By Paul Schlienz


Tibbitts@FernHill is one of a kind.

A small restaurant with a big impact on its community, Tibbitts@FernHill is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, but it’s well worth seeking out. This 25-seat eatery, located on a quiet street in Tacoma’s Fern Hill neighborhood, in the city’s southernmost reaches, has already achieved accolades, awards and a loyal clientele in its short two-year existence.

“I didn’t want to do what everybody else did,” said Chef Shawn Tibbitts, the restaurant’s owner, “I wanted to have my own creative niche, my own outlook on flavors that I built throughout my whole career as a line cook.”

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Acts of Mercy

Doing the right thing, for Tibbitts, means serving his community. Growing up poor in the Fern Hill neighborhood, where he has now found unimagined success and recognition, he has never lost sight of his roots and is passionate about helping the poor and needy.

And he remembers that it was because of one man’s charitable giving that Tibbitts@FernHill exists today as a restaurant.

“Tibbitts@FernHill came to me from a blessing,” said Tibbitts. “By all rights, Tibbitts@FernHill should never have happened.”

Tibbitts’ mother died shortly before the restaurant’s opening.

“I had all my money saved up,” Tibbitts recalled. “When she passed, I took all the money that I had, and I gave her the best funeral a son could give his mother. I was broke.”

Then came an unexpected act of mercy. A friend Tibbitts hadn’t spoken with in 15 years reached out to him.

“He asked me ‘What would it cost to open your restaurant?'” Tibbitts said. “I gave him a number and he cut me a check. I opened my restaurant with $32 in my bank account and a prayer.”

Success came more quickly than Tibbitts could ever have anticipated.

“After the first six months − BOOM! − all of a sudden, I’m getting more people into the restaurant, so I launched my first give back,” Tibbitts remembered. “I always knew that if I were in a position to give, I wanted to give back to the less fortunate. It was long one of my dreams.”

At this point, Tibbitts began realizing his dream, eventually feeding more than 300 people for free each holiday during 2017. During 2018, his mission to give back to the community continued and expanded its reach. This past Christmas alone, he fed more than 200 people at no charge.

“Now I have over 10 other restaurants that donate food to help these people,” said Tibbitts. “These folks get some of the best food Tacoma has to offer. It’s not about one person or one restaurant anymore. We’re all a community. Here in Tacoma, we all need to band together and support each other and not worry about competition because I don’t have any competition. Now I’m not just a restaurant. I’m a community of restaurants.”

Tibbitts’ community service doesn’t stop with feeding the less fortunate. He collaborated with a local elementary school on a survey of the kinds of lunch menus − rewarding participants with an ice cream party. Additionally, he has given cooking demonstrations at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, where he also answers students’ questions and discusses his experiences in making a career out of hospitality.

“I’m just one single guy, but I believe one single guy can change a city for the better,” Tibbitts said. “I’ve fed over 3,000 people in two years. That’s free food and it’s nothing to do with money. It’s giving back. It’s showing the community that you can thrive if you do these things.”

Marching to a Different Drum

Tibbitts@FernHill really is different. For one thing, Tibbitts works his cooking magic on the most basic equipment − two small burners and an oven. The food is completely locally sourced and his menu items are unique creations.

Tibbitts’ eclectic, original cuisine offerings are the culmination of a long apprenticeship in the restaurant industry.

“I never went to culinary school,” Tibbitts said. “I simply worked at a lot of restaurants. My first chef told me to never work in one place too long so you can learn about different foods. From there I job jumped a lot, working in a lot of places in Tacoma. By the time I was 40, I had worked in over 40 restaurants in 25 years.”

Always observant and willing to take input from whomever was his chef at the time, Tibbitts worked in European, Asian and Hispanic cuisine, gathering a storehouse of culinary knowledge he would bring together in new and original ways when the time came for him to open his own restaurant.

“If you’re creative, if you find your niche and don’t do what everyone does, that’s fun,” Tibbitts said. “That’s a place people are going to go to and want to see for themselves.”

Tibbitts@FernHill’s unique menu has, indeed, paid off − big time − in recognition and rave reviews. It was voted one of the top five new restaurants of 2017 by food critic Sue Kidd of The News Tribune. Tibbitts, himself, was honored as Best Chef 2018 and his eatery was recognized as the Best New Restaurant 2018 by South Sound Magazine. named Tibbitts@FernHill one of 24 “Essential Tacoma Restaurants” while Yelp! rated it the No. 1 farm-to-table restaurant in Tacoma. Additionally, Tibbitts was featured as a guest host and cook-off contestant at the 2018 Taste of Tacoma.

“It’s all been a huge achievement for me, but I’ve got to stay humble, too,” said Tibbitts. “I want to do the right thing.”

Small is Beautiful

With his restaurant’s quick rise, one can only wonder what the future holds for Tibbitts.

“I was looking at a second location,” Tibbitts said. “I decided I didn’t want to do that because that was going to take away from my spot, my dream of being part of the Fern Hill community. Overhead is the biggest breaker of every small business restaurant, so I’m going to keep it small. I’m never going to expand, but I’m probably going to do some summer hours. I’ll keep changing my menu four times a year. I’ll also be doing some dinners starting in February − three nights a week.”

One thing is for sure: In addition to Tibbitts’ unique locally sourced culinary offerings, his community service will continue making Tacoma a better place to live for a long time to come.

“I’m a giver,” Tibbitts concluded. “It’s all heart. I can’t change.”


Note: This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of Washington Hospitality Magazine.