Allister Bets Big on the Bennett’s Space

August 31, 2023 | by Naomi Tomky

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allister owner Sara Seumae McAllister | Photos by Brooke Fitts for My Mercer Island

In February 2020, Mercer Island lost a staple of the local restaurant scene when Bennett’s Bistro shut its doors after 15 years. The large and central space will have been empty for more than four years when allister opens in the spring of 2024.

Entrepreneur and islander Sara Seumae McAllister has grand plans to create the ideal restaurant for the community, serving new American cuisine: “good steaks, roasted chicken, pasta,” she describes. She’s planning big tables for groups and families, lots of outdoor seating, and a new layout that relocates the bar area to create a more open and welcoming feeling to the restaurant. But McAllister mostly hopes to bring the innate hospitality she knew growing up Persian to a restaurant. “We communicate through food,” she says. “If you ever come over, I will give you way too much food.”

In 2008, McAllister founded a clothing company called Spun, which she ran online and on Seattle’s Capitol Hill for about a decade. Faced with relocating the business in a time of personal financial uncertainty, she shuttered Spun and took a job as a product manager for Amazon. But her entrepreneurial spirit carried on, and after spending one too many evenings wondering when she would be able to grab a nice family dinner or drinks with friends without having to leave the island, she thought, “Nobody else is going to do this, why don’t I?”

Since the pandemic started, she had been contemplating what was important to her and her family. McAllister’s first job was washing dishes at a sandwich shop, and the food industry always held her heart. She thought about the little mom-and-pop restaurants she frequented in the International District, and how they make guests feel like they are eating at grandma’s table. “That’s the atmosphere I’m looking to create,” she says. “I want this to be an extension of my home, where it feels like you are coming over and I am taking care of you.”

She and her husband, Ian McAllister, put together a sample menu and logo, but then they got professionals involved, starting with a commercial real estate agent who one day brought them to the former Bennett’s space. “We walked in and it just felt right,” she remembers. “I could just imagine how we would remodel and update some things.” The space was bigger and pricier than they planned, but the agent encouraged them to make a pitch to the island-based owners, who appreciated her local, community-forward approach and they were able to make an agreement.

While she started Spun by blustering through on youthful energy and optimism, solving problems as they sprung up, McAllister’s approach to the restaurant reflects her maturity as a businesswoman. She sees her role as hospitality, and is hiring experienced professionals to create the vision, including designers, consultants, and an executive chef to lead the kitchen. Most importantly, she is excited to incorporate the same thing to which she credits her success with Spun and Amazon: customer input. Having lived on the island since 2006, McAllister has many thoughts on what the island needs and hopes to build a restaurant that fits the community. But she also plans to listen carefully to what islanders want to see, drink, and eat in the space. “I want to take care of them,” she says. “To make this a place they can be proud of.”