When Watson’s Counter owner James Lim opened his restaurant and café in Ballard, he knew he wanted to do everything just right.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to have a coffee shop that has the best food program that you can find,’ but I also wanted it to be a restaurant that had the best coffee program you can find,” he said. “Because why sell food if it’s going to suck? Why sell coffee if it’s going to suck?”
So, on the quest for excellence, he sought help from his friend, Scott Lukehart, a fellow Korean-American chef. And while Lim insists on maintaining a fun-loving approach to his work, he takes menu development very seriously.
For example, early on, Lim and Lukeheart unanimously agreed to serve poutine (because, duh) and Lim described their meticulous, experimental process of crafting the perfect poutine.
“We’re big on, ‘If this is what I’m going to eat, I want it to taste the best it can,’” he said. “To the extent that [Scott] and I argued for half an hour on French fry size, ‘How big do we want these French fries, like five-eights of an inch?’ ‘No, that’s too small.’ ‘Like three-fourths?’ ‘That’s barely bigger.’ So we had this whole thing … All this sort of stuff is the genesis of each dish, by saying ‘How do I want to represent myself in food form?’”
And this kind of deliberation isn’t exclusive to the poutine. Every single ingredient at Watson’s Counter is thoughtfully selected with a focus on supporting ethical business, sourcing from local farmers and suppliers, and finding ingredients that just taste really darn good. Lim has sampled a wide variety of chai, many loaves of local bakery bread, and heaps of artisan coffee to develop the breakfast-forward Korean-American menu that exists today.
Because the restaurant is designed so perfectly after Lim’s own taste, you’ll find that every little detail dares to stand out from your ‘typical’ Seattle restaurant-café. Most prominently absent from the menu is dark roast coffee, a flavor that this coffee expert dismisses as “old school.”
“I like really light roast, I like that kind of Scandinavian style, fruity light roast coffee,” Lim said. “I worked at a coffee company for five years … My bachelor’s degree is in science. I really fell in love with coffee because it’s a very scientific food item. You can kind of do these little experiments and get tangible results, recordable results, and measurable results that end up in something delicious.”
While Lim prides himself on the Watson’s Counter menu, the cuisine comes second in priority to his desire to connect with and support people — which first extends to his staff.
“If the team’s morale is gone, everything else is gone,” he says.
Lim has committed himself to being the best employer he can be. He focuses on paying his staff fairly and hiring team members based on shared ethics and values, not just prior experience. And, against all common lore, he’s also hired many of his friends.
Lim’s commitment to community extends well beyond his staff, though. In fact, Watson’s Counter was principally designed to be a space for connection.
“Watson’s Counter is designed to be a part of the community,” he said. “Even though we’re a restaurant and café, we don’t provide internet. We don’t want someone sitting there working on their next big book or whatever, we want people to come and gather, share food and make eye contact and talk and build relationships. We shoot the shit with our guests all the time. We poke fun at them, they poke fun at us, and we just really have a good time. During the pandemic I think that’s one thing that’s been missing for us is the ability to build relationships and truly get to know these people.”
Watson’s Counter was open for nearly a full year before the pandemic hit. During that time, Lim’s vision for community gathering flourished. Takeout wasn’t even an option at Watson’s Counter during this time, due to his strong preference for connection. So, it’s easy to imagine that life under the ‘new normal’ has been a particularly hard adjustment for Lim and his staff.
“For us to switch from doing zero takeout to only takeout was a very odd switch,” he said. “But yesterday someone came to the door and was like, ‘Hey you guys have been pivotal for us to have a cornerstone during this pandemic and have something special to get every once and a while. Your food is awesome and you guys are just so nice.’ … That’s the kind of stuff that makes it worth it for the kind of hustle that we’re putting in and the little amount of money that we make doing it.”
Lim also stressed that becoming a small business owner has totally shifted his mission and philosophy.
“It’s flipped my life completely upside down,” he said. “I think just understanding the greater impact of a business to a community and a community to a business. I didn’t have to run the last coffee shops I worked in. Even though I worked at a corporate level, I definitely didn’t understand the lengths a company can permeate into the actual culture of a community … Being able to support a local small business keeps money local which helps local infrastructure, local politics, and things like that. Understanding small change might be small, but supporting people around you is something I’ve completely reprioritized in my life which is not something I would’ve expected.
He’s even started a podcast that focuses on the immense impact of reviews on small businesses called Dear Elite Reviewer.
And while he sometimes cringes at the sight of someone’s food going cold because #CameraEatsFirst, he’s been so grateful for the positive social media attention that Watson’s Counter has received since its launch. Reviews from customers and food critics have truly fueled the restaurant’s growth, he says. Not to mention, customer reviews have truly put Watson’s Counter’s fried chicken and Fruity Pebbles French toast on the map!
“We ended up finding out that a lot of people love that French toast,” Lim said.
If you’re not ordering fried chicken or french toast, their loco moco and Korean BBQ plate are also incredibly delicious.
Seeing the Ballard neighborhood flock to enjoy Lim’s Korean-Amercan cuisine has been an emotional experience, he says.
“To see the city of Seattle not only accept us but embrace us, is a big cultural shift,” Lim said. “I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of stories but, when I was a kid, my brother and I would bring Korean food to school. And people would be like, ‘Ew what is that?’ It’s such a common story for any kid who didn’t grow up on an American diet … It’s so different to see the flavor profiles of dried seaweed and gochujang and soba noodles be embraced by Ballard, which is a pretty white neighborhood. It’s pretty awesome … I’m in this middle generation where my parents are immigrants so the palate I have is a little bit unique and it kind of validates that the way I grew up isn’t super weird.”
You can find a cheeky nod to Lim’s Korean-American heritage in the logo, too. Oh, did we mention the restaurant is named after Lim’s adorable yorkie-maltese pup, Watson?
In the logo you’ll see an adorable cartoon rendering of Watson wearing a tiger hoodie, representing the South Korean national animal, the Siberean tiger.
“It’s kind of my puppy wrapped up in my heritage in a more whimsical logo,” Lim said. “Having all of that is kind of a manifestation of who I am.”
When Lim isn’t working at the restaurant or recording his podcast, he’s hanging out with Watson and visiting local restaurants with his partner. Lately, he says he’s been focusing on supporting smaller restaurants, especially immigrant-owned and Korean-immigrant-owned businesses that have struggled with technology and social media during the pandemic.
You’ll also probably forever find him tinkering with new recipes and testing the limits of coffee science. His love for all things food transcends into an art form.
“It’s an ephemeral experience,” he said. “If you’re not catching it at the right time it’s like a fading art. If it cools down, you’ve lost it. Like our chicken wings, if you get some of the sauced wings and you spend too much time talking or not experiencing it at the prime moment, it’s going to get soggy and who wants soggy wings? So it’s almost a fun artsy part about it like, ‘This is your meal, enjoy it now.’”
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