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Adapting Episode 1: Canlis

Season 6, Episode 4

Limited Partner Episode

March 24, 2020
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The world has changed. Acquired is changing too: we’re taking a pause from our normal episodes. The world doesn’t need stories of M&A and IPOs right now. But it does still need stories of great companies and great leaders. So we’re taking everything that we’ve put into Acquired - our format, our infrastructure, and the way we can reach all of you - and launching Adapting. Adapting is a series all about doing just that -- changing to fit what the world needs right now, not what it needed last week.

Our first episode starts on the front lines of change: the local restaurant industry. Mark Canlis joins us to discuss how the world-renowned Canlis restaurant in Seattle is adapting by simultaneously closing their 70 year old dining room service, and launching three brand new, no-contact concept restaurants in just one week to keep their staff employed and the city fed.

"Pretty quickly we realized that it would be just as risky to do nothing as it would to do something really radical. And if we were gonna live into our values, every once and awhile that’s really going to cost you something."

This conversation is an incredible inspiration to us all, and a reminder of the vast power of the human spirit during challenging times.

Want more Adapting/Acquired? You can join the Acquired Limited Partner program at: https://glow.fm/acquired/

Sponsor:

  • Thanks to Silicon Valley Bank for being our banner sponsor for Adapting and Acquired Season 6. You can learn more about SVB here: https://www.svb.com/next
  • Thank you as well to Wilson Sonsini - You can learn more about WSGR at: https://www.wsgr.com/

We finally did it. After five years and over 100 episodes, we decided to formalize the answer to Acquired’s most frequently asked question: “what are the best acquisitions of all time?” Here it is: The Acquired Top Ten.

Note: we ranked the list by our estimate of absolute dollar return to the acquirer. We could have used ROI multiple or annualized return, but we decided the ultimate yardstick of success should be the absolute dollar amount added to the parent company’s enterprise value. Afterall, you can’t eat IRR! For more on our methodology, please see the notes at the end of this post. And for all our trademark Acquired editorial and discussion tune in to the full episode above!

10. Marvel

Purchase Price: $4.2 billion, 2009

Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $20.5 billion

Absolute Dollar Return: $16.3 billion

Back in 2009, Marvel Studios was recently formed, most of its movie rights were leased out, and the prevailing wisdom was that Marvel was just some old comic book IP company that only nerds cared about. Since then, Marvel Cinematic Universe films have grossed $22.5b in total box office receipts (including the single biggest movie of all-time), for an average of $2.2b annually. Disney earns about two dollars in parks and merchandise revenue for every one dollar earned from films (discussed on our Disney, Plus episode). Therefore we estimate Marvel generates about $6.75b in annual revenue for Disney, or nearly 10% of all the company’s revenue. Not bad for a set of nerdy comic book franchises…

Marvel
Season 1, Episode 26
LP Show
1/5/2016

9. Google Maps (Where2, Keyhole, ZipDash)

Total Purchase Price: $70 million (estimated), 2004

Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $16.9 billion

Absolute Dollar Return: $16.8 billion

Morgan Stanley estimated that Google Maps generated $2.95b in revenue in 2019. Although that’s small compared to Google’s overall revenue of $160b+, it still accounts for over $16b in market cap by our calculations. Ironically the majority of Maps’ usage (and presumably revenue) comes from mobile, which grew out of by far the smallest of the 3 acquisitions, ZipDash. Tiny yet mighty!

Google Maps
Season 5, Episode 3
LP Show
8/28/2019

8. ESPN

Total Purchase Price: $188 million (by ABC), 1984

Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $31.2 billion

Absolute Dollar Return: $31.0 billion

ABC’s 1984 acquisition of ESPN is heavyweight champion and still undisputed G.O.A.T. of media acquisitions.With an estimated $10.3B in 2018 revenue, ESPN’s value has compounded annually within ABC/Disney at >15% for an astounding THIRTY-FIVE YEARS. Single-handedly responsible for one of the greatest business model innovations in history with the advent of cable carriage fees, ESPN proves Albert Einstein’s famous statement that “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.”

ESPN
Season 4, Episode 1
LP Show
1/28/2019

7. PayPal

Total Purchase Price: $1.5 billion, 2002

Value Realized at Spinoff: $47.1 billion

Absolute Dollar Return: $45.6 billion

Who would have thought facilitating payments for Beanie Baby trades could be so lucrative? The only acquisition on our list whose value we can precisely measure, eBay spun off PayPal into a stand-alone public company in July 2015. Its value at the time? A cool 31x what eBay paid in 2002.

PayPal
Season 1, Episode 11
LP Show
5/8/2016

6. Booking.com

Total Purchase Price: $135 million, 2005

Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $49.9 billion

Absolute Dollar Return: $49.8 billion

Remember the Priceline Negotiator? Boy did he get himself a screaming deal on this one. This purchase might have ranked even higher if Booking Holdings’ stock (Priceline even renamed the whole company after this acquisition!) weren’t down ~20% due to COVID-19 fears when we did the analysis. We also took a conservative approach, using only the (massive) $10.8b in annual revenue from the company’s “Agency Revenues” segment as Booking.com’s contribution — there is likely more revenue in other segments that’s also attributable to Booking.com, though we can’t be sure how much.

