Tom Maccarone describes himself as "versatile". And that's no understatement. This former Seattle-based menswear buyer had a pipe dream of owning a restaurant and, seven years after opening his first, now finds himself at the helm of four very different culinary undertakings: fine dining at T. Maccarone's, casual eats, killer pastries and Walla Walla's best spot for people watching at Olive Marketplace & Cafe, a thriving catering business and a new venture at the stunning estate of Basel Cellars. It's hard to visit Walla Walla without an introduction to one of his creations, not to mention to the man himself. Often found manning the register at Olive or working front of house at T. Maccarone's, Tom's enthusiasm for his hometown community - and its visitors - is truly infectious, making a visit to one of his eateries a true wine country "must do".
Tom Maccarone: versatile guy
How did you get started in the food biz?
I was born and raised in Walla Walla and left in 1989. I lived in Seattle for four years then moved back to Walla Walla in 1991 and opened up a men's clothing store when I was 25. It was called Gabinetto's Menswear and I think it was a little ahead of its time. I carried Calvin Klein and Polo and Nautica and nicer stuff. I had that for three years then I closed it and went to work for Walla Walla Clothing Co. for three more years and then I moved back to Seattle again. I worked in management at Nordstrom for six years then was with Eddie Bauer as a buyer for men's outwear for about another five years. Then, in 2005, I had an opportunity to move back to Walla Walla and open up a restaurant with no business plan and no restaurant owner experience...and here we are seven years later!
When that opportunity arose what made you think, "Oh yeah, I can do this"?
I dunno, I think I just had a knack for making people feel good and knowing what they wanted. I liked to have people over to my house for dinner a lot and it was always this great mixture of food, company, wine, and atmosphere. People always had a good time so I tried to take that concept and turn it into a business and I feel like that's what I've done with T. Maccarone's. Good food, good, wine, cozy atmosphere, in a great town.
So you just jumped in and opened a restaurant a few months later - didn't that scare the shit out of you?
Yes and yes. It was much bigger than I ever thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be a little mom and pop shop. My mom was in the kitchen making meatballs. I was cooking on the line a little bit but mostly front of house. I had a chef and was open for lunch and dinner. By the end of the first week I sat down and cried because I didn't know what I was going to do because it was busier than I ever thought it was going to be.
And yeah, from that moment on, I just plugged away. I went through some growing pains and realized I didn't want to do this all myself so I started seeking out a chef to be a potential business partner. I stumbled across Jake Crenshaw through Craig's List and he joined me in May of '08. By the end of that year, I gave him a portion of the business for his hard work and dedication. He really helped make T. Maccarone's what it is today - getting us to that level of quality that I always knew was there but just couldn't do by myself.
With Jake on board did that free you up to open your second restaurant?
That just kind of happened too. In November of '09 I was approached by Bob Austin, the owner of a place called Merchant's, and he made us an offer that we pretty much couldn't refuse. We decided to take another plunge and buy Merchant's - which is now Olive Marketplace & Cafe - and have had it for almost three years now
I had no intention at all of opening something else, the opportunity was just there and it just sort of felt right at the moment. We had a lot of support from the community and contractors and different business associates that worked with us on renovating the space. On any given day we probably had 10-20 volunteers helping us clean, paint, demolish and haul - so it was definitely a community effort. It was January 15 when we started and we were open and completely renovated on February 3. The grand opening party was something we never expected - I think about 400 people came. It's been a ride, that's for sure.
So being a "local boy" has really helped you out in terms of community support?
Absolutely. I think being born and raised here was a huge positive. I've always understood this town - I mean the wine industry in this town is incredible and it's an amazing tourist attraction and it helps everyone's business, but at the end of the day this is still a farming community. Farmers still support this and that's what Walla Walla's all about. I have a huge local following with my businesses and I'll always be grateful to have that. The tourism is the icing or gravy - whatever you want to call it - but I feel like the local community is the base of our business.
My folks had a restaurant in the early 70s through mid-80s called "That's Italian" so I grew up in that place. I worked there from a young age and I always thought it was mine and that someday I was going to inherit it. I pretended it was mine. I merchandised it like it was mine. I ordered people around like it was mine. It was very fun. But yes, a great experience and really where I got the concept about how to run a small restaurant.
When I first opened T. Maccarone's I based my menu off of what they did and actually had some of the sandwiches they had. My first year that I was open I had basically just salads, soups and sandwiches for lunch and I did pastas for dinner with a lot of family recipes. We've definitely evolved from that and become one of the staple restaurants of Walla Walla and I'm proud of what we serve and what we do. I'm proud of our product and I think Jake is a HUGE part of the quality that comes out of our restaurant. Without his vision and what he puts into the business it certainly wouldn't be here today. I play a big role in what we do in the front of the house but he plays a bigger part in the back. We do a lot of things like buying whole pigs and butchering them ourselves so that every piece can be used in something - a stock, bacon, pork shoulder or whatever. Jake is great at that. We do all free range chickens that we roast ourselves and we use whatever's left for stocks - there's never any waste from what we use in the restaurants. Nothing.
What do you do with the feet?
Feet? Like what kind of feet? You mean like pig's feet? I don't know. We can 'em and serve them to my friends when they come over for dinner.
