Restaurateur Applies Lessons Learned at Starbucks

It was a bold move for Gabe Wiborg to leave Starbucks and open an unconventional restaurant in a relentlessly competitive Seattle market. Fortunately, going bold was something Wiborg learned at Starbucks.

For eight years, beginning in 2007, Wiborg worked in research and development for Starbucks. He focused on product development, market research and transforming an idea into something tangible.

“It was the right place to be,” Wiborg said. “I tried to get involved in as many ways as possible. Starbucks was like my MBA, only I was giving as much as I took away. Working in research and development gave me a lot of insight into creating recipes and concepts.”

Some of what he’s taken away has gone into Soi, a flourishing restaurant he launched last summer with his Thailand-born wife, Yuie Helseth. Located in Seattle’s humming Capitol Hill neighborhood, Soi (Thai for a side street that branches into a major street) opened in August and quickly hit its stride, winning glowing reviews and a steady stream of diners.

A Departure from Expectations

Soi represents the third and most ambitious step in Wiborg and his wife’s journey with Thai food. When they married in 2010, they’d already put in four years as a popular farmer’s market fixture, starting out with just a few dishes Helseth learned in her homeland and eventually expanding into salads and main dishes.

The goal was to take home $250 each weekend, but as their menu expanded, so did their level of commitment to what had been a hobby. More offerings meant setting aside time daily to prep for Sundays at the market. Meanwhile, Wiborg was up every weekday and off to the Starbucks Support Center (the company’s Seattle headquarters).

The couple maintained vague thoughts of “something bigger,” with the notion of a breaking-the-mold restaurant specializing in the spicy, pungent cuisine of northeast Thailand being their most ambitious concept. They opted to put that idea on the backburner, however, while Helseth returned to Thailand to hone her culinary skills and work began on a first foray into the restaurant world – Banyan Tree in Kent, 20 miles south of Seattle.

“The Banyan Tree concept was familiar Thai dishes done well and the original way, with a few surprises mixed in,” Wiborg said.

With their first business doing well, the couple began to lay the groundwork for what would become Soi – a departure from normal expectations of Thai food in Seattle. A year and a half was spent looking over 50 different sites before a space in a renovated building in Seattle’s nightlife hub was selected. They consciously opted to leave the word “Thai” out of the signage so that patrons wouldn’t come in expecting customary dishes like pad Thai or red curry. Even the airy, modern look of the room makes a statement: Soi isn’t about standard fare.

‘I learned from Starbucks’

Wiborg, who left Starbucks last spring to devote all his attention to his restaurants, said he’s applying a fundamental lesson he learned in his years there to Soi.

“What I got out of Starbucks was how to look at things differently,” he said. “Most restaurants are scared to do something different. I learned from Starbucks how to be bold and create a new space for this food.”

We'd love to hear from other Starbucks alumni. Contact Linda Thomas to share a story.

For those interested in working at Starbucks, visit the Career Center.

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