There’s a unique magic to each beloved bar and restaurant. Call it a feeling in the air or a vibe that emanates from the details, but it creates an experience that transports guests somewhere that’s both familiar and yet new and surprising.
Anu Apte has mastered that magic.
Quick to laugh, whip smart, and with a twinkling mix of wisdom and mischief in her eyes, Apte has a large presence on the Seattle hospitality scene and is recognized as one of the most dynamic operators in the business due to her work in creating some of the city’s most forward-thinking and creative bars and restaurants.
She arrived in the Emerald City in 2004 to research graduate programs in medicine, she quickly fell in love with the uniqueness of the Pacific Northwest and decided to leave her home state of Utah to pursue new adventures.
Within a few years, at 28 years old, she purchased her first bar, named it Rob Roy, and built it into one of the most respected cocktail destinations on the West Coast. With its stylish decor, enlightened approach to hospitality and an ever-changing cocktail menu based around the classics, it has steadily grown its fan base, and after 11 years in business was nominated for the Best American Bar award at the 2019 Tales of the Cocktail trade conference.
Photo: Anu Apte
But that’s only the first chapter of her story. In addition to being the sole owner of Rob Roy, Apte went on to become co-owner of Canoe Ventures LLC, with partner Chris Elford. Their projects came fast, and now include No Anchor, a beer-focused restaurant which is soon to be rebranded as Trade Winds Tavern; Navy Strength, a cocktail bar inspired by the tropics; Vinnie's Wine Shop; and Bar Bazaar, which sells bar tools for pros and novices alike. Over the years, this collection of bars and restaurants has garnered local and national awards including multiple James Beard nominations and a place on countless “Best of” lists.
“My favorite spots are those that take hospitality to another level,” she said. “I love a spot where you can settle into a comfortable seat, and immediately know you'll be taken care of for the time you are there. Zig Zag [a beloved cocktail bar tucked away by a staircase at Pike Place Market in Seattle] has always been, and will always be, one of my favorite bars on this planet. The lighting, the music, the bartenders — it's all pretty magic there. It’s really about places that make you feel like you are part of the family; they are the places that really draw me in.”
Apte tries to achieve that at her bars, too, and she has learned that her main focus needs to be staffing. Yes, real estate agreements, decor and infrastructure are important, too, but it all comes down to the employees who bring the goals and aspirations of the operator to life.
“A strong team is just so important,” Apte said. “Without amazing people working for you, you’ll struggle. It's as simple as that. And I believe in hiring people who are right for the job, and letting them excel at a specialty. Sometimes the person's specialty is being a person of all trades, master of none, and that's O.K., too. But I hire based on personality and spirit knowledge, as I know I can train when it comes to the execution of cocktails.”
And while there are many that dream of making the leap to ownership, Apte offers a bit of caution.
“I would advise someone who is looking to become an owner to first gain experience as the general manager of a small local establishment before opening their own bar or restaurant,” she said. “And ideally, they will work with operators who are willing to train them, to open up their books, let them run the place as if they own it, and give them full support. If that's not an option, then attending seminars on bar ownership at Tales of the Cocktail and Portland Cocktail Week are incredible resources.”
In short, pay your dues and gain all the experience you can before it's your own money on the line.
Even if you succeed at running one operation, Apte advises serious soul-searching before deciding to expand; the decision had serious pros and cons for her.
“I got into this business to work closely with people and spend time with regulars,” she said. “When I only had one bar, this was possible. When I had two, it was somewhat manageable, but after opening a third location, maintaining personal relationships with everyone became more difficult. But we needed to make some of our creative dreams and concepts come true, so we went for it.”
Staying healthy, inspired and focused along the way is a constant challenge. Apte does it by staying in constant contact with her parents (“they’re hardworking immigrants who inspire and motivate me every day, and just talking to them on the phone when I’m having a rough days puts everything in perspective,” she said), and spends time with her dog Willett to further ground her. But she’s now looking beyond herself, her team and her businesses, to bring true change to a notoriously demanding industry.
Along with running her business, she’s studying psychology at The University of California at Berkeley and plans on pursuing a graduate degree.
“I'm focusing on creating financial and HR systems that put our employees first, while still keeping the business model sustainable. It won’t be easy, but my goal is to eventually integrate programs into the hospitality industry that will promote mental and physical health, while still maintaining a high-stress job.”
Those are big ambitions for anyone to have, but Apte’s accomplishments have already proven that she has bold vision and grit. Her journey is still evolving, and she continues to break new ground.
David Flaherty has more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified specialist of wine, a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains.