“Fish, Finance, and Family,” with Terresa Davis

Terresa Davis '07 is an accountant, a lawyer, a dedicated mother of four, a Kung Fu student, and an orange belt in Kenpo karate. She and her husband are the masterminds behind incredible Seattle restaurants including Blueacre Seafood, Steelhead Diner, Orfeo, Zane and Wylie’s, and Tempesta Coffee and Doughnuts. Born and raised in Australia, Davis recalls her journey to the United States and how her experience at Seattle Pacific University strengthened her feelings of self-worth and helped launch her career in the restaurant business.

Amanda Stubbert: Terresa Davis received her accounting degree from SPU in 2007. She and her husband are the masterminds behind incredible Seattle restaurants including Blueacre Seafood, Steelhead Diner, Orfeo, Zane and Wylie’s, and Tempesta Coffee and Doughnuts. While Kevin runs the kitchen, Terresa handles the business side of their culinary empire.

She’s an accountant, a lawyer, a dedicated mother of four, a Kung Fu student, and an orange belt in Kenpo karate. Somewhere between management training sessions, kiddos, and martial arts, she found just a few minutes to chat with us. Terresa, thank you so much for joining us today.

Terresa Davis: Thank you for having me.

Amanda: I have so enjoyed getting to know your story. You do not have the typical Seattle upbringing, of born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. You weren’t even born in the United States. Can you tell us about where you came from?

Terresa: Sure. I was born and raised in South Australia in a small town called Mount Gambier. When I was a teenager, 15, I moved to one of Australia’s larger cities called Adelaide which is where I met my American husband, Kevin.

Amanda: How did you two make your way to the States?

Terresa: We were both restaurant people, been in the restaurant business since we were teenagers. We were working for an Australian company that was bringing out American chefs to an American concept called, it was called Bacall’s, and they had a nightclub called Bogie’s, so it was Bogie’s and Bacall’s. We’ve worked there for a year or so, and then Kevin, my husband, was offered the position of executive chef at a New Orleans restaurant called Arnaud’s, which is a fairly famous Creole institution in the French Quarter. In New Orleans, he was the first American chef at that restaurant. Previously, they had only had French chefs.

It was an opportunity too good to pass up even though he loved Australia, and so he took the position. I didn’t go to America with him immediately, but it was one of those situations where as soon as he left I realized, “Oh no, that was my person.” So I followed very shortly thereafter, and we got married when I got to the States.

Amanda: How old were you when you came to the States for your person?

Terresa: I was 18.

“I didn’t go to America with him immediately, but it was one of those situations where as soon as he left I realized, ‘Oh no, that was my person.'”

Amanda: Wow. That’s a big choice to make at 18.

Terresa: I know. We’ve been married for a long time.

Amanda: Well, and it worked out. That’s the amazing part right there, that it all worked out. That’s fantastic. Kevin is being a hot shot chef and getting more and more accolades for what he’s doing, and you’re working behind the scenes.

Terresa: I’ve always been a restaurant manager and accountant, always been in the restaurant business. I did not work with Kevin for probably the first 10 years of my career, I was more in the nightclub site, whereas he has always been very firmly in fine dining. We moved from New Orleans to California, and that was when we first started working together in our first restaurant partnership.

Then we moved to Seattle with a chef called Jan Birnbaum who’s fairly famous on the West Coast. Kevin started working for the Kimpton Group, which is a hotel group, again, prominent West Coast hotel group. I worked with Kevin starting our career together really at Oceanaire Seafood, where he was the chef and I became the accountant.

Amanda: Oceanaire was the very first fancy Seattle restaurant I ever went to with a couple. Two very good friends of ours here from SPU and they got engaged, and so we splurged and put all the money we had in together and went to Oceanaire to celebrate their engagement.

Terresa: Awesome. Well, Kevin would have been the chef.

Amanda: That’s amazing.

Terresa: Yes, he was a chef the entire time they were there. Oceanaire did very well in Seattle, and Oceanaire is now Blueacre, which is our restaurant. We ended up taking over that restaurant when the Oceanaire group folded.

Amanda: You are in Seattle, your husband is a chef, you’re doing management and accounting, but then you weren’t happy, things were not going the way you wanted them to go.

Terresa: Right. I had a lot of difficulty during that time. I had a fairly serious anxiety disorder at the time, which never was a problem in the restaurants, but it was outside the restaurants. Anyhow, I was at the time getting cognitive therapy to kind of rework the way that I think. My therapist noted that I seemed to have a lot of insecurity around the fact that I’d never been to college, and I was 30 at the time. He said, “I think that’s a really important part of your life that you missed out on.” He encouraged me to go back to school.

