By Christina Harper For HBJ
Shawn O’Donnell has a favorite table at his restaurant.
It’s where he can take a break and enjoy a cup of coffee while he keeps an eye on who comes through the door and what’s happening at his Shawn O’Donnell’s American Grill and Irish Pub on 128th Street SE in Everett.
But he doesn’t sit for long.
O’Donnell has his hands full with his busy restaurant — an institution for years in Snohomish County — and his just-opened Seattle location.
One or two days a week, O’Donnell, 54, heads to the Smith Tower on Second Avenue in Seattle to work with his son, Shawn O’Donnell Jr.. The space seats 100 people and had been in limbo for some time.
O’Donnell secured a 15-year lease and instead of spending up to $400,000 on the venture, costs came in closer to $100,000.
As a young man it was always a dream for O’Donnell to own a business. The Mountlake Terrace High School graduate first bought a coin-operated laundry business in Richmond Beach.
“There was very little experience needed,” O’Donnell said.
He and his brother-in-law soon saw the opportunity for a business in Mountlake Terrace. With out any marketing, they gave it a thought. “What can we do here?” O’Donnell said.
They decided to open a sandwich shop. It was next to O’Donnell’s wife’s business, Tina’s Hair Salon, which is still in operation after 34 years.
The sandwich shop was a hit and a question from a customer got O’Donnell thinking.
“A guy came in, I was 27 at the time, and asked if I’d ever thought of opening a bigger restaurant,” O’Donnell said.
He then opened the 41st Street Bar and Grill in Everett in 1987. He changed the name to Shawn O’Donnell’s in 1996. It was a hard first couple of years, always a struggle financially, but O’Donnell thinks of those times as “enjoyable challenges,” he said.
In 2006 O’Donnell decided to move farther south to the 128th Street location.
“I didn’t own the property,” on 41st, O’Donnell said. “I grabbed my jacket and walked away.”
It was a time when money was easy to raise and O’Donnell bought the lot on which he would build his new restaurant, which seats 186. His Irish heritage — his family is from a small hamlet near Tipperary — decided the theme.
Like many businesses it hasn’t always been easy for O’Donnell and his staff, many of whom are family and friends.
“We came very, very close to losing it all in ‘08 and ‘09,” he said. “Hats off to vendors and bankers that helped us.”
Business turned around and the last couple of years have been good to O’Donnell’s, so much so that on Nov. 4 he opened the Seattle location. “When you walk in, you know it’s a Shawn O’Donnell’s,” he said.
With the Irish theme and maintaining the brand menu, O’Donnell has kept his son, who is running the restaurant, very busy.
O’Donnell said he used to think that one great recipe was what was needed for a successful place to eat. He has learned it’s not one thing. “It’s 100 little things,” he said.
Great staff is a must and O’Donnell credits his children, who grew up in the restaurant business, with hard work and dedication.
“They helped us go from mom-and-pop to an organization,” O’Donnell said. “They do a much better job at systems and marketing.”
O’Donnell’s daughter, Sophie O’Donnell, and her brother are h University of Washington graduates as is a niece who works in the business.
The company has nine employees with bachelor’s degrees and two with master’s degrees.
Sophie O’Donnell said that although she had worked with her father throughout her high school and college years, she would give the restaurant business two years full time. If it didn’t work out she’d go to law school.
Her two years are up and Sophie O’Donnell is staying.
“Law school is not going to happen,” she said. “It’s a good decision.”
Sophie O’Donnell was 16 years old when her dad built his Irish restaurant. She sees more opportunity for her career as the business grows especially now that there is a second location.
“I’m very, very lucky to have my kids in the business,” he said. “It’s a dream come true.”