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San Carlos Restaurant: A Bainbridge Island icon

San Carlos Mexican restaurant on Bainbridge IslandWhen Lee and Marianne Jorgenson opened San Carlos Mexican restaurant on Bainbridge Island 27 years ago in May, the idea of Mexican food was still new to the region. Lee Jorgenson estimates that Seattle had less than a handful of Mexican restaurants — and certainly nobody had the unique Southwest twist he envisioned.

But he loved Mexican food (especially since he grew up with it) and he was tired of the two-hour commute from the island to his job in Seattle. With a background in the restaurant industry going back to high school, Jorgenson decided it was time to strike out on his own.

San Carlos (www.sancarlosgrill.com) has stayed busy since the day it opened. The couple, who had an infant and a preschooler at the time, have invested so much time and effort into their business, they only recently were able to take weekends off.

The restaurant has more than doubled its seating area gradually through the years while developing a niche. After winning the Best Entrée award at the Bite of Seattle in 1995 with the herb crab chimichanga then Best Barbecue the following year, San Carlos got on the radar of Seattleites and grew to a regional appeal.

“(The food) was a little bit different to the market,” Jorgenson said.

The menu has continued to evolve and Lee still designs the specialty menu and works in the kitchen every Friday, even though he stopped being the chef after a couple of decades at San Carlos.

“I love to cook. If you want to be in the restaurant business, you have to have a passion for food,” he said.

Marianne is also involved hands-on, filling in anywhere needed, taking charge of the beverage inventory and working along with Lee every Friday.

“She’s the glue that holds everything together,” he said.

Jorgenson said among the reasons for staying successful, besides the longevity of the staff and a core customer base, is the ability to keep the business fresh.

“We work hard at staying fresh and not getting stagnant — in business, that’s very important,” he said. The changes are continuous. There’s a new tapas menu, the back deck is being expanded, and a ping-pong table will be added, as some examples.

“You can be the most creative person in the world but without a business side, it doesn’t work — you have to bring a complete package,” he said. “I think in this business, you’re almost like a Renaissance person: You have to be able to cook, tend the bar, do the public relations and human resources, fix things, design the menu; there’s so many facets to the business.”

He said variety fits his personality well, so he likes doing something different every day.

As much as the job is fun, the last couple of years have been tough, as for any business. Jorgenson said they’ve tried to maintain quality without cutting corners and the quality of service, so it’s been important not to cut back on staff. Still, the restaurant has adapted to its customers — offering things like a tiered price menu and promotions.

“Repeat business goes a long way in sustaining our business,” Jorgenson said.

Some of the business has come thanks to the couple’s extensive community involvement. The Jorgensons, who were selected Business People of the Year in 2002 by the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce, have supported events such as the island’s July Fourth fireworks, groups such as schools and churches, and projects ranging from wildlife to environmental.

“We found that if we supported them, in turn people supported us so it perpetuated business and was a great marketing approach. Reaching out in the community is win-win,” Jorgenson said.

Jorgenson said the best part for him has been the ability to pull back a little and watch the business sustain itself, despite the ups and downs of the economy. “We’re so thankful to have what we have and be able to share that with friends and the extended island family,” he said.

He does have a few words of advice for nascent entrepreneurs: Follow your passion.

“My advice to people is, don’t stop until you find what it is you have a passion for, then do it 110 percent and you’ll be successful in life,” he said. “You do need to have a talent and affinity but when you find that niche, throw that perseverance in, and you’ll succeed.”

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