I also had a lot of self-esteem issues being married to someone who is semi-famous, whom everybody loved and everybody wanted to talk about. Whenever anyone talked to me, all they wanted to talk about was my husband, and that can really wear on your psyche after a while because I was also working very hard within our business and within the restaurant and so on. That really started me searching a lot for validation that I didn’t feel that I was getting.

School was great for me. It was a place for me to be myself and not be my husband’s wife. It was a place for me to start making my own relationships. I went first to Seattle Central where I got my associate’s degree, and then as I was leaving Seattle Central and applying to four-year colleges, I very abruptly quit my job, which I’ve never done before in my life. Something happened, I can’t remember, some major upset, and I quit my job without having a job to go to, which was very alarming for someone dealing with a serious anxiety disorder.

Amanda: You gave up the one place where you didn’t feel anxiety, right? Because you were saying when you’re at work.

Terresa: True.

Amanda: You knew something had to change, but then you gave up the one time of the day where you didn’t feel that anxiety.

Terresa: Right. I mean I’ve always felt safe at work in restaurants, I’ve always felt safe in the restaurant business. Around that time that I quit my job, it was actually the same day and I was really panicking that I had done that. I was in the elevator in our condo building going home, and I looked up on the wall, and there was a Post-It note stuck to the inside of the elevator and it said, “Wanted: Secretary to help pay bills and write letters,” I think it was. I thought, “Hmm, I could do that.” It said apply at the penthouse in my condo building. I thought, “Well, you know, I could at least do that while I’m looking for a job.” It seemed very serendipitous that it happened to be posted at that exact moment.

I went to the penthouse, I knocked on the door, and the door opened. I applied for the position, and I got the job. As it turned out, that gentleman was a man named Frank Haas who was… I’m not sure whether they have a board here, or a foundation, or what it is, but he was one of the members of Seattle Pacific University’s board.

Amanda: Board of Trustees, yes.

Terresa: At that exact time, of course, I was looking for a four-year school and he said, “You have to go to SPU.” I didn’t know anything about SPU. It wasn’t on my list of schools. It’s a smaller school. It’s not one of the mainstream options that people normally talk about. I wasn’t really interested. I had my sights set on UW, I wanted to go to business school there, but he absolutely persisted. Every time I saw him he said, “Have you filled in the application? Have you filled in the application? We’re waiting for it. You have to go to this school.” I avoided him for a while and then finally I was like I’m going to have to apply to this school because I can’t bear to see him again if I haven’t done it.

I looked at the application process and it was literally like a 40-hour job. I had to write five essays, and write a statement of faith which I didn’t even understand, but I did it. I put in the time. I spent 40 hours applying to the school that I wasn’t interested in going to, and then they accepted me and actually gave me a very generous scholarship offer. But I also got another scholarship offer at another school.

I was going to go to the other school, but something in me made me come to the orientation. I think fear of Frank asking me had I’ve been to the orientation.

Amanda: I can’t go home unless I go to the orientation.

Terresa: Yes. I came to the orientation at SPU, and it really was a day that I actually remember very clearly in my mind. It was a memorable experience because I had never been to a place where everyone was so nice to me. From the moment I hopped off the bus, it was like stepping into a movie. It’s so beautiful here. The campus is so beautiful, but more striking than that was how friendly and hospitable. I mean I’m in the hospitality business, I know hospitality when I see it, and I’ve never been treated so well by everybody.

“From the moment I hopped off the bus, it was like stepping into a movie. It’s so beautiful here.”

I actually have one particular moment where I was … there was a girl who was leading us around that day, she was a tour leader or something, and I had forgotten my lunch pass that I needed to get into the cafeteria and get a free lunch or something. Everyone was piling into the cafeteria and I, at the time, had really bad anxiety. I turned around and I said to her, “I forgot my lunch pass,” and it was kind of the end of my world because I didn’t know where to go from there. She just instantly handed me hers and she said, “Have mine.” I said, “But what are you going to do?” She said, “I don’t care.”

It was a moment that I just remember it as like a random act of kindness that really stuck with me. Even though this other school was my first choice and it was closer to my house, something in me told me that I should come to SPU because of that whole experience, so I did. My whole experience here was like that. It was that positive.

Amanda: I know you made some great relationships with the professors. One in particular that you’ve mentioned to me before is Jeff Van Duzer ,who ended up being the provost then for a number of years, and who was a lawyer. You had some other professors who were lawyers, and that led to a whole another journey for you.

Terresa: It did. I had three people. There was a business professor called Jim Rand who I don’t believe is here any longer. A lot of his teaching really stayed with me, and I think pushed me into actually entering business. A lot of people go to business school but don’t open businesses. A lot of the teachers I came into contact with here really spurred me to action, to actual action, which I think has got to be the most important thing in a business school.

