Jon Betts didn’t want to get ahead of himself. Craigslist ads, in general, can draw out the skeptic in all of us, and this specific posting would make even the most self-assured, confident job seeker pause with worry. Two restaurant owners in the nearby city of Dayton, Washington, known for having the oldest train depot and continuously used courthouse in the state, recently adopted a son and wanted to step away from the relentless pace of their established locale, Manila Bay Café. More so, instead of listing the space, they hoped to give it away to an entrepreneur who wouldn’t liquidate the respected restaurant into thin air. “I figured there had to be some kind of catch,” Betts says. “Like there had to be some underwriting behind it. I mean, it’s not something you hear every day.”
This was last spring. Within six months, Betts’ entire life would change. “It moved very, very quick,” he explains. A dream he says began when teachers started asking those early childhood questions, to own and operate his own restaurant, was suddenly very real. Instead of questioning motives or trying to emerge from the fog, Betts was drumming up menu specials, organizing back-of-the-house logistics, and developing local ties in the small, but well-built community of less than 3,000 residents.
“This has definitely been a dream,” Betts says. “At the time, I even talked to my wife, and was like, ‘Should I even do this? Because it doesn’t really look like something that would ever be real.’”
Betts had a stable job as the general manager of Shari’s Restaurant in Vancouver when he responded to the ad listed by local Economic Development Coordinator Brad McMasters. Betts sent in his resume and waited, doing his best to temper already shaky expectations. About three months later, after a series of email conversations, McMasters rang up Betts and started talking about the opportunity. In that breath, Betts began to understand there could some serious legs to this story.
In the beginning of July, Betts and his wife, Christina, met Manila Bay’s owners Justin Jaech and Roger Tumbocon. They sat down at a table and got to know each other. “I just wanted to nail down some details, like is this real? Are you just giving it to us? What’s the plan?” Betts recalls. “I didn’t get really excited about it until we met with them. I kept telling [my wife], ‘Don’t get your hopes up. We probably have to pay a bunch of money when we get in there.’”
The truth was, aside from transferring over the licensing of the restaurant—the liquor license and other startup costs—everything inside the unit was theirs to enjoy and appreciate. The former owners felt comfortable with Betts and handed over the name, the social media accounts, and walked away, asking only that he wouldn’t sell off equipment he didn’t plan to replace. The lease was transferred over and Betts says they inked a new deal with the landlord.
The basics were there. Betts, who was just 27 at the time, moved around some tables and switched up the décor, repainted a wall and hung up some artwork from local photographer Nick Page. There was a sandwich bar and some freezers down in the basement. The kitchen, however, was going to be a work in progress. “There was only an electric stove,” Betts says. “I have my sauté stations right now that I brought in.”
Betts adds that the menu, which was “eclectic,” suited his style of “cooking everything.” He kept a few previous items, like the Filipino staple Chicken Adobo—soy and garlic marinated chicken browned and served with rice, steamed veggies, and lime; as well as the Lumpia Shanghai starter—Filipino spring rolls filled with pork, beef, veggies, and spices. Otherwise the menu focuses on fresh and seasonal, and runs the gamut from Mexican Flank Steak Tacos to Hawaiian Kalua Pork. Leaving the name of the restaurant in tact was a no-brainer.
“We wanted to keep the name because people were used to. People knew it. People from far away loved it. They had a really good reputation,” he says.
Since the restaurant’s September opening, Betts says the response has been very promising. It’s made the crazy notion of putting in notice and moving his wife and three children mere weeks before opening well worth it. Betts is the only cook, while his wife, whom he met in culinary school, runs the front of the house. Eventually, he would like to hire more staff and cut down on his hours. But, for now, it’s a surprising turn of events Betts can’t get enough of. “I love it. It’s my passion,” he says. “Sometimes it’s still hard to believe it actually happened.”