If I was coming to your house for dinner, what would you make - other than canned pig's feet??
I always go back to my roots - my mother, my grandmother - it's pasta with red sauce. I love local produce and think it's one of the greatest things about Walla Walla. I get a high off just going out to the farms and picking tomatoes. I literally get like, giddy about it. It's crazy. I love canning. I am a huge canner. Last year I did probably 60 quarts of tomatoes so....I love it.
I think the sustainability part of living here and the fresh produce and free range natural products are some of the greatest things about living in a small town. Working with the farmers for both of our restaurants and, even for myself, I just prefer locally grown everything. And I think when I'm taking something I personally canned and cooking someone dinner at my house, there's a certain amount of pleasure in that. I love making people feel good. It goes back to that same concept that the restaurants grew out of. So, if you were coming to my house, I'd probably make you some sort of pasta with my heirloom tomato sauce I canned. We'd probably have some cheese and roasted red peppers that I canned and packed in olive oil and jarred myself. Maybe some amazing charcuterie and some great wines that people brought over or whatever....wait, are you drooling?
Yes. So is it true that you are expanding your empire a little further by teaming up with Basel Cellars??
My personal pipe dream was having a restaurant - I never thought I'd have two. Now we're working with Basel Cellars on our third opportunity and that should open in the next few weeks. We will be the exclusive food provider for their estate. So we're putting in a commercial kitchen out there and we'll do food for any event that happens at Basel Cellars - corporate retreats, weddings, anniversaries, whatever. Right now we're focused on catering and then next Spring we're planning on a cafe that will serve lunch from about 10-4 daily so it will be a great place for people to eat on the south end of town. We're excited to let everyone know what we're doing - especially on that end of town since there's nothing to eat out there. It'll be a little bit of T. Maccarone's, a little bit of Olive, and Jake will take those and put his own spin on it. A great place to grab a friend and have lunch in a vineyard, at a beautiful estate, have a glass of wine and a salad on a beautiful afternoon.
So if I rented the house out at Basel Cellars I could call and order delivery to the pool?
We're trying to work toward some different ideas - especially for local people to use the estate so we have all kinds of fun things in mind. No definite yes's or no's to what the potential is up there. What we do know is the potential is gigantic. I think that space has been underutilized for a long time and now that the new owners, winemaker, event planner and tasting room manager are tapping its potential we're excited to explore options and go after them.
Is there anything you want to talk about?
Oh did you say what's dating like it Walla Walla? Oh it sucks. There's that. The one drawback of living in a small town is the dating scene. Being single is TOUGH...really tough. Thank God I have my work to keep me grounded.
Is it hard to be a gay man in a small town?
No. I have a great support system and great friends here. I was fearful when I first moved back here about what people would think and what not and I was completely mind-blown that it didn't even phase anyone. I mean, it may phase some people but it doesn't matter. At the end of the day I have great customers who know me really well and know I bring a lot to the table, to the community and to this downtown.
Would you do a long distance relationship?
I would. Because I truly believe that there's the chance of someone who can work in the city but doesn't necessarily need to be on the office every day - or maybe there's someone out there who is looking for a change and ready to do something different. At the age that I'm at I don't think I'm alone in thinking that I've had my share of the big city - I loved it, I soaked up the experiences and did things and went places I'd never been before - but at the end of the day, I'm more comfortable in a smaller town. My friendships are more real, they're deeper, it's easier just to get together on a random night at someone's house and make dinner, it's not a big production. Your friends are people who are in the industry with you and moved here to follow their dream. We're all on the same page here and kind of all in it together.
What if you could change something about Walla Walla what would it be?
Great weather. Great wine. Great food. Great friends....nothing. A waterfront? A water feature? I think Walla Walla is a unique town and I wish the city would be a little more lenient on what we can and can't do, but I also think it's great just the way it is. Sometimes I think 10,000 more people would be great for local businesses and keep the slow months not so slow, but I also don't necessarily think more people in this town would be a good thing. Walla Walla's always been about 30,000 people and it's always going to be 30,000 people. We continue to better ourselves, our downtown is beautiful, I think we have a nice mix of restaurants, flavors, shopping, you know. And we have good wine.
I think Walla Walla for me is the culmination of a dream. I always tell people that you need to find what your passion is in life and crate a job or whatever you need to live your passion out. For me, this has always been a pipe dream. From the time I was a small kid I always dreamed of having my own place and now I do. It's definitely something that I encourage people to do because if you just continue on the path you're on, you're unhappy working in corporate America, and next thing you know 10 years have gone by and you've just become a rat on a treadmill. I've been doing this for seven years now and I still sometimes have to pinch myself to make sure it's for real.
So, the people and the place are awesome, it's the dating that sucks.
If you could do anything else in the world, anywhere else in the world, what would it be?
[Long silence]. I'd be a bartender in some fantastic private island someplace. Or I'd love to be - I dunno. I dunno what I would do. I'd plan parties for stars or something. I can't just sit and do whatever. I have to have creative control with no guidelines or boundaries - kind of like throwing a party. Just trust me. I'm good at it. I'm a good gay. Such a good gay.