Booking.com (with Jetsetter & Room 77 CEO Drew Patterson)
Season 1, Episode 41
LP Show
6/25/2017

5. NeXT

Total Purchase Price: $429 million, 1997

Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $63.0 billion

Absolute Dollar Return: $62.6 billion

How do you put a value on Steve Jobs? Turns out we didn’t have to! NeXTSTEP, NeXT’s operating system, underpins all of Apple’s modern operating systems today: MacOS, iOS, WatchOS, and beyond. Literally every dollar of Apple’s $260b in annual revenue comes from NeXT roots, and from Steve wiping the product slate clean upon his return. With the acquisition being necessary but not sufficient to create Apple’s $1.4 trillion market cap today, we conservatively attributed 5% of Apple to this purchase.

NeXT
Season 1, Episode 23
LP Show
10/23/2016

4. Android

Total Purchase Price: $50 million, 2005

Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $72 billion

Absolute Dollar Return: $72 billion

Speaking of operating system acquisitions, NeXT was great, but on a pure value basis Android beats it. We took Google Play Store revenues (where Google’s 30% cut is worth about $7.7b) and added the dollar amount we estimate Google saves in Traffic Acquisition Costs by owning default search on Android ($4.8b), to reach an estimated annual revenue contribution to Google of $12.5b from the diminutive robot OS. Android also takes the award for largest ROI multiple: >1400x. Yep, you can’t eat IRR, but that’s a figure VCs only dream of.

Android
Season 1, Episode 20
LP Show
9/16/2016

3. YouTube

Total Purchase Price: $1.65 billion, 2006

Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $86.2 billion

Absolute Dollar Return: $84.5 billion

We admit it, we screwed up on our first episode covering YouTube: there’s no way this deal was a “C”.  With Google recently reporting YouTube revenues for the first time ($15b — almost 10% of Google’s revenue!), it’s clear this acquisition was a juggernaut. It’s past-time for an Acquired revisit.

That said, while YouTube as the world’s second-highest-traffic search engine (second-only to their parent company!) grosses $15b, much of that revenue (over 50%?) gets paid out to creators, and YouTube’s hosting and bandwidth costs are significant. But we’ll leave the debate over the division’s profitability to the podcast.

YouTube
Season 1, Episode 7
LP Show
2/3/2016

2. DoubleClick

Total Purchase Price: $3.1 billion, 2007

Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $126.4 billion

Absolute Dollar Return: $123.3 billion

A dark horse rides into second place! The only acquisition on this list not-yet covered on Acquired (to be remedied very soon), this deal was far, far more important than most people realize. Effectively extending Google’s advertising reach from just its own properties to the entire internet, DoubleClick and its associated products generated over $20b in revenue within Google last year. Given what we now know about the nature of competition in internet advertising services, it’s unlikely governments and antitrust authorities would allow another deal like this again, much like #1 on our list...

1. Instagram

Purchase Price: $1 billion, 2012

Estimated Current Contribution to Market Cap: $153 billion

Absolute Dollar Return: $152 billion

Source: SportsNation

When it comes to G.O.A.T. status, if ESPN is M&A’s Lebron, Insta is its MJ. No offense to ESPN/Lebron, but we’ll probably never see another acquisition that’s so unquestionably dominant across every dimension of the M&A game as Facebook’s 2012 purchase of Instagram. Reported by Bloomberg to be doing $20B of revenue annually now within Facebook (up from ~$0 just eight years ago), Instagram takes the Acquired crown by a mile. And unlike YouTube, Facebook keeps nearly all of that $20b for itself! At risk of stretching the MJ analogy too far, given the circumstances at the time of the deal — Facebook’s “missing” of mobile and existential questions surrounding its ill-fated IPO — buying Instagram was Facebook’s equivalent of Jordan’s Game 6. Whether this deal was ultimately good or bad for the world at-large is another question, but there’s no doubt Instagram goes down in history as the greatest acquisition of all-time.

Instagram
Season 1, Episode 2
LP Show
10/31/2015

The Acquired Top Ten data, in full.

Methodology and Notes:

  • In order to count for our list, acquisitions must be at least a majority stake in the target company (otherwise it’s just an investment). Naspers’ investment in Tencent and Softbank/Yahoo’s investment in Alibaba are disqualified for this reason.
  • We considered all historical acquisitions — not just technology companies — but may have overlooked some in areas that we know less well. If you have any examples you think we missed ping us on Slack or email at: acquiredfm@gmail.com
  • We used revenue multiples to estimate the current value of the acquired company, multiplying its current estimated revenue by the market cap-to-revenue multiple of the parent company’s stock. We recognize this analysis is flawed (cashflow/profit multiples are better, at least for mature companies), but given the opacity of most companies’ business unit reporting, this was the only way to apply a consistent and straightforward approach to each deal.
  • All underlying assumptions are based on public financial disclosures unless stated otherwise. If we made an assumption not disclosed by the parent company, we linked to the source of the reported assumption.
  • This ranking represents a point in time in history, March 2, 2020. It is obviously subject to change going forward from both future and past acquisition performance, as well as fluctuating stock prices.
  • We have five honorable mentions that didn’t make our Top Ten list. Tune into the full episode to hear them!

