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Cactus Restaurants

Cactus: How To Survive in the Restaurant Industry For 25 Years


This year, Cactus celebrated its 25th anniversary. Twenty five years(!) is a long time and, to be honest, it feels like dog years in the hyper competitive, always changing, perpetual motion of the restaurant industry. Since our first day in 1990, so much has changed. Case in point—when we opened in 1990, you could smoke in our restaurant. The internet was still 10 years away from commercial and public acceptance and food trucks were only found on construction sites peddling pre-made sandwiches and other questionable fare. In fact, here is the Seattle Times list of the best restaurants of 1990:

10. Casa U Betcha, 2212 First Ave.

9. Buddy’s Homesick Cafe, 8420 Greenwood Ave. N.

8. Buongusto, 2232 Queen Anne Ave. N.

7. Le Tastevin, 19 W. Harrison St.

6. Confetti’s at the Everett Marina

5. Ponti Seafood Grill, 3014 Third Ave. N.

4. Union Square Grill, 621 Union St.

3. A tie between two well-seasoned dinner houses: Canlis, 2576 Aurora Ave. N. and Gerard’s Relais de Lyon, 17121 Bothell Way N.E.

1. Szmania’s, 3321 W. McGraw St., Magnolia.

As you may note, only Ponti and Canlis have survived—congratulations to Rich Malia and the Canlis family. Coincidentally, we have thrived during this period with our sales having increased over 4300%. How have we done this?

Our guests are loyal, regular and, after 25 years, have developed favorites and strong preferences. When you’ve been around for this long, change is a necessity—we need to keep our regulars engaged and interested. We feel compelled to improve at all times, in all ways. We’ve always held that there are no sacred cows on the menu at Cactus. Being stagnant with our menu is a recipe for decline. Plus, tastes, techniques, products and trends are always changing and providing an opportunity to reinvent and innovate. We’ve found that changing anything on our menu can be really tricky and, honestly, a bit scary. However, we are dedicated to moving forward and innovating. In fact, we estimate that over the past 25 years, we’ve created over 3000 unique menu items and some of those were actually very, very good and often copied around town.

We also own a restaurant called Tavern Hall. We wanted to do nachos for this concept so we did something different than what we do at Cactus. We chose to do nachos with melted cheese and thicker chips. The feedback was so extremely positive. We found that the cheese coverage was way better, the flavor was great and, most importantly, the nachos were just as good after 30 minutes as when they first left the kitchen. Based on our drive to innovate and improve, we decided to apply the lessons learned at the Tavern to the Cactus nachos. While we suspected this change would be a problem for some, we hoped the majority of our guests would be pleased with the change and everyone else would come around.

After two weeks of this change, it became apparent that we reached and made a mistake. Our regulars were very vocal that this change wasn’t an improvement. We took their intensity as a compliment but it was impossible to ignore. So, we changed the recipe back to the old one and restored order to our universe.

We promise to keep innovating and we are committed to listening to our guests and correcting any mistakes we make along the way. We feel that both of these traits are a huge reason we’ve been around longer than 99.5% of the restaurants that have ever opened in the city of Seattle. We hope they’ll help us serve you for another 25 years.

BTW—nachos with our housemade chorizo are amazing! We hope to see you soon.

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