Lots of industrial jobs are coming to the Kent Valley, south of Seattle, businesses that make everything from ice sculptures to airplane parts. But workers today don’t want to carry a metal lunch pail to work everyday. They want to go out.
Restaurants and pubs are trying to capitalize on those hungry workers with money in their pockets. But it’s tricky in Kent, because the modern city was laid out to keep industry and restaurants far away from each other.
It seemed like a pretty good idea at the time. Factories used to cause a lot more pollution. So planners decided: the factories and warehouses would go over here, and the restaurants and stores go over there. Today, that's a problem. Even in cities with lots of manufacturing, people expect the city to feel more like South Lake Union and less like ... well, Kent.
Edward Reichenbach puts it this way: “There’s nothing here.”
Reichenbach likes to go to restaurants, parties, concerts and sporting events. "Big city activities," he calls them. He likes these things so much, he refuses to live in Kent, preferring to beat down here every morning from his place in Seattle.
Still, today, he’s hanging out after work at a Kent taproom, the Airways Brewing Company. They have an aviation theme; there's a Boeing nose cone hanging on the wall. They have an IPA beer called Sky Hag, which Brewery owner Dione Dittmar explains is an insulting term for flight attendants.
“It’s just a little bit of an inside joke," she says. "A lot of our flight attendant customers find it funny. Some, not so much.”
Previously, the brewery had one location, a little farther away. When it came time to open a second location, a taproom, they plopped it right next to Blue Origin.
Devin Vezetinski stopped by after work. She and a co-worker are showing a potential Blue Origin employee a little of what Kent has to offer.
“You’ve got to have those places close by," she says. "If you’re just living in a purely industrial compound and city, then how do you get lunch? How do you go grab a beer with your coworkers?”
As we talk, one of the directors of Blue Origin walks in: Walt McCleery. All eyes turn his way, as he orders his favorite beer, the New Shepard. He says it’s named after a Blue Origin rocket, one of the first to successfully return to earth. “That’s the beer I drink every time I come in here,” he says.
Airways Brewing has prospered in part by locating themselves right in the middle of an industrial neighborhood. But what happens when you’re not located in the middle of that manufacturing growth?
Businesses in the older commercial areas that were traditionally separated from industry have to do a little more work to capture a piece of the pie.
That's what happened with Ezell’s Famous Chicken. With hungry workers nearby, company owner Lewis Rudd knew Ezell's had what people in Kent needed when he opened the Kent branch about eight years ago. “What we have is a very special battering process... that locks out the oils and seals in the natural chicken juices,” he says.
And it's not like he didn't have customers. Ezell's had built a considerable reputation over the years (with a little publicity from Oprah Winfrey) at its original location in Seattle’s Central District, across from Garfield High School.
When they opened their Kent location, they started seeing some familiar customers. “One of the things we realized was that a lot of the families that lived in the Central District – in the black community there – had migrated south, out to the Kent area,” says Rudd. That gave Ezell’s a solid, loyal customer base.
But to reach all the workers at the manufacturing and corporate jobs farther away, Rudd had to make some changes.
Rudd started using a delivery service called Peach, which delivers large quantities of food to workers. Now, every morning before the lunch rush, employees at Ezell's spend their time filling white bags headed for offices and factories. Rudd contracted with a franchisee who parks an Ezell's Express food truck outside places like Blue Origin. And finally, Rudd convinced his landlord to add better lighting and the Kent Police to patrol his parking lot more frequently.
These changes continue to entice more members of Kent's growing workforce to stop by for chicken on their way home from work.
“As Kent grows, Ezell’s grows. As Ezell’s grows, Kent grows," says Rudd. "It’s a win-win.”
KUOW's Region of Boom Team is reporting from the Kent Industrial Valley this month. After that, they head to Bremerton. You can reach reporter Joshua McNichols by email or use our story idea submission form.