Sponsor:

  • Thanks to Silicon Valley Bank for being our banner sponsor for Acquired Season 6. You can learn more about SVB here: https://www.svb.com/next
  • Thank you as well to Wilson Sonsini - You can learn more about WSGR at: https://www.wsgr.com/

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Transcript: (disclaimer: may contain unintentionally confusing, inaccurate and/or amusing transcription errors)

Ben: Welcome to season six episode four of Acquired. All right, listeners. We are coming to you in a time of enormous change and upheaval. The Coronavirus has spread around the world, challenging global health systems, bringing economies to their knees, and changing daily life for everyone seemingly overnight. Given this, it just seems irresponsible to stay business as usual over here and put on our normal Acquired episodes for you all.

David: We're changing Acquired. For the first time ever, we're taking a pause from normal episodes. The world doesn't need Acquired right now. People normally tune in to hear us talk about stories behind great technology companies and what goes into building them, but these aren't normal times. What the world does need right now are stories of great leaders and how they in their organizations are responding to what might be the biggest moment of change we've ever seen. We're going to take everything that we put into Acquired over the years, our format, our infrastructure, and the way we can reach all of you and we're going to put our full weight behind this.

Starting today, we're pausing Acquired and we are launching, Adapting. Adapting is a series all about doing just that, showing leadership and changing to fit what the world needs right now, not what it needed last week. With adapting, we're going to take a more shallow dive at the beginning of each episode into the history of an organization, but our focus is really going to be on the present and on the future, not the past. We also won't be grading, adapting requires taking risks and putting yourself out there, and anyone who's doing that right now is forever an A+ in our book.

Ben: Yeah. David, I think we were just talking about this, but I'm excited about this. It just feels right at this moment to do this.

David: Totally.

Ben: Listeners, we are making some important changes to the Acquired community. If you haven't joined our Slack, you can sign up on the Acquired website and find all the announcements there. We're doing some new and pretty cool things in there. If you're not yet a limited partner, now is the time to join. In addition to LP episodes, we are adding a community component to the LP program. Last week, we had our first group zoom call with everyone who's shut-in at home. It was really fun and therapeutic to get to talk with everyone, so we decided to make it a regular monthly thing as part of the limited partner program.

We'll be announcing more details on that in the LP show. In the meantime, you can sign-up at glow.fm/acquired by clicking the link in the show notes below. Lastly, David and I feel very strongly that money should never be a reason that a single person can't become an Acquired LP. We were talking about this beforehand, especially when introducing this new community hangout component. If you can't afford a subscription, especially as we all respond to this pandemic together, even if you already are an LP, just shoot us an email, introduce yourself, and we'll take care of you.

David: Yeah, we feel super strongly about this. We want everyone who wants to be part of this community to be able to, so shoot us a note.

Ben: Yup. We owe an enormous thank you to our banner sponsor, Silicon Valley Bank. David, do you want to talk about SVB this time since we're changing everything?

David: Totally. This is new uncharted waters for Acquired here. SVB has always been the bank of the innovation economy. By the way, they didn't write this. We wrote this and it's times like this that really becomes clear. They've been just an incredible partner to us at Acquired here since day one, and at this moment have been beyond supportive of us. We emailed them, and we told them about our plans for the changes we wanted to make here, and their response was an instant, “Yes. How can we help?” We're super lucky to have them as partners, and every entrepreneur who's listening right now should feel the same.

Here's the message they did ask us to read: “Innovation happens when status quo solutions won't do. As the world fights COVID-19, Silicon Valley Bank pays tribute to all the innovators, healthcare providers, scientists, social workers, takeout chefs, policymakers, philanthropists, generous driven individuals working around the clock to keep people alive, find a cure, and help the world cope with the unimaginable.

Silicon Valley Bank supports innovative companies and their investors and has for more than 35 years. It knows that innovation requires adaptability, flexibility, and unrelenting passion for finding solutions. Today, more than ever, SVB salutes innovators everywhere. Learn more at svb.com/next.”

Amen and thank you, guys.

Ben: Yeah, thank you to SVB. Now, what is today's episode actually about? Well, we are doing an episode on a topic that we never thought we would do on the show. A local restaurant. But it is so much more than that.

David: Indeed.

Ben: We think our guest’s words are very inspiring and super important today. Without further ado, please enjoy our conversation with Mark Canlis of Seattle's Canlis Restaurant.

All right, listeners, most of you are aware that restaurants are among those hit the hardest from our current health crisis. Canlis is leading the way in adapting to provide a product in need: delivery food. Saving jobs and ensuring the continuation of the business through trying times. Many are asking as a city, country, and a global community, "Can we do this?" As Mark said in the Seattle Times earlier this week, "Hell, yes, we can do this and we're going to do it with burgers and bagels."

To introduce Mark, I'm going to borrow a little bit of Mark's bio from the Canlis website because I find the prose just poetic. Mark Canlis is the second of three sons. He grew up in a restaurant family. He joined Canlis in 2003 after graduating from Cornell University and serving as a captain in Air Force Special Operations. He met his wife, Anne Marie, while opening famed restaurateur Danny Meyer's fifth restaurant, Blue Smoke in Manhattan. Returning to Seattle, Mark spearheaded the generational transfer and brand modernization that has garnered the family business national acclaim as one of the finest restaurants in America.

