By Paul Schlienz
In business since 1938, it’s hard to imagine West Seattle without the Chelan Cafe, and it’s done much to make its community a better place.
Located in the shadow of the West Seattle Bridge and near the Port of Seattle’s Harbor Island facilities, the Chelan Cafe is everything that Seattle was long before the advent of Amazon, high tech and skyrocketing real estate costs. A down-to-earth diner and cocktail lounge with traditional fare like meatloaf, mashed potatoes, hot pork sandwiches and burgers – all made from scratch – it serves a varied clientele.
“We get a lot of longshoremen and a lot of steelworkers, who work down the street from us,” said Mary Manning-Smith, the Chelan Cafe’s owner. “We also get a lot of senior citizens and families with children. It’s like a family. These people are here every day. People care about each other here. I feel blessed.”
The Chelan Cafe has also been a blessing to its community in countless ways.
“We’re really fortunate to have long-standing businesses, like the Chelan Cafe, that support the community in any way they can,” said Julia Jordan, CEO of the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce.
One of the Chelan Cafe’s biggest causes is finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
“My husband passed away from Alzheimer’s,” said Manning-Smith. “I was right in the middle of Alzheimer’s for years. When the mind goes and people forget who you are, and their whole life that they spent together with you, it’s unnerving. It’s a terrible, terrible thing.”
In a horrible twist of fate, Manning-Smith’s husband, his brother and another close relative all developed Alzheimer’s and died of complications of the disease within a week of each other.
In response to this almost unimaginable family tragedy, Manning-Smith created the Smith Brothers team to raise money in the Walk to End to End Alzheimer’s.
Additionally, the cafe holds other fundraisers, including barbecues, softball games and auctions to raise money to fight Alzheimer’s.
“The Chelan Cafe does a lot, and it goes beyond Alzheimer’s,” said Jordan. “It gives to the community every chance it gets. You’ve got to commend it for that.”
Another major cause at that Chelan Cafe is the fight against breast cancer.
“One of my bartenders is totally committed to fighting breast cancer, and she uses the Chelan Cafe for a lot of fundraising.”
Additionally, the cafe raised more than $4,700 for the victims of the 2014 Oso landslide.
“It hit very close to home,” said Manning-Smith, whose husband was originally from Skagit County and had many relatives in the area near the disaster.
The hospitality industry runs deep in Manning-Smith’s veins.
“There’s a famous restaurant and bar in Pioneer Square Called the J&M Cafe,” said Manning-Smith. “My grandpa opened it in 1930. Then my dad went to work for his dad. My dad bought the Chelan Cafe in 1974. I went to work for my dad, and I’ve been here for 35 years. Then my son went to work for me, and he’s been here since 1992. It’s been four generations in the restaurant business.”
The only possible cloud on the Chelan Cafe’s horizon comes from Sound Transit’s light rail expansion to West Seattle. Under one alignment, where the rail line would run north of the West Seattle Bridge, the cafe would be demolished to make way for the elevated trains.
“It just doesn’t make sense to tear down our building to put a big post where the Chelan Cafe used to be,” said Manning-Smith. “Until Sound Transit makes that decision on where their line is going to go, we’re in a kind of limbo.”
Manning-Smith, however, expresses optimism that when Sound Transit makes its decision, in late May, it will choose one of the alignments that would route the trains south of the bridge and would not negatively affect the cafe.
“I’m hoping they’re going to spare us and leave us here,” said Manning-Smith. “I’m not planning on going anywhere anytime soon. We’re here for the long haul.”
Note: Photo used by permission of the Chelan Cafe.