Enter Linda Derschang's Effortlessly Cool Empire

By Peyton Ladt Sterns November 27, 2018 

On paper, Linda Derschang may surprise you. Prior to opening her first establishment, Linda's Tavern, nearly 25 years ago, she had never worked in hospitality or had any training as a chef or restaurant owner. What she did have (and still does today) was a passion for creating environments that people naturally gravitate to, and a fearless, "why not?" attitude.

The Founder and CEO of The Derschang Group, which has boasted over 12 establishments during its 25 year-run, sat down with Bashed to talk about her experience as one of the the first female bar owners in Seattle, plus she shares her tips on what's really important when you're hosting.

Q

How did you get into the world of hospitality and what inspired you to open Linda’s Tavern?

A

I actually owned a clothing store that I opened in the mid 80s. It was a store that sold Doc Martens, purple hair dye, tight black jeans from Trash and Vaudeville, sort of punk rock stuff. And I opened it with a friend simply because in Denver, there was not a store carrying all the clothes we wore. We’d have to go to NY or LA to buy the things we wanted. Then I decided to move to Seattle in 1987 and I opened another store, it was called Basic – and if those things were your basics that was the store for you.

I was friends with a couple of fellas that owned a record label called Sub Pop that signed Nirvana, among other great bands. Once Nirvana really took off, one of my friends came to me and said he wanted to open a bar. And that made sense to me – I wanted to open different stores associated with my lifestyle – basically a lifestyle brand before that was a thing. So we opened it, and luckily within the first few months it was a hit. I think to be successful there’s an element of hard work and coming up with good ideas, but how many people do you know that work really hard, but they don’t take off? Sometimes you aren’t even sure why things blow up – I think Linda’s hit Seattle at a time that there weren’t a ton of bars in the 90s and there wasn’t a ton of competition so it seemed quite special.

Q

You had no hospitality experience, and you’re a woman – and back when you got started, there weren’t many females in the hospitality space opening up bars. How present were those factors for you as you were getting started?

A

I’ve always had the attitude in life: why not. Fear wasn’t a factor at all, but interestingly when I first opened Linda’s, there were all of these laws about serving alcohol in the state, and so we were a tavern, it was cash only. I had six beers and a nut bar, so I wasn’t intimidated by it – it was so much easier than figuring out all of the inventory from my stores. I didn’t need people with a lot of experience so I wanted to hire fun people. And people were very forgiving in the beginning so we had leeway to work through the kinks.

The one challenge I had was that the beer reps didn’t want to sell me their beer. They would only sell me one keg and one case at a time. They were all men, there were no other women or very few that owned bars at that time. After our first night I had to call them and say I need more beer. And I had to do that every day – and go to the grocery store to buy beer – which was illegal – but I had to make sure I had enough. And this went on for a couple of weeks until they realized that we were here to stay and then the tables turned. At the time I really didn’t think about it – I knew it wasn’t happening to other friends in the industry – but I just had to keep moving and let it go and get the beer. I think a lot of women in my generation did that.

Q

What's your leadership style as a CEO?

A

As an entrepreneur you can do things in a different way than a trained CEO. It was 8 or 10 years ago when I was having some struggles with that because I am the CEO but I don’t feel that my best skills are being an executive, my skills are more suited to creating and getting people excited to do things. My COO is the one that is going to help execute the things we are doing, and coach and mentor people and make sure there’s stability. Before she joined me, I was really struggling with not being more like that. I think you’re expected as the founder to be the executive, but that’s not always the case.

Q

How would you describe your design process and how you think about designing and opening a space?

A

Usually I end up deciding to open a shop because I fall in love with a space or because I think a neighborhood is lacking something people would want to go to. Then I start polling my friends. The most recent one that I opened is 5 blocks from my house and I kept asking my friends, where do you go for a martini, a burger and a caesar salad and no one had an answer. There are great restaurants and cocktail bars, but that kind of middle place where you can eat, or drink or both, just wasn’t quite there.

There are a number of chefs in Seattle that are winning James Beard awards and I so applaud them but we’re in a different category. I’m creating places that I want to go to and that my friends would like to go. Once I heard someone say, do you want to be the favorite or the best, and I was like “favorite!” No question. I’m more interested in creating places people want to hang out it and that’s a different motivation than if you’re a chef and you really want people to know and be excited by your food. So I really had to think about what feeds me.

Q

How much do you like hosting at home?

A

I decided a couple of years ago that I would ask some friends to come over and we would cook together or do a pot luck because I was putting off entertaining, but I have this great space that my friends really enjoy – and I think sometimes that fear of entertaining and having it be perfect (especially if you own a restaurant) is a lot of pressure. I really try to think of grabbing friends and having a good time, and some times that just means wine and snacks. And I have friends who like to cook at my house which is really great.

Q

What  tips do you have for making the most out of the space in your home for entertaining?

A

I always think about the flow of people and how to prevent the bottleneck. I think about keeping food away from the drinks helps. Having glasses and wine bottles laid out so that people can help themselves. If it’s a holiday party, making a big bowl of punch. Also, distributing the food in different areas does wonders. Think about where people are going to gather and put food and drinks away from that area, so that helps divide people and forces them to move around.

Q

What’s your favorite icebreaker at the dinner table?

A

My go to question is where have you been? Where have you been traveling? Because I’m always fascinated by where people have been and enjoy learning about new places to visit.

Q

If you are looking at a drink menu, what will you never order? Always order?

A

No sweet drinks. Go to is a gin martini.

Q

Favorite host/hostess gift to give?

A

A book or a couple of interesting magazines if I know the person well. If I don’t, a candle.

Q

What’s your go-to party playlist?

A

I like to keep it pretty eclectic . I’m lucky at our restaurants and bars, I have a lot of people who work for me that are really into music. I opened a new place and emailed my friends and asked them, “If you were sitting in a bar and it was your favorite neighborhood bar, what would you want to listen to?”

Q

If you could invite 7 people to dinner, dead or alive, who would it be?

A

Isabella Blow

Gloria Steinem

Maira Kalman

Hillary Clinton

St. Vincent

Grace Coddington

Jane Jacobs

Tell Us What You Think

  • Marilyn Hatfield 75 years old. says:

    I feel well suited for her restaurants/tavern.
    I would never open one but could be on the sidelines.
    I eat to live as I eat all day, grazing.
    I love excitement, new things, and animals.
    I am blessed to have a man in my life to share meals and ideas. I do not feel it imperative to have a man in my house. I am very socially inclined and have been a caretaker to at least 2 men.
    I love to travel in an RV, take a cruise, or live in Sun City, Bluffton, SC 29909

  • Marilyn Hatfield says:

    I doubt that I have replied to your email.
    I am a fun person and have many different interests. I could not be a bar tender although it might be fun.
    I am a very organized person. I have many different interests. The main one playing games and bridge games.
    I can relate to older people and to my grandchildren.
    Marilyn

  • Peyton Ladt Sterns

    Chocolate chip cookies are my spirit animal.

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