Restaurateurs in downtown Bellingham find a challenging path to success - Salish Current
March 21, 2024
Restaurateurs in downtown Bellingham find a challenging path to success
Augustus Kendall

Community and family support have been vital to survival and success for restaurants in downtown Bellingham including Bryan Matamorosa’s Bry’s Filipino Cuisine on State Street. Hope, hard work and, for some, heartbreak mark the path. (Augustus Kendall / Salish Current © 2024)

March 21, 2024
Restaurateurs in downtown Bellingham find a challenging path to success
Augustus Kendall

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Each morning, Bryan Matamorosa steps into a small brick establishment on North State Street, just a few doors down from the Herald Building. The one-room dining room inside, with polished wooden countertops on one side and chairs stacked on tables on the other, is Matamorosa’s addition to an ever-expanding club of downtown businesses facing post-pandemic challenges.

Matamorosa, better known as Bry by the tight-knit downtown community, spends most of his day working out of sight. Behind the racks of polished pots and pans hanging from the ceiling of his newly renovated kitchen, it takes a discerning eye to spot him hard at work creating the dishes that give his new restaurant, Bry’s Filipino Cuisine.

Bry’s is tucked into a small space formerly occupied by Cosmo’s Bistro, which closed in early 2023. Matamorosa is the operator, owner and chef, and organized the restaurant’s successful launch on March 3.

The 34-year-old entrepreneur’s casual attitude and friendly smile conceal the difficult path he’s walked after moving to Seattle from the Philippines in 2009, at the age of 19. When he arrived the language barrier proved to be a significant impediment, and adapting to a new culture while trying to create even a simple foothold for his family was a struggle. His poor English was a problem and one of the reasons he attended Bellingham Technical College, where he discovered his love of cooking.

Matamorosa is no stranger to cooking or hard work. After living in Federal Way for three years he moved to Bellingham to escape the rampant crime and drug use near his home. His goal was to “find someplace quiet and safe,” Matamorosa said while preparing a plate of pork adobo, a classic Filipino dish made with soy sauce, vinegar and garlic. 

A path from culinary school to farmers market to food truck brought Bryan Matamorosa to the kitchen of his own restaurant in downtown Bellingham. Sautéed vegetables are ready to serve. (Augustus Kendall / Salish Current © 2024)

He earned a degree in culinary arts from Bellingham Technical College and found work at eateries throughout the area. While studying at BTC, he met Jennifer Worthley, whom he later married. Even after Worthley opened It’s the Sweet Things, an artisan bakery on Cornwall Avenue just three blocks away, the two continued to collaborate on their cooking. 

By 2018 Matamorosa had begun serving food at the Bellingham Farmers Market as a side job. He loved it so much that in late 2019 he quit his job as a restaurant chef and purchased a food truck in need of refurbishment. 

In a stroke of bad luck, that shift occurred just months before COVID-19. As the service industry teetered and budding companies like Matamorosa’s went under one after another, things looked bleak for the first-time business owner. 

When pushed, Matamorosa admits that was his lowest point. “I had no income, no unemployment,” he said. “Nothing to pay my rent. I had to set up a GoFundMe just to survive.” 

Fortunately for Matamorosa, the connections he had made with the community as a farmers market vendor paid off. He raised over $5,000 in just two days, giving him enough momentum to stay afloat. He repaired his food truck, continued to cater events and delivered throughout Bellingham.

From that moment until the opening of Bry’s brick-and-mortar location this month, Matamorosa’s focus has been on repaying and revitalizing a community hit hard by the pandemic and its consequences. He intentionally hired a diverse staff, kept his fans closely informed on social media and continued to operate his food truck. 

Sleep was often limited to “less than three hours a night,” said Matamorosa. And despite things looking up, his future isn’t certain. “I’m in a lot of debt,” he said. “It’ll be rough for a while.” 

‘Don’t let go of hope’

Yun Cowin, owner of the Korean YunGaNe, or Yun’s Kitchen, just blocks away on Cornwall Avenue, is familiar with those feelings. She emigrated from Korea in 1988, and like Matamorosa, found herself looking at an uncertain future. “I followed love,” she said, looking out at the rain streaking down the front window of her building. “I found it, got married, and then after that I wasn’t sure what to do.”

Family, community and hope helped Yun Cowin persevere in uncertain early times for her downtown Bellingham restaurant YunGaNe. (Augustus Kendall / Salish Current © 2024)

Similarly to Matamorosa, Cowin walked a roundabout path before opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant. After settling in Bellingham in 1994, she worked as a waitress, retail manager and mother to three all while learning to adapt to a new culture and language. 

YunGaNe has been operating since 2019, so as an established company and local staple there’s much less to worry about than with a brand-new restaurant. However, Cowin remembers her first months, as much as she might prefer not to. 

With her restaurant in jeopardy she, like Matamorosa, looked to community connections, friends and family to keep things afloat. Her children and local community members helped her operate YunGaNe, and kept it open during its darkest hours. Her family still works at YunGaNe on a regular basis today.

Even with so much support, Cowin admits it could have gone either way. Her advice? “Hope,” she said. “It will be hard, very hard. I prayed to God, you pray to whoever you can. But don’t let go of hope.” 

Making sure it’s what you really want to do

Unfortunately hope doesn’t always work, as was the case when local Indian restaurant Simmering Tava closed in January 2024. 

Co-owner Rajat Damani worked beside Matamorosa at the farmers market before he and his mother, Tara, opened the restaurant to supplement his food truck in 2018. He leased a building on the 1300 block of North State Street, less than a five-minute walk from Bry’s, to take advantage of the included commissary kitchen, a helpful tool for anyone in a culinary profession. 

Like Matamorosa and Cowin, he was unsure if starting a restaurant was the correct choice. “The income was better, but the hours were awful,” said Damani. “At the Market, you were done by 5:30 in the afternoon, and only on weekends. Restaurants are all day, every day.” 

That stress was amplified by constantly increasing rental rates for tenants like Damani, who can’t afford to buy their buildings outright. Simmering Tava was also the victim of several acts of theft, including a 2021 “smash and grab that shattered their front door,” and resulted in the loss of a valuable generator.

Finally, due to the emotional and physical toll, as well as the time commitment, Damani decided to close the restaurant permanently. He sold the restaurant’s assets and name to a former employee, who opened their own Indian-style restaurant, Nana J’s, in the same space.

After retiring from the restaurant industry, Damani opened an Airbnb in a small house he purchased in downtown Bellingham. He doesn’t want to discourage new restaurateurs, but he does advise against making snap judgments. “Make sure it’s really what you want to do, because you’ll be stuck with it for a while,” he said. 

For Matamorosa, those stories demonstrate the best and worst possible outcomes for his fledgling business. “I’m gonna work hard, harder than ever,” said Matamorosa. “This is what I’ve got. I’m going to make it work.” 

Matamorosa knows it’ll be a long road before he can reliably keep his head above water. But if his past is any indication, he’ll keep walking in that front door every day until the job is done.

— Reported by Augustus Kendall

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