At age 24, BJ Duft found himself in Bill Marriott’s private jet face-to-face with the CEO of Marriott International. They were headed back to Washington D.C. from Penn State University where Duft ’86 had gone to do some on-campus recruiting for the company and Marriott had attended a ceremony in his honor. During the flight Marriott turned to Duft and asked if he could change anything at the international hotel company, what would it be? Duft was so nervous that he has no clue what answer he managed to stammer out. What he does remember is that Marriott took a Steno notepad from his shirt pocket and carefully wrote down what Duft had said. A few days later, someone from the head office called Duft to follow up. “I was so impressed with his candor and attention to detail,” says Duft, who now is, it seems, a lifetime away from that experience.
When BJ Duft graduated from Washington State University with a degree in hotel and restaurant administration, he had his future all figured out. He had already been drawn into the Marriott Hotel chain, first as an intern and then as a full-time employee. Working in San Diego, Palm Springs, and then in the corporate office in Washington, D.C., he had management written all over him.
From that meeting with Marriott and from an understanding developed at the corporate office, Duft realized the value of minding the details and recognizing that workers may know more about certain parts of the business than the folks in the front office. But he wasn’t ready to have a corporate job for life. “It was way too early,” he says.
After five years, he cut loose from the hotel business to take a position managing the food service for a small Seattle-based Alaska cruise line. He gave that a few years, but still, the fit wasn’t right. After 10 years in corporate-style hospitality, Duft made a radical change. He found a job with the Herbfarm, a small, yet world-famous gourmet restaurant in Fall City, Washington, one of the first in the nation to specialize in using fresh, local, in-season food, some of it from the farm’s own gardens.
It was like getting away, says Duft. “I went to the country … it was enchanting.” Though he started at entry-level, he was content to plant greens and flowers instead of thinking about food standardization and cost control. “It was such an opposite,” he says. His job evolved into one of coordinating the Herbfarm’s wine and beer festivals and setting up classes. All the while, he listened to the owners’ and chefs’ philosophies for the business. He was most struck by the passion they felt for making the best meals with the freshest sustainably-raised food.
Then in 1997, a fire devastated the restaurant, causing it to close for five years. For a time Duft stayed on with the other managers, running the Herbfarm’s outreach activities and helping marshal resources to rebuild and reopen. But by that point, he had his own ideas.
Blending the business approach he learned at Marriott and the passion and respect for food he picked up at the Herbfarm, Duft and two partners struck out on their own cafe and catering venture. But starting up a food business can be complicated. Early partners leave, often it fails. As things shook out, all that remained was Duft and catering. He renamed the endeavor Herban Feast and refined its mission to connect Seattle organizations and businesses with regional farmers and food. That goal wasn’t too hard to meet since the Northwest offers a great variety of fresh and local meat, seafood, and produce, he says.
Duft made a name for the business with his willingness to seek out unusual, and especially local, ingredients. When he first started, he would meet a lettuce farmer at a park-and-ride on I-90 halfway between Seattle and the farm to pick up fresh organic greens. “I know how hard people work to produce their food,” he says of the small-scale farmers, “all the hours, driving their produce to the markets, sleeping in their trucks.”
In the summer, he takes his employees out to tour local farms because he wants them to know more about and connect with the food they’re preparing and serving.
That notion of connection is why Herban Feast maintains a booth at the West Seattle Farmer’s Market every Sunday. Though it’s not a money maker, for Duft it’s important to contribute to the community where he lives and works.
Furthering his mission of using his business to build relationships, Duft is in the process of moving Herban Feast from its headquarters in West Seattle to the industrial district south of downtown Seattle, now being called SoDo (South of Downtown).
The site, which Duft is calling SoDo Park, was built for the Stetson-Ross Machine Co. The business made equipment used for building wooden ships in the early 1900s. Step inside the brick archway and up the stairs from First Street and you’re back in early Seattle. The two-story ceilings, exposed wood beams, and 12,000 square feet of space still fill Duft with awe and excitement. He talks about how well the location can be arranged to suit parties, weddings, corporate events, and because of the rustic and recycled materials, it doesn’t feel the least bit pretentious.
The location is ideal because it is closer to many of his catering clients downtown, says Duft. The added benefit is that he’s contributing to the revival of a neighborhood, and supporting the continued existence of an old warehouse on South First Avenue that at one point was in danger of being torn down.
One of the best parts about the site, he says, is that the events there will help bring new life into an old neighborhood.