Legally, I had two professors. I was a TA for a professor called Grant Learned who was my business law professor, and then Jeff Van Duzer taught ethics at the time, two subjects that I loved so much. I realized that I should probably go to law school, and I did go to law school mostly because of those two. Law school was a really great experience for me because it finally banished the anxiety because they really beat it out of you. You can’t have anxiety in law school.

Amanda: It has to put to rest forever the idea that I’m not good enough because I didn’t go to college, because now you have college and you have a law degree, like that has to help with that identity piece.

Terresa: True. That was a lot of closure on that. Since getting those degrees and graduating law school, I no longer search for that validation. The therapist actually nailed it when he suggested that. The whole experience definitely finished that searching chapter. I think SPU is a big part of it, too, because this was the first place outside of my career that I ever felt part of, like I was part of a community, and a really warmly accepted one, too, just for me, not for anything else but just for me as a person, which is unusual to find anywhere. Usually you’re bringing a skillset or something into a situation, but here I find that people are very accepting of each other just at face value.

Amanda: I also know from our previous conversations that there’s a faith piece that kind of fell into place during your time at SPU and into law school, as well.

Terresa: Yes. I was brought up fairly religiously, but like most people, I left the church as a teenager. I didn’t return to church when I was at SPU, but what I reconnected with at SPU was that constant reminder of faith. They talk about faith a lot in the classrooms which is startling at first, when you’re not used to it and when you’re not attending church, and I liked it. Observing the community around me, you can’t help but notice what happy place SPU is.

When you get a whole group of people altogether in one place that are really happy, you can’t really discount the values that are creating that, and it really made me look at my life and what was missing. I think I really wanted to reconnect with that rhythm of faith, and I did. When I left SPU, it was very shortly after, probably a matter of a month that I actually joined a church which I’ve been at for now, 10+ years. It definitely jump-started my faith in a great way. Having so many people that were so admirable who were Christians around me was really powerful.

“I think I really wanted to reconnect with that rhythm of faith, and I did.”

Amanda: Thank you, thank you for sharing that with us. Here you are finishing law school, you’re overcoming anxiety, you’re reconnecting with community and faith and kind of getting your feet under yourself in a new way, in a better way, and then another new milestone in your life comes along. I believe the boys came along even before law school was finished.

Terresa: We did have the restaurants, though. The restaurants we opened right as I was graduating from SPU. I actually wrote the business plan for Steelhead Diner at SPU in business school. That was what I did all of my senior classes on.

Amanda: Steelhead Diner was actually a project that you worked on while you were at SPU?

Terresa: It was. Around about the time I was graduating SPU, Oceanaire had announced that they were going to go public, which was not something we wanted to do. Restaurants going public are a strange experience. I was in law school and I had been so for two years, and I was really entrenched in that environment of creativity, and talking about starting things and startups and finances. I was right in the middle of it and my husband was like, “Oh, I think I’m just gonna get a job as a sous chef somewhere or something.” I said, “No, you’re not. We’re gonna do our own thing,” because I was right in it. I was just ready right to do something.

At the same time, Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans, and we had sold our house in New Orleans and actually had some capital. It all kind of happened at the same time. I was completely high with confidence from business school, and it was absolutely that confidence that got us the loan. We had tried previously before to talk to banks about projects but neither of us had a degree, so it was a losing battle. But with an accounting degree, it really changed the game. They were willing to, they could see that somebody knew what they were doing, somebody knew about money.

So we got a loan and we opened Steelhead Diner. Even the name Steelhead Diner came from one of the professors here who strongly suggested that we name the restaurant what it was, so something cafe or something diner. Her philosophy was that you always need to know what the business is doing in the name. Interestingly, we have since opened a restaurant where we used a more obscure name, and it is our least successful restaurant. Maybe she was onto something there. The Steelhead Diner opened in 2007, the same year I graduated here, and it was just a runaway success, probably our biggest success.

Instantly well received by the public. Seattle Pacific University was incredibly present and supportive during the opening of that. I think they were just as excited as everybody. That restaurant really firmly established our company. Still to this day, it’s what everyone attributes to us and talks about. It’s a very family-oriented concept, and about as Seattle as you can get.

Amanda: The next time we interview you, can we do it at the restaurant so we can eat while we talk?

Terresa: Absolutely, no problem.

Amanda: Restaurants are coming, and you’re doing new projects, and then family starts coming.

Terresa: Correct. We had wanted kids for a long time. It didn’t quite go as planned.

Amanda: When does it ever?

Terresa: Exactly. It’s always funny to talk about these things after the fact, because when you’re trying to have kids and you can’t, it’s the most heartbreaking thing in your life. Then 10 years later when you have four, you can’t remember any of that anymore. It was really difficult, but then we had our twins, Zane and Wiley.

Amanda: Who now have a restaurant named after them.

