Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Shady Character: Owner Ted Burke's name is synonymous with Shadowbrook, the romantic destination restaurant perched above Soquel Creek.
Christina Waters interviews Capitola restauranteur Ted Burke on the occasion of Shadowbrook's 60th anniversary.
By Christina Waters
Everybody's got a how-I-got-into-this-business story. Some are better than others. The summer before starting graduate school in international business, a young man gets a job at the Shadowbrook working as a waiter. Instead of going on to grad school, the waiter never leaves the restaurant, and today he owns it. His name, of course, is Ted Burke, and you have to figure that his ground-up view of the enterprise is a factor in the phenomenal success of the Shadowbrook, currently celebrating its 60th year in business.
"We're constantly working on improvements," Burke tells me over coffee and pastries at a corner table overlooking the idyllic Soquel Creek. His smile is warm, his blue eyes miss nothing. "Since we're largely a special occasion place, that means that everything has to be perfect," he says. "Satisfying that kind of expectation is a challenge."
Consistency is Burke's central goal, and consistency is what Burke, his partner Bob Munsey (who is principally concerned with sister property The Crow's Nest), his managers and his staff of over 100 employees have achieved. The food has never been better, and the nostalgic charm of these vintage rooms continues to cast a spell. Even after more than 30 years, Burke is still in the middle of it.
"My office is right by the front door, so I'm always aware of customer interactions, even though I might not actually greet them at the door." On a tour through the labyrinthian establishment, Burke shows me the paper-filled cockpit that he calls his office. Surely this is a joke. At 6-foot-3, Burke can barely fit into the space he shares with a computer, stacks of files and photos of his four children.
His day starts with coffee and email. After checking phone messages he settles in with the bills. Then he checks out receipts from the night before and goes over the managers' reports. "It's an amazing nickel-and-dime business," he admits. "With 125 employees, time is a big issue. If we scheduled someone to come in even 15 minutes earlier than they were actually needed, by the end of a year—multiplied by dozens of employees—that can really add up."
On the other hand, it's impossible to foresee those sudden parties of 12 that just walk in the door. "You have to run it on the edge of the envelope," Burke says.
The main kitchen occupies the very heart of the warren of dining rooms, many added on over the life of the restaurant. Through the oldest room with its stone fireplace and lofty ceiling, Burke points out his favorite corner table, dubbed "the glove compartment." Walkways lead to small bus stations and service stations, connected with the kitchen and various dining nooks by an elaborate system of customized dumbwaiters. From the kitchen's landscape of stainless steel rise islands of chocolate mousse and rhubarb cobblers waiting for their toppings. Young men bundled in hats and gloves move packs of cold beef and whole salmon from beds of ice. The sound of chopping knives competes with Mexican pop music through the kinetic cooking area.
"I can walk through a room and tell when a light bulb's out," Burke brags as we meander up to the newest dining addition. Past the lavishly reinvented lounge filled with skylights and gleaming woodwork and up one more angular staircase is a corner dining room whose coved ceiling is made from remilled redwood wine barrels. Historic photos line the walls, and we pause to consider one of the original 1947 Shadowbrook menus. For $3.50 your fillet dinner could begin with mixed relishes, three-bean salad or fruit cocktail. Dessert might involve canned peaches with red wine or ice cream with crème de menthe. Another era.
Burke doesn't regret the path he chose. He enjoys having a lot on his plate and the flexibility to make quick decisions, which he says keeps him sharp. The most difficult part? "The things that suddenly might go wrong," he says. "There are plenty of professional litigants out there."
Like all savvy restaurateurs, Burke welcomes negative criticism as well as praise. "The compliments far outnumber and outbalance the negative comments," he says, "but you don't want to be unaware of what is going on." And he's not.
SHADOWBROOK RESTAURANT features a three-course Sunday dinner through April priced at $19.47, in honor of the founding year. 1750 Wharf Road, Capitola; 831.475.1511.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.