Chef Sean Quinn Talks About the Restaurant Business

Most of the chefs in the Seattle area came here from other places, but chef Sean Quinn (Flat Iron Grill, The Black Duck Cask and Bottle, Iron Duck) moved to the area as a kid when his dad took a job at Boeing. He moved up through the culinary scene, attending culinary school at South Seattle College followed by long stints at Daniel’s Broiler Bellevue and El Gaucho Tacoma. 

“I got kind of bored with the general steakhouse menu,” says Quinn. When he decided to open his own place in Tacoma, he went down the Argentina route with Asada. “I’m the guy that started the flat iron steak thing.”

But as a resident of Snoqualmie, the hours commuting back and forth to Tacoma each day started to wear on him. He began to think about locations closer to home. “There was no way I could move into Bellevue,” said Quinn, citing stratospheric rents. At the time, Issaquah’s Gilman Village was struggling to find takers and was only about 60 percent occupied. This was just after the 2008 financial crisis, and opening a restaurant was tough.

Photos courtesy Flat Iron Grill

Flat Iron Grill changed the landscape in Gilman Village, which is now 100 percent occupied, according to Quinn. Everything (except the ketchup) is made from scratch, and it has one of the largest American whiskey collections around,, with close to 1,000 bottles.

“Everyone kept telling me to build a bigger bar,” recalls Quinn, who did just that, opening The Black Duck Cask and Bottle next door in 2015. The concept at Black Duck is elevated pub food – burgers, tots, and pizzas with excellent scratch-made dough. “We’re trying to make sure there’s absolutely nothing good for you,” he says with a laugh. Black Duck features 17 rotating craft beer taps, and there is always a cask on. 

Quinn gets bored if he sits still too long, so when King County finally put water service into the North Bend area and contractors flooded in to build a slew of new housing, he saw an opportunity for his third restaurant. A combination of the Flat Iron Grill and Black Duck concepts, Iron Duck opened a year ago in North Bend. The restaurant has struggled a bit to find its feet, but Quinn is determined to provide residents with a great dining experience and hopes other restaurants in the area will follow suit.

Not every venture is an overnight success, recognizes Quinn. “You only learn something by failing at it. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough. I’ve failed a lot in my 37 years as a chef.” On the flip side, Quinn has learned a few things in the process and looks with pity on those with no restaurant experience who think “it’ll be fun” to open a restaurant. “It’s not fun. It’s a challenge.”

The most challenging part about owning three restaurants without investors (and with no debt, he adds) is the same answer given by every chef in the region — staffing. Back when The Food Network first started, working in a kitchen was cool, says Quinn. Now the passion seems to have died off for kitchen staff, and it is difficult to get great people who show up to work. “Everyone goes from one job to another because everyone is short-staffed these days.”

He is excited about the growth of the valley and the opportunities to serve the eastside communities of Issaquah and North Bend. “My contributions are restaurants with high-quality food, craft beer, private dining spaces, and [in the case of Iron Duck in North Bend] mountain bike racks out back.”

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