Walla Walla winery, inn link up to expand in spite of tough times

By Vicki Hillhouse, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin November 27, 2009 

WALLA WALLA -- The chef from one business. The tasting room from another. Paired together, they're Alexa Palmer's recipe for "a food and wine love affair."

A new partnership between Palmer's Fat Duck Inn bed-and-breakfast and new downtown tasting room Walla Faces is more than a passing fling, she said. In a penny-pinching economic climate, combining forces has become an increasingly popular way for businesses to build services without demolishing their budgets.

The Walla Walla B&B and the not-yet-open Walla Faces had already forged the relationship when Palmer came across a news article about businesses leaning on collaborative partnerships through the recession.

For the Fat Duck Inn and Walla Faces, here's what this looks like: Fat Duck Inn chef Charles Maddrey, who owns the business with his wife, will prepare everything from tapas to multi-course meals on behalf of Walla Faces.

The relationship supplements Maddrey and Palmer's catering operation, also filling Maddrey's passion for cooking without the expense -- and commitment -- of opening a restaurant. For Rick and Debbie Johnson, owners of Walla Faces, the food option is one more service for customers of their Main Street operation, envisioned as a combination tasting room, wine bar and gathering space.

"They've got the wine. We've got the food. They've got the space. We've got the staff," Palmer said. She said the relationship is not necessarily exclusive. Other chefs may cook for Walla Faces, which expects to have a full kitchen operating in the next couple of months. But it serves a need for the time being.

"Soon there will come a time where people will be brave again," Palmer said during an interview at the tasting room at 216 E. Main St. "But right now we've got to get creative" with business operations.

The foursome, all Seattle transplants, met a couple of years ago when Maddrey and Palmer were perusing the then-vacant property that's become the Walla Faces tasting room. The Johnsons had purchased the property -- along with other neighboring buildings, the Walla Inns and their Ahler Vineyard home off Highway 12, where they've since opened more inns -- in 2006.

Most recently home to artisan food store Rare Finds, which closed earlier this year, the tasting room space was revamped in recent months. The original brick walls are complemented by warm earth tones. A long tasting bar is illuminated by pendant lights dangling from the pressed-tin ceiling. Artwork by Rick Johnson's sister, Candice Johnson, who created the faces on the labels of wine, adorns the tasting room's walls.

The Johnsons see the space as more than a tasting room. Debbie Johnson said it will be open for receptions, meetings and gatherings. The couple plan to open their tasting room during Holiday Barrel Tasting, the first full weekend in December.

The businesses are open to serving whatever needs the public may have.

"We'll test the waters and see what people want," Palmer said.

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