Brandywine Kitchen, a beloved restaurant in downtown Bellingham, has always brought local food to the community in delicious and thoughtful ways. Now under the sole ownership of Azizi Tookas, and after the challenges of the pandemic, Brandywine is exploring creative ways of feeding and nourishing their customers – one local soup and sandwich combo at a time.
Their focus on local food and community isn’t surprising. After all, Brandywine began as a stall at the Bellingham Farmers Market, where Tookas and then business partner Chris Sunde sold heirloom tomatoes, followed by sandwiches crafted with ingredients from their fellow vendors.
As Tookas recalls, “We were at the market doing prepared food, mostly sandwiches with bread we made ourselves. We did that up until 2011, when we were approached by the current owners of the building we’re in. They asked if we’d ever thought about opening a storefront. Coincidentally, we had been writing a business plan for just that. We ended up signing the lease and opening our doors in July 2011. We crossed our fingers and jumped in, and it really worked for us.”
Tookas still credits much of Brandywine’s current success to their start at the Bellingham Farmers Market. “It was such a great jumping off point for us because we had that visibility for a few years, and we were known before we even opened our storefront.”
The relationships that Tookas and Sunde built at the market continue even now, more than a decade later. As Tookas explains, “One key aspect of community is making relationships with people who are producing food locally. Those are our roots from being at the farmers market and trying to source at least one or two items from people in the stall next to us. We made a lot of friends that way.”
Tookas is quick to note, however, that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to sourcing locally. “There are amazing benefits to sourcing local when you can. But one thing I’ve said over the years is that to source locally, you have to be in business. So it’s all about picking and choosing what you can source locally and what works for your particular business model.”
Brandywine’s business model has changed over the years, especially as they emerge from the pandemic into a changed world. But with change comes the opportunity for creativity, and Tookas is excited for the future. He recently bought out Sunde and is now the sole owner of Brandywine.
Tookas’ vision for Brandywine is one rooted in community and all the connections (and delicious food!) it can generate. He reflects, “I think the pandemic caused us, and potentially other restaurants, to really focus on efficiency and cost-saving. There’s been so much unknown for the last two or three years, and people couldn’t be creative because the priority was just to stay open. We survived the pandemic, but our business is not what it used to be. The pandemic changed how people go out to eat. We’ve definitely seen a lot of local restaurants close, through staffing issues or reduction in revenue. But I’m excited for the future, and I wouldn’t have said that a year and a half ago.”
One thing that’s particularly exciting about the future? The revamped menu that Brandywine will be rolling out later this spring. As always, Brandywine will focus on sourcing locally. Even though it’s been many years since his farmers market days, Tookas still grows heirloom tomatoes in a little hoophouse, and they’re often featured in dishes come summer.
Tookas’ creativity will shine in dishes like a Fried Chicken Korean BBQ Sandwich, which is new on the menu. “I’m really excited about it,” he says. “We’re making our own BBQ glaze, and the sandwich is gluten-free. That’s something we’ve become known for – specializing in gluten-free items. Our fish and chips, mac and cheese, and this new sandwich will all be gluten-free.”
Tookas is also excited for the influx of produce that arrives with the warmer seasons. “It’s starting with spring onions and spring greens now, but come June and July I can’t wait to go to the market and start finding more and more local produce.”
And while Tookas is very much a working owner of the business (we had this interview while he was hard at work in the kitchen), he couldn’t do it alone. “My staff is a huge part of how I think about community,” he shares. “The pandemic changed the way I view my staff. I’m bringing them in to give them more equity, not in a literal profit-sharing sense but in that I’m really listening to their concerns and needs. I’m realizing that a happy staff is crucial to the business, even if it means me as an owner making a sacrifice to keep them happy. The restaurant has to be a place they feel happy and safe coming to. I have a great staff right now. It’s tight-knit and everybody’s friends. There’s a little community inside Brandywine!”
And that support and sustainability translates into the wider community, as Tookas and his team bring Brandywine out of the pandemic and into a creative, delicious new world.