Edmonds’ special little cocktail lounge thrives on farm-to-table hospitality
Kris and Kali Kelnero opened their dream cocktail lounge last year on 545 Main St. in Edmonds, only to watch a novel coronavirus threaten to shut them — and the rest of the world — down a year later. They’re still standing, because of heart and grit, and a lot of hard work, committed to remaining open and staying true to their values and ideals no matter what.
That’s a big deal.
Welcome Magazine writer Carol Banks Weber talks to co-owner Kali Kelnero for the rest of the story. (This interview took place on July 31, 2020.)
A little confusion on my part, but is it Kelnero or Kelnero’s Bar?
Kelnero. We use kelnerobar as a social media handle sometimes if Kelnero was already taken, and it forever causes confusion. We also occasionally go by the moniker, Kelnero Cocktails, but that’s only when a form requires us to have a “last name” (like on our Gmail account). But the name is quite simple, Kelnero.
What would you and Kris like Kelnero to be known for?
Amazing craft cocktails, delicious and responsibly sourced local food, and a charming atmosphere. Our community is incredibly important to us. You can find great food and drinks at many bars and restaurants, but what matters most is how you feel when you’re dining out, so it’s important to us that we are known for having a welcoming, inclusive, cozy environment.
What makes Kelnero stand out from other cocktail lounges/restaurants?
I always like to say we strive to be “classy but not pretentious.” We are willing to go to incredible lengths to develop innovative food and drinks that genuinely delight our guests, but we are never above trying something that doesn’t align with most conventional craft cocktail bar personas, and our first priority is always hospitality. For example, this summer, [we offered] a “craft slushy cocktail” program, and last summer, we launched “craft Jello shots” for our half birthday party. Both have been a big hit! Also, one of our best-selling food items are the jalapeño poppers — definitely classic bar food, but we try to make ours just a little healthier and include local ingredients.
We have a combined 25 years in the service industry, and both of us had dreams of owning a business before we met. Kris always worked in restaurants, and I bounced between teaching rock climbing, working in tech, and the service industry before settling into restaurants. When we decided to create a life together, it was a pretty easy decision to start working towards owning our own place. After getting married and traveling for a year for our honeymoon, we started saving our pennies and shopping for a location. We got jobs at Salt and Iron through an old friend of ours and they were always supportive of our plans to open a business in our hometown of Edmonds. When we found our current location, we decided to go for it and opened about three years after getting back to the U.S.
What’s the story behind the name, Kelnero?
When we got married, we wanted to share a last name, but the tradition of a wife giving up her family name to take her husband’s always seemed unfair. So we decided to create a new name together! We thought the old tradition of having a last name based on your profession (Smith, Miller, Baker, etc.) was a fun idea, so we landed on Kelnero: the Esperanto word for bartender. We liked the sound of the name and the ideals of Esperanto, which is a language created by linguists to help foster cross-border communication and diplomacy. Now, we both legally have four names, our original three plus Kelnero, so neither of us gave up our family names.
How far does Kelnero go to be farm-to-table? Obviously, it’s difficult, especially now, to source every ingredient from a local, organic farmer. As much as possible is the best anyone can do under the best of circumstances. But Kelnero comes closer than other cocktail lounges, that’s for sure.
Thank you! We work with some fantastic distributors and our local farmers market to stay in contact with local food suppliers. We always try to buy from them first; if we can’t find something from a local farm that meets our quality standards, we will look further afield. For example, all of our seafood can easily come from the Pacific Northwest, but we still love daiquiris in the winter, which requires buying citrus from elsewhere in the U.S. or even the Southern Hemisphere. We buy spirits from around the world, but we still try to support sustainable and craft producers as much as possible. Agave, as one example, is a resource threatened with over-harvesting and often subject to labor practices we’d rather not support. But these days, it’s pretty easy to find tequila and mezcal producers that take great care to accommodate the health of their environment and their people. In general, we try to keep our eyes open for opportunities to improve our social and environmental impact. Rather than worry about buying 100 percent organic or farm-to-table or fair-trade, we try to find ways to improve our supply chain at all levels with every decision. Sometimes, we can’t figure out a way to do this, but usually we can — the important thing is to always try. We do pay more for a lot of our ingredients as a result of this, but in return, we get some of the best ingredients available.
Why is offering farm-to-table important for you as a business, when it could be easier/simpler to do what everyone else does — go for store-bought, mass-produced convenience?
We love supporting our local farmers. We believe eating and drinking locally and seasonally is an important step towards environmentally and socially sustainable food systems, and something that everyone should strive for. We let the same ethics that guide our personal lives inform our business choices. It isn’t always easy, but if it’s the right thing to do, it feels much easier. Additionally, local, seasonal, and farm-fresh ingredients taste the best!
What are some of your best farm-to-table dishes and libations?
In order to support local farms, we must rotate our food menu heavily to maintain seasonality and adapt to what our farmers can offer us. That being said, some of my current favorite victuals include our Albacore Sashimi, Halloumi, and Jalapeño Summer Salad, and libations include our Watermelon Lemonade Slushy and the Kelnero Martini. Here are more details about each of these items:
Jalapeño Summer Salad: Spring Time Farm lettuce, jalapeño, Olympia Provisions capicola ham, roasted Cabrera Farms cherry tomatoes, Pure Nelida Farm zucchini, rustic croutons, and creamy bleu cheese dressing
Watermelon Lemonade Slushy: Bellinger Farms watermelons, lemons, sugar. This one is fantastic both with and without alcohol, so we leave it spirit-free and let you enjoy it as is or add a shot of whatever you like.