He now owns and operates Canlis with his brother Brian. He and Anne Marie reside on Queen Anne with their three children. As for Canlis, Food & Wine Magazine has called it one of the 40 most important restaurants in the last 40 years. They have received 22 consecutive Wine Spectator Grand Awards, been nominated for 15 James Beard Awards, and won 3 of them. Welcome, Mark.

Mark: Thank you. It's good to be here. Also, the luxury of when you write your own bio, you can make yourself sound good. I hope I haven't inflated that in any way, but thank you.

David: I was gonna say the most important thing for Ben and for me is both of us have had many special memories at Canlis, so thank you, guys.

Mark: No. I'm honored to be on the show.

Ben: All right, David, take us in history and facts.

David: For anybody of our listeners who are in the Seattle area (even many who aren't), you already know a lot about Canlis. Mark, can you give us a little bit of the history? It's a very special place; this isn't just another restaurant. Can you go back and talk about your grandfather's story in Hawaii and Pearl Harbor?

Mark: Sure. If we're going to go all the way back, I run this restaurant with my brother, Brian, and we very much feel like this is the tale of a couple of different grandfathers. It's the amalgamation of four generations of Canlises doing restaurants. Our great grandfather cooked for Teddy Roosevelt after his presidency on an African Safari.

He was picked up at a hotel in Egypt and invited to come along and be a steward on that whole thing for 1½ years. Really, it starts there. He and my great grandmother would come to the United States somewhere around 1909–1910. They started a restaurant in Stockton, California at that time and had a bunch of kids. One of them, Peter Canlis, started his restaurant Canlis in 1950. That was my grandfather, he would pass away in the 70s, and my mom and dad ran this for 30 years.

Brian and I have not been doing it since 2003. In so many ways, we feel like we're just getting the hang of it, so slow learners. More or less 100 years of trying to cook for people.

David: There's a pretty cool military history with the restaurant and starting with Peter, too, right?

Mark: Yeah. Then on the other side of the family are a whole bunch of folks who have served in the armed forces. That just continues to be something that we're really proud of as a family, something that many of us have chosen to do, and represent some of the sweetest years, at least for my own life. I would say that the same is true for my dad, my grandfather, and my brother.

I was in the Air Force with Brian. Dad was the Navy. My grandfather was a marine for 43 years. I don't know if you can do that anymore, but back then you could. That's just been a part of our family story. To be completely honest, a very large influence on the way that we lead. Yesterday, we're running this crazy drive-through, we've got cars everywhere, shut down traffic, and I get a phone call. I'm hearing it so that the thing just comes straight into my head as if the phone is ringing in your brain.

I just answered it because I thought it was our road team, and it was the colonel that I worked for 25 years ago. Colonel Mueller, the man that just had such a remarkable influence on the way that I lead. It was random, I haven't talked to him in years and I was like, "Colonel Mueller, no way. I've been talking about you to everyone because in so many ways I feel like you prepared me for this." It's not about adapting your company but the leadership, the way the military teaches you to [...] your people. I just learned so much in my time in the service. That's just been a gift to us.

Ben: That's great.

David: The first iteration of Canlis (the restaurant) was in Honolulu, grew out of the USO after Pearl Harbor, right?

Mark: He left the place in Stockton (he'd grown up there), wanted nothing to do with restaurants with the way his parents were doing, and he ended up in Hawaii. He's still on dry goods when Pearl Harbor happens, you remember zeros flying over, he was playing tennis in the morning. Like everybody, like so many people in Honolulu (at the time) all headed to the base, tried to do what they could. My grandfather had quite a healthy self-esteem.

David: He sounds like an entrepreneur.

Mark: Yeah, there you go. Thank you. Yeah, that's a nice euphemism for a large ego, and at some point, he finds himself talking a lot of smack inside the USO about the quality of the food. The chef gets so upset that he throws the towel and says, "You need to get a better job. You try it," which of course he does. By the end of the war, he's running all of the food on base for the USO. It's between 3000 and 5000 meals. Maybe in some way, this drive-through is us getting back to our high volume of roots if you will.

That's what happened, and then right after the war, opened a restaurant on a beach that was a little less known before the war, and certainly then before now called Waikiki. He had a restaurant in 1947 (called The Broiler) and then he came to Seattle in 1950.

Ben: Mark, just a context for our listeners a little bit when you say “getting back to our high volume roots.” For folks not from Seattle, Canlis is fine, fine dining. What does normal volume look like and what does the adapted volume look like?

Mark: I don't know. I feel like I live in a bubble and I don't really understand the real restaurant business. Let's just try to understand fine dining for a second because I think it's a funny term. We consider fine dining just to be the most considered form of caring for somebody with food and hospitality. For us, we're considered to be a massive fine dining restaurant in the world of fine dining. Twelve to fifteen tables are pretty standard. We have 33. On a busy night, the most guests we can serve are somewhere around 150–200. I have 115 employees to make that happen. We are a model of inefficiency. That's just six diners a week; that's all we're doing. I say that because I just want people to know.

Ben: Not open for breakfast, not open for lunch?

