Graze makes big bet on China Café spot in Kennewick

Graze – a Place to Eat is making its biggest bet ever on the Tri-Cities with a new location planned in the former China Café spot in Kennewick.

Graze owners Rebecca and John Lastoskie bought the restaurant at 131 N. Ely St. in July and expect to open it in mid-2022 following a down-to-the-studs renovation that will rid it of its “former Pizza Hut” vibe.

It will be the fifth outlet for Graze, which is based in Walla Walla and has locations in Kennewick and Richland. It prepares most of its food in a 3,800-square-foot commissary in Walla Walla.

John Lastoskie said the expense is significant, though he declined to disclose the budget.

“We just hope to not run out of money. That could really be a quote,” he said.

The couple, operating as Graze LLC, paid $1.23 million for the former China Café building. The restaurant closed for good on Nov. 30. The former operators were still removing items in early December.

The Lastoskies had long identified it as a location they wanted for their business. The building, originally constructed in 1975, shares a parking lot with REI, Gold’s Gym, Starbucks and other destination businesses.

“We’ve driven around the Tri-Cities a lot looking for where we wanted to go next. For some reason, we’ve always pointed at that building and said we want to go there,” he said.

REI customers, gym users and coffee drinkers are “our people,” he said.

He expects to submit building plans to the city of Kennewick in December and is pushing to open in July or August, though it could take longer.

While Graze does most of its cooking in Walla Walla, the newest Kennewick restaurant will have two high-speed ovens, which Lastoskie said should speed up cooking times and improve customer service. The new equipment is part of a makeover that will transform the building’s appearance.

“We have to do a lot. We are completely taking off the roof and doing a new shape when it’s finished,” Lastoskie said. “It won’t look anything like it looks.”

Graze makes sauces and some salad dressings in its restaurants, along with slicing, dicing and mixing. But the heavy-duty cooking occurs in Walla Walla.

“We’ve taken most of the complicated kitchen tasks out of the sandwich shops,” he said.

The commissary can support more locations, though Lastoskie said the company wants to get through the current one before it commits to anything new.

“If we don’t go bankrupt on 395, we would love to be on Road 68. And then from there, it’s probably Spokane or Yakima if we’re dumb enough,” he said.

Lastoskie said Graze’s new Richland location – it moved from The Parkway to Park Place – has been a win. Sales are up and the newly developed Park Place at the entrance to Howard Amon Park on George Washington Way has better parking.

“We’re selling significantly more food on that busy street with easy access (to George Washington Way),” he said.

Lastoskie said staffing, a challenge for the food service industry, has been eased by raising the company’s wages and reinstating tips after changes in federal law brought more clarity. Employees average between $18 and $21 an hour, he said, adding that it makes recruitment easier.

The Lastoskies are launching a new initiative this winter. They’re publishing a book about the business, including all the ingredients in all the recipes.

He said while Graze has not gone organic and local for logistical reasons, it focuses on wholesome and humble food at a fair price.

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