Kelnero Martini: your choice of Potato Vodka or Martini Style Gin from Edmonds-based Scratch Distillery, with dry vermouth from Imbue Cellars in Oregon. Garnished with bleu cheese-stuffed olives and a slice of Olympia Provisions salami.
What other popular menu items would you recommend?
The sunchoke dip, crusted duck wings, and jalapeño poppers are some of our most popular food items. It’s really hard to narrow down our cocktail list to a few favorites, but the Black Walnut Manhattan and Black Rosé are our best-sellers, and the Basil Limeade and Red Velvet are some of our most popular zero-proof cocktails.
Kelnero survived the worst of the COVID pandemic by switching to takeout. What’s business been like since the March lockdown, and Snohomish County moving to Phase 2 of reopening?
It was very difficult to transition to takeout, because it isn’t a straightforward pivot for our concept. We had to reconsider everything, especially in the beginning before we were allowed to sell cocktails to go. We created a marketplace, so we could continue supporting our local farmers and developed a new food menu that would be more conducive to takeout dining. We were thrilled when takeout liquor was legalized, as that let us get back to what we do best, craft cocktails. When Snohomish County entered Phase 2, demand for takeout options began to decline, so we shifted our focus back to on-premise dining. That was actually one of the most difficult transitions both because we are adamant about maintaining a safe environment for both our staff and guests, and because Kris had to get an emergency appendectomy two days after we entered Phase 2. We took our time, but got settled into our new on-premise dining protocol and now our sales are doing better. When we first launched takeout, our sales were down about 90 percent, but we have been steadily building that back up and are now getting close to where we were last summer. Edmonds’ Walkable Main Street program — which allows us to offer seating on the sidewalk and in the parking lane every weekend — has contributed a lot towards recouping some of the losses we suffered during the initial weeks of the shutdown.
Covid forced a lot of small business artisans to band together, strength in numbers, sharing resources, promoting each other on social media, partnering up in creative ways. Conor O’Neill of Cottage at Blue Ridge brought his popular bread popup over to Kelnero most Wednesdays this past spring/summer. What other partnerships, resource sharing is on the horizon? Why is this important to you and Kris, rather than everyone for themselves, especially now?
Edmonds is a small town, and us small business owners generally know each other personally. None of us would ever abandon our friends in a time of need! Many business owners and business organizations, including our Chamber of Commerce and Ed!, our Business Improvement District, reached out to us to offer support, and we tried to do the same whenever possible. Conor’s pop-ups were a smash hit and we look forward to working with him as one of our local food vendors while he transitions to a new license and can hopefully offer us wholesale options soon!
When Edmonds created the Walkable Main Street program, it offered a huge relief to restaurants by allowing us to increase our seating capacity on weekends. Unfortunately, some of our retailers actually experienced a drop in sales. In order to help our neighbors, we reached out first to the retailer that is physically closest to us, Rogue Boutique. Kimberly, the owner of Rogue, created a special card that we handed out to all of our guests to encourage them to wander across the street and support a local merchant. We are considering other similar promotions to help other retailers boost sales for the remainder of the program, which is scheduled to run through August. We are also trying to reach out to our fellow business owners more frequently just to check in on how they’re doing, and brainstorm ideas to overcome various challenges that we’re all facing. As with our farm-to-table ethics, it’s important that we are always looking for ways to support our community these days, both because it’s a good thing to do and because every business in Edmonds does best when everyone is thriving.
Is Kelnero currently open for dine in?
We are open for dine in, but are only offering outdoor seating. Outdoor dining is quite simply safer, so we prefer to keep everything outdoors. And as long as this weather holds, there’s no reason not to! We converted our back parking area into seating, and we have our deck. Between those two seating areas and street seating on weekends, we are able to provide a sustainable number of tables while maintaining social distancing and keeping everyone outside. And yes, Snohomish is currently in Phase 2, and it looks like we’ll be here for a while.
Any new items/events planned in the near-future? What’s planned for the fall/winter seasons? What tends to be popular then?
Our half birthday is coming up on August 13. Last year, we threw one swinging party and had an absolute blast! We are currently brainstorming ways that we can celebrate without encouraging crowding. Perhaps we’ll offer some takeout specials.
As for fall and winter, that is still a pretty big question mark. As you know, the status of this virus and our legal system’s response to it changes frequently. I don’t think it’s beneficial for us to make firm plans without knowing what our case count will be. That being said, we are weighing our options for what we’ll do as the weather starts to cool down. We will continue to offer takeout as long as we are allowed to at the least, and as we progress towards containing the virus, we plan to offer indoor seating as soon as it is safe to do so. In the meantime, we’ll do our best to make our outdoor seating as comfortable as possible.
As for specific items, we are looking forward to bringing back apple, pumpkin, and golden beet-coriander shrubs and corresponding cocktails, as well as our hot drinks list (including the Bawdy Toddy with Scratch Distillery’s Barrel Aged Pepper Vodka). Last year, some of our most popular cold-weather food dishes were the Pacific Northwest Poutine, Smoked Salmon Chowder, and Hama Hama oysters on the half shell.
What’s been the most rewarding part of running your own small business in such a supportive artsy town like Edmonds?
Definitely the community we’ve fostered at Kelnero. Our guests and staff bring all the life to our bar, and witnessing the birthdays, engagements, anniversaries, blossoming romances, and building all of our new friendships has brought tears to our eyes on many occasions. Opening the bar has also introduced us to a new community of business owners throughout Edmonds and surrounding towns, as well as our food and beverage vendors and other partners. We’ve become part of an incredibly welcoming, supportive group of entrepreneurs. Particularly now that we are all going through a pandemic together, the bonds we’ve formed have become even stronger.