Mark: No. Yeah, 115 people to figure out dinner.

Ben: There are a couple of hours a day where there's someone not there, but when you talk about 115 people, it's like 2:00 AM to bake bread or something.

Mark: Four hours a day we don't use our kitchen. It takes us 20 hours to open for what is essentially five hours of dinnertime service. A lot of prep obviously goes into that. You're baking bread and setting things up, sometimes it takes a couple of days to make, but today we served about 1200 people through the drive-through. We served about somewhere in the range of 300 people for breakfast. Tonight, we'll send a couple of hundred dinners out for delivery. It's a much different impact for us.

I don't know exactly set up for it, so we're trying to figure that out as we go. Today was a day of rest for us. Every day this week, we've opened a new restaurant concept. We started on Monday with a drive-through. Tuesday, we added bagels and yesterday we added home delivery. Today we were just refining some of those systems again, and it was nice just to run them and see how we could tweak it.

David: Let's get right into this show Adapting. It's now 70 years that your family has run Canlis fine dining, and in 2 weeks (really) since you started planning, you've thrown that out the window and now you're doing these 3 different things. When was the moment you realized that this was gonna happen and you needed to change?

Mark: A couple of weeks ago now, my wife and I were in New York City doing something for the James Beard Awards. We got the news that Seattle had its first case. We went back to the hotel and just talking through like this thing's coming. It's here. It's here in Seattle. What does that mean? What does that mean for our family? What does it mean for not just our marriage and our own children, but our extended family? I have parents who are in their 70s. What does that mean for the restaurant family, for the staff?

A couple of days later, back at home, we had a meeting as a team and we just said, "Guys, let's really think through this a little bit. While we were having that meeting, the King County governor or some official announced they had this live stream that came on and said, "Hey, this is a much bigger deal than we thought." At first, it’s like the sucker punch to the system. You've got the wind taken out of you a little bit. Pretty quickly, we realized that it would be just as risky to do nothing as it would to do something really radical.

If we were going to live into our values every once a while, that really is probably going to cost you something and in this way, it was going to cost shutting down while we're still a profitable business for the unknown of opening up three new ones. The reason we're doing this is it took that many ideas to get all of my staff up to having all the hours that would have normally had and that was the goal here.

We started with the drive-through. For those that don't know, we're a fine dining restaurant looking this direction, but if you turn around, we're on a really busy road, and that's not ideal. No one would plan it out these days. We just said what do we have? Starting with what do we have to be thankful for? What assets are at our disposal here if we started from scratch? And how would we play this? I remember watching the live stream, we're all huddled on the couch, there is the team, there are seven of us.

David: In this meeting.

Mark: This is in the meeting, we do these three-hours-off sites, and we go to somebody's homes, so we can feel what it's like to be welcomed into their home personally. We're sitting on the sofa, which is not a seven-person sofa. It's a three- or four-person sofa. We're all huddled and watching this thing. I think it just hit us that the game isn't up. Wait a second, this isn't over. This is just beginning, and I think we'd all gone in with the sentiments of helplessness, if we're honest, maybe hopelessness.

I think there was a feeling of, I got to batten down the hatches. I got to hunker down. I got to—

David: Protect, yeah.

Mark: Protect, and that's a lousy strategy in a lot of things, soccer being one of them. You see in sports all the time when an entire team switches to defense and loses their offense. Suddenly, you're like, "Ah, don't do that. Wait a minute. Keep playing your game." For us, if we're going to keep playing our game, we just need to admit to the game change. The game now, currently today, was no one understands the six-foot rule and no one understands what is socially acceptable.

We don't understand if we should be shutting down schools and public places, or if that is building a fear. This is happening so quickly but so we just said, "Well today, what we know right now"—

David: You know what that moment that the game had changed?

Mark: We just got the sense that it was going to. It hadn't yet, but the writing's on the wall. Nobody wanted to actually say that out loud, but it felt that way a couple of weeks ago.

Ben: I can tell you from the outside the way it felt is you made a more drastic move earlier than most places. I think in the next week, a lot of places started trying to figure out what it means for us to do delivery, but I will say from the outside the way it looked (and frankly, part of what inspired David and I for this) was, "Oh, my God. That was decisive. That was severe and extreme."

David: And risky.

Mark: I wish I could take credits for that. Let me tell you where a lot of that credit belongs. First off, we have an incredible board of directors and some advisors who are just remarkable sounding boards for us. Both of our wives were really key into speaking into how we were perceiving the world. I think in this time, it was a time of just great perception, trying to understand and make sense of what we were hearing. How it pertained to us and our team.

When we launched this with the executive team, we said, "This thing could work." That's to say, "There's a chance the boat is taking on water, and there's a chance it might sink." Also, there's a chance of a lifeboat on the end. Will someone just go to the end of the ship and see if there's a lifeboat? That's what that meeting felt like. Somebody came back and said, "It turns out there was a lifeboat on the back of the ship. We could all get in it, right?" I was like, "Huh."

We sat on that as a team for about 24 hours. Two days later, I was having dinner with our staff and we're all sitting around having a family meal talking this through. I just said, "Guys, let me just tell you where my head's at. I'm scared to tell you because I don't know what it means, but this is what we're thinking about as a team. It would mean all of you need to re-volunteer to work here. It would mean all of you choosing to be in a position, choosing not to be laid off, or temporarily furloughed, choosing to actually continue to do this thing. Would any of you be interested?”