Terresa: They do. We now have a steakhouse that’s named after them. They’re nine now.

Amanda: What do they think about a steakhouse named after them?

Terresa: You know, we worried about that. We’ve worried that it would, perhaps they would think they owned it or be arrogant about it, but they really don’t talk much about it. When people say to them, “Is that your restaurant?” They say, “Oh no, it’s just our names on the sign. It belongs to Mommy and Daddy.” They understand that they’re just the namesake for the restaurant, but they do love to go there. They’ve only really eaten there two or three times though.

Amanda: But they must feel treated very well there.

Terresa: Yes. They’re like little stars when they go.

Amanda: You have four children, five restaurants, multiple businesses, and a husband. How do you get through the day? What do you do for you to keep you getting up every day and keeping all these balls in the air?

Terresa: Well, martial arts, as you know, is big part of my life, and that really keeps me grounded and calm. Since I started doing martial arts, I’m a lot calmer than I used to be. I look at the long game rather than the short game. Church. One thing that I find very important as a businessperson, especially as someone with a company that’s growing, is that it’s really important to also be involved in other communities where you’re different. At work, I’m the boss and people treat me a certain way, and you can get used to that and get lost in your own ego and identity as a businessperson.

“..it’s really important to also be involved in other communities where you’re different. At work, I’m the boss and people treat me a certain way, and you can get used to that and get lost in your own ego and identity as a businessperson.”

But then I have me at my kid’s school where I’m just Zane and Wiley’s, Gracie and Fisher’s mom, and that’s who I am. At church, I’m somebody different and I’m nobody’s boss, and nobody see me like that. At martial arts, I’m that older lady who’s in karate. That’s humbling, too, to be a beginner at something. I think everyone who’s an expert at something should always seek out something to be a beginner at because it keeps you grounded and kind of child-like, in that you don’t always know what’s coming next. It keeps life interesting, anyway.

Amanda: Reminds you of the empathy of when you’re working with someone where you are the expert, it reminds you how it feels to not understand anything that’s happening.

Terresa: Feeling vulnerable, yes.

Amanda: For sure.

Terresa: I think my secret is definitely … church is a big thing for me, every Sunday being reminded that there is an absolutely gigantic picture that you’re just a really tiny part of. Staying involved in a number of communities so everything stays healthy and realistic. It helps me to not get too caught up in everything, but mostly as you know, any parent knows, it’s about really finding any time I can to be with my kids.

Amanda: I will tell our loyal listeners here that the first time I met you just to chat about your story and what we’ve covered in this interview, we did it at the karate dojo while your kids were taking lessons. It was so fun for me. As a mom myself, I wish I could have more meetings that way. Like let’s double up on our time, let’s enjoy each other, and of course, it was so fun to have your children sitting on either side of me drawing and playing with nunchucks while we’re talking. It actually is a better conversation for me, too. I wish more people could learn to mingle parts of their lives together in that way and not be afraid to do that, because you’re multiple people all the time everywhere you go, so you might as well bring that to the table.

Terresa: Right. I agree.

Amanda: One question I love to ask everyone that comes on here is, you clearly have something, you have something unique and different that has allowed you to accomplish all the things that you’ve accomplished, and so you must have different habits, different things you do than the rest of us. What could we all do differently that would make this place a better place to be to be?

Terresa: I would say two things. One, I run every day. I think if everybody ran or walked an hour every morning before they started their day, it would be different world. Two, and this is a little bit of the OCD … revealing a little bit of the OCD side of me, but I write a very detailed list, to the hour, every single night, mapping out my next day, and I stick to it. It really keeps me focused, and I accomplish the things I want to accomplish.

Usually, often on my list, especially at work, I’ll have one thing with a star by it, and that’s the one thing I get done no matter what, whether the restaurant burns down or something shocking happens, I will get that thing done. I think lists are great. List and exercise, that’s my two things.

Amanda: I feel like those balance each other out, don’t they? Because if it’s all lists, that can produce a lot of anxiety and pressure, but if it’s all exercise and me time, you’re never going to get everything done, so it’s the balance.

Terresa: True.

Amanda: That’s what I hear from you, it’s that balance of do what you need to do so you can stay grounded and be healthy, but also-

Terresa: But schedule.

Amanda: … get your stuff done.

Terresa: Yes, schedule free time.

Amanda: That’s fantastic. Well, Terresa, I can’t thank you enough for joining us here today and sharing part of your life story. I think we can all be so inspired by what you’ve gone through and then what you were able to accomplish. So many times along the way you could have just said, “Hmm, I don’t need to do, I, I can let my husband be the star. I can. I have an anxiety disorder, I don’t need to keep going forward.” Look where you’ve come, and I just thank you for inspiring so many who will hear your story.

Terresa: Thank you.


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