SPU Alumna Terresa Davis ’07 thrives in competitive Seattle restaurant industry
In a second story building along Pike Place Market, locals and tourists alike dine on grilled Alaskan halibut, bacon and truffle oil clam chowder, savory cioppino, brownies made with Seattle’s local Theo chocolate, and other classic Northwest fare. The restaurant windows offer glimpses of ferries sailing on Elliott Bay, the distant Olympic mountains, and the colorful bustle of the historic market below.
This is Steelhead Diner on Pine Street and First Avenue, the creation of restauranteurs Terresa Davis ’07 and her husband — one of four popular restaurants the couple owns and operates in downtown Seattle.
Terresa Davis grew up on the other side of the globe, in a small town outside Adelaide in southern Australia. At 16 years old, while working at a local restaurant serving American cuisine, she met Kevin Davis, a talented visiting chef from New Orleans. Two years later, they married, starting a new life in New Orleans, inspired by a common love for health, fitness, and, of course, good food.
While her husband grew his reputation as an award-winning chef specializing in seafood, Terresa worked on the other side of the business as an accountant for restaurants. When the couple relocated to Seattle in 1999, Terresa worked as operations manager for a small restaurant called Wild Ginger, now one of the biggest restaurant companies in the Seattle area.
Terresa was growing into a skilled accountant, but without a college degree she found certain doors closed to her. She applied to several Seattle schools, but after visiting Seattle Pacific University, she knew it was the place for her.
“I had never really had strangers be unconditionally kind to me for no reason, and here was a whole community of kind people,” Terresa said. “It was the first time in my adult life that people asked me, ‘Who are you? What do you believe in? What do you want to do with your life?’ And they cared. They focus on creating leaders by looking at students’ God-given gifts.”
“I had never really had strangers be unconditionally kind to me for no reason, and here was a whole community of kind people.”
As her capstone project for her business degree, Terresa created a business plan for a hypothetical mid-sized restaurant. Guided by the feedback of her business and marketing professors, she created the business model, financial plan, and marketing strategy. “Terresa was engaged,” said Professor Emeritus Jeff Van Duzer, who taught several of Terresa’s business courses. “She tested out the theories we were discussing in class, asking how she could think about her business as a means of serving.”
Right after she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in business, the Davises sold a property, and with those funds, they saw an opportunity: making Terresa’s vision for a restaurant and Kevin’s dream of owning his own kitchen a reality. They chose one of the few restaurant spaces available in the heart of Seattle’s downtown waterfront, a space on the second story overlooking Pike Place Market. Steelhead Diner, now a mainstay in the Pike Place scene, was born.
Kevin developed a Northwest-inspired menu specializing in fresh seafood, sustainably sourced exclusively from America. Terresa put her business plan into action, managing the administrative and financial aspects of starting a restaurant. Steelhead was a smash hit.
The next year was filled to the brim for the family. To better navigate the legalities of restaurant management, Terresa began working toward a law degree from Seattle University and worked for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office. That year, she also became pregnant with twins. And the landlord of a recently closed restaurant asked the Davises if they were interested in opening another restaurant in the large, 350-seat space. They said yes, opening Blueacre Seafood in 2011, after renovating the dark, extravagant atmosphere of the former restaurant into an airy, sunny space with Caribbean blue accents and a glittering oyster bar.
“Companies that own properties of that size are typically major corporations with large budgets devoted to marketing,” Terresa said. “But it was just us two, with no real capital or practical experience in advertising.”
Terresa took to social media, developing relentless marketing campaigns via email and social media, and taking the business one week at a time. “Slowly but surely, we made it work,” she said. The Davises have since added two more children to their family and two more downtown Seattle restaurants: Orfeo, a fine-dining restaurant serving classic Italian and French fare; and Zane + Wylie’s Steakhouse, named after their twin boys, opened in 2018.
According to Terresa, Seattle’s economic climate has grown increasingly challenging for restaurants, mostly due to rising costs of labor, skyrocketing housing costs, and challenging transportation options for staff. And as Seattle has grown with a constant influx of new restaurants, the competition is greater than it’s ever been.
Even so, the Davises are thankful for the Seattle community and infuse their businesses — and lives — with hospitality and generosity, forming personal relationships with their staff and patrons. Today, Terresa walks through any of her restaurants on any given day and encounters multiple diners she knows. “The most important thing I learned in business school is that your business is not yours; you are a steward of it,” she said. “I now ask myself how I can use my business to spread God’s love and create community.”