Not only that group of five or six of us sitting around the table but the next night in a staff meeting, announcing it to the entire team, “This is up to you and you don't have to do this,” and every one of them saying, "We're in. Put me in coach." I think that was just such a boost of encouragement to us like, "If you guys are in, we're in. Let's do this." It had that sentiment to it. I was like, "Okay, why not?"

I think at some point, you say to yourself in any time of crisis, "If I have the ability to help, why am I not doing it?" That is what it felt like to us. It felt like this could be an encouragement to the city. It was clearly an encouragement to the staff, and is for us, just a way through. A way that untested, untried way, but we thought we'd give it a whirl.

Ben: That's awesome.

David: Cool. I want to talk about communication and language. I’ve always used the language you guys used, but particularly now, it’s inspiring. Before we get to that, can we go back to the three concepts you guys are doing? Breakfast, the bagel shed, drive-through lunch, and then delivery for dinner. Where did they come from?

Mark: There's also a fourth concept coming, which I'm super stoked about. I can walk you through all three of those. The first one was the drive-through. We saw that as being the biggest revenue generator. We have a ridiculous amount of labor here. It's the most expensive thing and we knew that one of these concepts had actually worked. Geographically, if you understand the way this restaurant works, you can pull right off of the street right under our park cashier. You can stay in your car and you can roll right down the driveway, and it was like that's what we knew we needed for the cleanliness there, the ability to not have any contact with the guest, but still be facing them.

We were embracing our inner drive-through as a fine dining restaurant. It was just like, "Guys, this is us, come on, let's just let it out of the bag." Chef can cook a remarkable burger and we've always joked about doing this traditional salad of ours, the Canlis salad. It's a to-go item and why not? Let's just do burgers, ice cream, sandwiches, and salad to go. Sometimes that's all you need.

Ben: Can you talk about the average ticket price for each of these three concepts?

Mark: Burger fries are $14. We have designed this thing not to make money. I don't think there's anything unethical about making money at this time. In a certain sense, we have a duty to do so. Mostly as a means of protecting the staff and to be clear, we're only four days in. I don't know if we are that's to say. The bagel concept clearly does not make money. It's labor-intensive. We don't have the equipment to scale that in any way such that we could move that to be a profitable business. We could raise the prices but that just feels dirty. The point is to keep people employed.

With burgers, we probably make a little extra. With bagels, we're definitely losing. With dinner, as we scale that up, that'll be profitable and somehow if we can get to break even. Even from the onset, that's what the goal was. It was like it'd be amazing if for the next three months Canlis could not lose money. I think that'll posture us really well coming out of this thing on the other side. I do think of it as a few months, not just a few weeks. Bagels came out with the idea of four, we're gonna be really busy for lunch.

Our expediter happens to be this incredible woman from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She's a baker and she makes a ridiculous bagel. The chef is from Brooklyn and she was like, "That's the best bagel I've had in New York City or in Seattle." We happen to have a bread oven and a shipping container and it was a no brainer. So, we just opened the bagel shed and we're doing everything bagels with fried eggs, homemade sausage, and cheese.

David: Can you sell the bagels as an add on to dinner for breakfast at home the next morning?

Mark: That’s what we say. That would be a good idea. We sell out of bagels in under an hour. It's a full-time crew of eight making these things and that whole idea lasts an hour. We actually thought about intentionally slowing the line. The idea is to keep everyone employed there here, but now we've been blowing through them too quickly. Right now we're looking at taking over another bakery that is closed and maybe we can use their space and scale. We're going to hire someone there.

Ben: I did see something. It’s a message on your website this morning like, "Unfortunately, bagels are sold out as of 8:37 AM.”

Mark: Yeah. They have begun going out. The last concept is just doing family meals at home. We cook an amazing family meal for the staff. That’s the meal. About twice a day, the chef prepares for our team. We always joke, like one of the best restaurants in the city actually being Canlis is a family meal, like it's so good that pastry chef is making cobblers, the bartenders are making homemade sodas, and the chef is like, "Hey, this is my mama's meatloaf and this is enchilada from Nico's," and prepping all day.

It's so good and it kills us the rest of the city doesn't get to see what these guys are capable of outside of fine dining. We just thought, "Okay, well, that's a no brainer. Why don't we just keep making family meals? We don't need a big menu." Delivery is tough to figure out when making a transition like this. If you can keep it simple, you should. We offer one thing a night. The very first night it was cassoulet because we had all these dried ducks. I'm like, "What do we do with ducks?" More regular farms saying, "Are you going to take delivery of ducks going forward?" and we're going to say yes.

Tonight it is a rabbit pot pie and glazed carrots. I had it for lunch. It's insane. It's so good. We just thought, "Shoot, we can bake all that stuff here, pack it up, throw a bottle of wine in it." My servers who used to take food from the kitchen to the table are now just taking it to the parking lot right on down the street a little way. It keeps them employed and it keeps my kitchen cooking all night long, and it's fun.

