many years. Tinsley’s role, however, has changed dramatically. “I used to work late nights six to seven times a week,” she explains. “Now, I am home every single night unless there is a major emergency. My kids and I cook dinner together, and I really treasure that time with them.”
When the mother of two realized how much time she was missing with her son and daughter, the chef turned over kitchen responsibilities to the talented staff. Twenty-year-old Martina works Tuesday through Friday as the pastry chef at her parents’ restaurant. Meanwhile, Tinsley devotes more time to public relations and meeting potential patrons. “When you have been in business for as long as we have, it’s elementary for us to get lost in the shuffle, especially with all the new restaurants opening up. Being at the forefront of people’s minds plays into our ability to thrive.”
Freeing up time for her family and other pursuits adds more joy to Tinsley’s life as a restaurant owner. She and Pietro also decided to close La Spiga on Sundays and Mondays instead of staying open seven days a week. “I am able to actually fulfill what I’ve come to realize is my passion and desire to really help others,” says Tinsley. “I’ve arrived at where I am right now because others have helped me. So, I want to be that person for so many people in our community, especially our Black, Indigenous people of color (BIPOC).”
Future of Diversity
The passion project La Spiga’s co-founder enjoys the most is the Future of Diversity Guest Chef Program. It started with Tinsley wanting to pay tribute to her Black heritage with a single event for the Dr. Martin Luther King Holiday and Black History Month. It quickly became a monthly program showcasing the diversity of area chefs on the days La Spiga was closed for business. “It’s gaining momentum. We provide whatever support the chefs need, including the packaging, the food costs, the marketing and the kitchen space if they need it,” Tinsley says.
The Future of Diversity presents different concepts with each of the guest chefs. Some of the participating chefs have included Mahogany Williams, Wil Yee, Shaili Parekh and Michael Poole. The program makes it possible for Tinsley and her husband to support chefs from different cultures, allowing their talents to shine. It’s not a program intended to make a profit for La Spiga, and that’s okay because we know we are building something bigger,” says Tinsley.
La Spiga’s co-owners break even on the project while guest chefs receive 20 percent of the meal sales plus all the tips. Live Zoom interviews with the guest chefs help supporters learn more about their backgrounds and understand what they will experience with the takeout meals. Tinsley is pleased with the Future of Diversity’s success. “It’s been very well received by supporters, and we have a growing network of incredibly talented chefs who are supportive of the program and stepping up to help it grow. It’s so rewarding.”
On December 5, La Spiga will host a Future of Diversity holiday market. Each chef will have a table set up to sell their hot street foods and packaged products such as jams, spices, wine, chocolates, teas, and wellness products market style. Customers will have a lot of variety to choose from. “I think it’s going to be a beautiful celebration and networking opportunity for the participating chefs,” says Tinsley. “And with an open bar and live jazz trio, it will be the perfect way to kick off the holidays.”
Leaning into Longevity
Despite all the years Tinsley spent perfecting northern Italian cooking, she does not miss being in the restaurant’s kitchen all day, every day. Last year, she participated in the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership (WEL) program sponsored by the James Beard Foundation. She formed strong bonds with many of the other business owners, including seven Black women.
Last month, Chef Tinsley traveled to North Carolina to be a featured chef and do a pasta-making demo at the BayHaven Food & Wine Festival. Subrina Collier, another WEL program participant, organized the event in Charlotte with her husband, Greg. “I love that this festival celebrates a broad range of chefs and showcases how much Black talent is out there.”
La Spiga’s owners are still years away from retiring, but they have some ideas for the future. The idea of opening an Italian deli and grocery when they are ready to leave the full-service restaurant appeals to the couple. “The business is going well, so it’s hard for us to picture closing it now. We’re going to continue to capitalize on our investment while developing the new concept,” she says.
In the meantime, Tinsley is working on passing the torch to younger generations through a new teen internship program. “I started the pilot program this past summer using my son and his friends as the guinea pigs,” says Tinsley. “It’s a difficult industry, so besides trying to implement programs that help to change the culture, we’re also trying to bring new talent into the industry.”
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The Seattle restaurateur uses her decades of experience to help her son and other young people see the positive side of hospitality. She guides her young interns step-by-step by teaching basic entry-level skills, coaching them on resume writing and providing them with the tools of the trade as graduation gifts, such as shirts, aprons and appropriate shoes. The first two interns have already started working at La Spiga with paid shifts as part of the program,” says Tinsley. “They are engaged so far and doing really well. It’s promising, and my son already has a couple more people lined up for the next quarter.” Tinsley hopes to offer the internship program quarterly to two students at a time.
The pandemic’s impact did not keep Tinsley from feeling grateful and fulfilled with her development outside of the kitchen, her support of BIPOC chefs, her mentorship of young hospitality hopefuls and La Spiga’s lasting success. “In all the mess and difficult times, we feel fortunate and blessed by our staff, our customers and our space.”