By Stacee Sledge
Downtown Bellingham’s Brandywine Kitchen grew organically out of co-owner Azizi Tookas and Chris Sunde’s first venture, Brandywine Gardens.
Another organic change occurred a year into the restaurant’s evolution, as patrons began to stash scrolled notes into cracks in the space’s soaring brick wall.
“At first I was a bit annoyed, because I thought it looked a little tacky,” Tookas says with a laugh. “But then it really took off.”
Brandywine Gardens began, in 2005, as a grower of specialty heirloom tomatoes; Tookas and Sunde sold them at the Bellingham Farmers Market on top of their restaurant management day jobs—Tookas at the Old Town Café and Sunde at La Fiamma.
“It was really just a little side hobby,” Tookas says. In 2008, they decided to ramp things up, turning Brandywine Gardens into Brandywine Kitchen, selling prepared food at the farmers market.
“We started making our own baguettes and offered three different sandwiches and soups.”
Their spot at the market allowed Tookas and Sunde to easily play around with what worked and didn’t. Through direct customer feedback they tweaked a few things, changing their bread recipe and some of the sandwiches. “It was a good trial ground,” says Tookas.
In 2011, the owners of the Commercial Street building that now houses Brandywine Kitchen approached them and asked if they might be interested in opening a brick-and-mortar site.
“Coincidentally, we’d been writing a business plan to do just that that,” says Tookas. “In May 2011, we got into the space, just kind of held our breath, and jumped in.”
Both men had experience working in and managing restaurants, so they felt comfortable running the new eatery. “But neither of us had ever started a restaurant. That was exciting,” Tookas says.
The team continued to sell at the farmers market even after Brandywine Kitchen opened in July—and it proved to be a powerful tool for successfully launching the new place.
“People who had been coming to the market every week and getting our food were excited and spread the word,” says Tookas.
Tookas says he and Sunde were fortunate to transition from farmers market to brick-and-mortar eatery. “We hit the ground running and haven’t stopped since. Things have been really good.”
They still grow heirloom tomatoes, though they’ve scaled back production. “We’re too busy running a restaurant,” Tookas says, laughing.
When crops come in, Brandywine Kitchen patrons enjoy them in sandwich specials and heirloom tomato gazpacho.
Wisdom from the wall
Brandywine Kitchen is popular for its scrumptious eats—from sandwiches, soups, and salads to entrees like salmon cakes, cochito tacos, and more—but they’ve also come to be known for the notes diners tuck into the dining room’s brick wall.
“It didn’t start right off the bat,” Tookas says of the notes, though he does recall finding a couple mentioning chips and salsa—likely from the space’s earlier La Pinata days—during initial renovations, stuffed way back into the wall.
The restaurant has always done counter-style service, and initially put out self-serve napkins and silverware. About a year into the business, they switched to bundling the silverware napkins, rolling them up and securing them with self-adhesive paper bands. It wasn’t long before notes began to appear on them.
The first notes Tookas remembers finding in the wall were written by kids.
“They’re done with their food or they’re not hungry or they’re bored, so they start drawing on pieces of paper—and then someone decided to roll one up and put it into the wall,” he says. “Once you see one or two or three or five, it grows exponentially from there.”
Now the notes run the gamut from inspiring and enlightening to funny and, occasionally, crass. About once a month, they go through and randomly remove some and read through them.
“We have hundreds and hundreds—paper bags full,” says Tookas. “Sometimes they’re offensive, and we tend to throw those away. We also find adult-only ones that are kind of funny, but not something we’d put on social media.”
- “I was lied to. I’m all grown up and I’m not the President of the United States.”
- “Sometimes life is hard and we feel inadequate…just remember mac n’ cheese exists.”
- “May my daughter marry who she wants, when she wants, and where she wants. May her life partner be good to her forever.”
- “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for…”
- “Stolen fries taste better than your own. Trust me, try it.”
- “You are a beautiful thread in Bellingham’s tapestry.”
- Posting the notes to social media was Sunde’s idea.
“We’re thinking of doing something bigger with them one day, maybe choosing one a week and projecting it on the wall,” says Tookas.
The notes have gone from an initial an annoyance to one of Tookas’s favorite things about Brandywine Kitchen.
“Now it’s what everybody talks about,” he says. “It’s a great thing and we embrace it.”
1317 Commercial Street in downtown Bellingham
Monday – Thursday from 11:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Friday and Saturday from 11:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.
Sunday – 12:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.