David: That's so cool. Technically, how did you make that happen? You've been on Tock (reservation and ticketing system) for a while. Did you work with Tock to make this happen?

Mark: The guys at Tock were awesome. We call them early on and we're like, "We have this crazy idea." We're actually trying to “hack” the system. Tock is a reservation system for those that don't know; those guys are awesome. We're trying to see if we get more through the reservation system into a delivery system. We just about figured out and they called like, "You guys stop it. Hold on a second. We can do this. Give us five minutes."

Five minutes later, they called back and they said, "We stood our company down, we're turning it back on, we just called everybody in here in Chicago. We're just going to work on this, so you have the platform.” They cranked it out working around the clock for a couple of days and we were able to launch. That is a mechanism that any restaurant in the country could. Not everybody can do drive-through and just the physicality of it. The location isn’t going to work, but any restaurant a company could do delivery and now that we've got the software for it, it's not overly tricky.

Ben: Can you talk through any restaurant in the country that can do delivery? I'm sure there's a lot of folks that own restaurants that are listening to this. What does that take?

Mark: It takes a lot of guts and it takes just that good old fashioned restaurant scrappiness that every restaurateur already has. If you're in this business, I guarantee you have what it takes. It's just the same thing it takes to run a restaurant. It's that. It's a little bit of the willpower just to make it happen. That's (I think) what all of us are going through.

All we did was figure out a menu and we launched a website, so someone that knows what to do on the Internet. That's not me, but our design team drew up a little logo which is not necessary. We threw a little splash page on top of canlis.com which is also not necessary. You could just post on Instagram, “Having to switch to delivery, so appreciate you supporting us doing this.” You can do various versions of it. Ours is pretty fancy, our servers have it on their phones, they get the maps, they get the texts, we can do drop-offs, no contact drop-offs, we can do alcohol. Tock made all that possible, but you can keep it really simple.

It takes ordering some boxes and some to-go containers coming up with one thing that holds hot really well and letting your constituency know tonight's a great night for takeout. We sold out 3 nights worth of takeout in about 90 minutes.

Ben: Wow. One question that I have that I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask, and I'll give a little context for listeners. Canlis is innovative, not just in the way that over the last 60–70 years you guys have changed fine dining, which we haven't talked about on this episode—Mark has given some great talks that you can read about, the evolution of fine dining and Canlis is rolling it—but also in doing these wild experiments that you would not expect the finest dining in the city to also have a shake shack pop up in the parking lot before there was a shake shack.

Mark: Can we uncover that a little bit? Do you mind if we dig into why you wouldn't expect fine dining restaurants to do that?

David: Yeah.

Mark: definitely one of the reasons that I think this transition has been possible for us is that we practice this kind of thing. By that, I don't just mean events in our parking lot. If you want to be a restaurant that is around (let alone relevant to the conversation), you're doing a fair amount of this every year anyway, people always ask Brian and I, "How come you guys haven’t opened a second restaurant?" I'm like, "You just don't know it." We opened a second restaurant about every 18 months. I would say that's how often the systems inside of Canlis are changing.

Those are being rewritten by new employees and employees that have been here for 20 years. The idea is that there's probably a better way to do it than the way that we're doing it. We just believe that. I think if you want to matter, you need to earn that right, and to earn it, you have to be working all the time and opening a restaurant that's really good. Tonight, we're good. Tomorrow will be better. That's not news to anyone. That's not a strategy that no one's heard before. If you're in business, you get it, and maybe thank you to the Japanese who have made that a very popular concept in the late 80s and 90s, but we're all thinking that way.

What happens is it's really easy to get lazy. It's really easy to start to devalue that as the thing is working, and of course, if you go too far that maybe you're undoing things that still had a useful lifespan inside of that. I hate to take a system down that would have been an amazing [...] foreseeable future. That takes a little sorting through. You got to be careful there but we're proffering the business, so it's a delicate balance.

Ben: Unless listeners think that we're just talking about a one-time thing opening up a shake shack. I went to your restaurant last summer. When I say “restaurant,” I mean parking lot for the Hawaiian Nights Luau. It's the largest hot tub you've ever seen. It's up on a second story deck overlooking. You guys opened a little pizza shop.

Mark: One of the swim-up bars which we created. We built a couple of Tiki huts.

David: Am I right, you bought a swimming pool on Amazon?

Mark: No. We'd like to test things out on staff parties and the goal of a staff party is to throw one that the staff would willingly come to if they had no association with the restaurant. It's a true day off or it's a true night off, like do whatever you want. Also, we're going to throw this party over here, and it's totally no expectation. At some point, we were throwing a luau. We had covered the parking lot in sod. It's not cool to throw a party in a parking lot in cement and would it be cool with grass?

We sodded that thing over and we threw a volleyball party, we had a pig roasting, and somebody said at some point, "Why do we go out. Who needs a beach?" We brought sand and then I went on Amazon, I'm like, "No way you can buy a pool for $2000." In the world of staff parties, the staff adds up quickly. Anyway, we bought a pool and we filled it up and then it just went from there.

That was a really successful party and we were thinking about fun things we could do over the summer. We thought, "Well, why don't we just throw the staff party for the city?" Honestly, I thought, "A few hundred people would come." Like who goes to a parking lot at a fine dining restaurant to hang out in an above-ground pool? Twelve hundred people came at night. It was nuts, and all of them waited an hour or two to get in. That caught us by surprise a little bit. It was also a ton of fun. We got a DJ on top of a shipping container and underneath your bacon, the best pizzas, and the roasting pigs. It was tons of fun.

We do like to think through these things, and I think it's a little bit of a good exercise. Just because we're fine dining, doesn't mean we're not thinking of 99 other ideas to do. To us, it's like the formula one version of putting out a sedan. It's like, "Why don't we go push this as far as we can? Let's see what happens." Every one of these projects finds its way back into our menu. Every one of these projects influences what we believe about hospitality. You need that stuff. You need to be inspired by people. You need to be inspired by it. That's fun.

Ben: All right. Before we finish our conversation with Mark, we'd like to thank Wilson Sonsini, the official legal sponsor of season six of Acquired and Adapting. Wilson Sonsini is the premier legal advisor to technology, life sciences, and growth enterprises worldwide, as well as the venture firms, private equity firms, and investment banks that finance them. Thank you to Wilson Sonsini.

As we start to wind down here, that's the question on my mind. I know it's only been four days, but of the three restaurants you talked about (and fourth that we’ll keep under wraps for now), what do you think might make its way into Canlis when we live in a normal world again?

Mark: Here's what I hope makes its way into Canlis. I hope that what comes out of this is a visual reminder of how alike we all are. If there's anything that I think we've learned so far, it's that our understanding of the human spirit is limited at best. It's only when you come to me and say, "Mark, I think you got this, man," I reflect that back to you and say, "Look, Ben. You got this." That's what happens. Something really powerful happens there and the whole mission of this company, which is a really weird mission, is to inspire people to turn toward one another.

When we saw the disease spreading and I am not talking about COVID-19, I am talking about the amount of fear, the amount of discouragement. When we saw that spreading, and often for really good reasons. These are not insignificant days. This is an overused but good word, but unprecedented for the entire world to go through something together where no one gets to say, "Yeah, it doesn't apply to me." When something like that happens, I think we have a responsibility to remind ourselves of the truth.

The truth is, we don't know what we're capable of. We the Canlis team, we the city of Seattle, we the United States of America, we the citizens of this rock that we're floating around on. I hope that we understand that better on the other side of this thing. That's what we're learning. That's what we're learning inside this building.

We might not be able to do this tomorrow. Maybe this will go for months. I don't know, but every day, I tell the team, you’re going to want to go home, crawl under your covers, and read your phone. It is important to do so. But when you wake up the next morning, you go outside. You physically go outside of your house, your apartment. You look up at the sky and ask yourself the question, “Is it still up there or did it fall?” If it's still up there, you can be thankful for that, and you start with what you're thankful for. You say, "All right, the sky did not fall contrary to the way I feel having read all the headlines. It's still out there. I hear a bird tweeting, I see a neighbor walking down the street." You know what? Let's start with what we have, let's go from there, and let's ask ourselves the question, if this is what I have, what can I do with it?

Maybe what we get out of this whole thing is that as a discipline, as a practice, as a reminder. Maybe that's a reminder that we need right now. I think it's a reminder that I needed. I think it's a reminder that my team needed and I wish you could feel the difference inside this place, before and after we made this decision, before it was feeling of helplessness, and after it was a feeling of hope, before it was a feeling that the overwhelming weight of this thing was too much, and after, it was the understanding that I had a role to play. That even just enduring, even just enduring a little bit, might be my role.

I think when we tell those stories, then we start to remind ourselves of the truth of who we are as people. That's pretty cool. That's why we wrote on that website, “We got this, Seattle.” It was the most poignant way I could say to a city that needed to hear it, we are capable of making it through.

Ben: Well, I cannot think of a single better way to leave our very first episode of Adapted with that line, so Mark, thank you so much.

Mark: Thanks for having me on the show.

Ben: Anything else you want to tell listeners or tell them where they should go get some great food?

Mark: I do want to tell your listeners something. I think they have the ability, even though it doesn't feel this way, to make a difference. What we've been talking about here is my restaurant, and you know what you don't have? You don't have my restaurant and you probably don't have a restaurant to dismiss this as someone else's story in a city that you don't live in.

I think it would be great or it would make me sad to hear this and to know that if we're crazy enough to give this a whirl, maybe some of your crazy is okay too, and I hope it gives them permission to think optimistically. I hope it gives them permission to smile at a neighbor. Keep it six feet away, I don't care. You can still smile at them.

That's not insignificant. It's important and it's going to take all of us remembering that about ourselves, remembering that that is who we are as a people. This is a story about our country and largely, this is a story about well beyond our borders and how alike we all really are.

David: Amen. Let's all go do not exactly what you're doing, but do what we all can to get this. We got this.

Mark: I'm not against it. I think competition only makes us better, but you're gonna have some stiff competition. The burgers are pretty good.

Ben: It is on my calendar to come tomorrow morning, I think hopefully around 7:00, 7:30 to the bagel shed and pick one up.

Mark: We love to see you here.

Ben: Thanks so much, Mark. Listeners, we’ll catch you for the next one.

Mark: Thanks, guys.

David: See you next time.

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