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Women in the Workplace: Marination

What do you do when the world hands you a lemon? Folk wisdom says you make lemonade. The Marination duo had a different answer: Make Hawaiian-Korean tacos.Marination3

Marination is a crazy, runaway success story that co-owner Kamala Saxton likes to talk about.  The story began five years ago when Kamala and co-owner Roz Edison, had some financial reverses, like many of us who weathered the Great Recession.

Roz and Kamala became acquainted while both were working in educational programs in Boston. Kamala, a one-time Seattleite who grew up in Hawaii and California, has degrees in education and public policy and a professional background at the Gates Foundation. Roz, who was born in Greece and has lived in Romania, is Chinese and Filipina and was raised by a Japanese mom.

When times grew difficult, the two made the decision to return to Seattle roots and, what the heck, see what they could do with a food truck.

The two women pioneered with home-made marinades and a saucy Asian-fusion cuisine. At the time, no one locally had ever envisioned a Hawaiian Korean Taco, much less tried to market one. But to everyone’s surprise, the menu item sold briskly from the women’s mobile Marination, a sleek truck they dubbed “Big Blue.”

Marination1After a couple of years of run-away mobile success, the partners dipped their toes in the brick-and-mortar water and opened Marination Station, a location on Capitol Hill at Broadway and Pike Street. The following year, the ladies discovered that the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department was seeking proposals for an outlet on Alki Beach, opposite the West Seattle Water Taxi terminus.

With only three days to go before the deadline, they pulled some all-nighters to construct a sound business plan for Marination Ma Kai (“near the sea”). The proposal was a success and now West Seattle commuters have a reason to linger on the beach enjoying the tangy cuisine and even hoist a beverage or two.

All three Marination outlets are doing a brisk business, although the restaurant trade, even when joyful, isn’t even remotely a sure road to riches.

Kamala says with dismay, “I’m not sure we can expand any further.” She faces rising costs and then there’s Seattle’s recently mandated $l5 minimum wage that is guaranteed to cut into the profits. Kamala points out that protein prices – beef prices in particular – are up 32 percent in the past year. And then there’s the need to buy compostables, products that meet Seattle’s recycling rules. Kamala says, “That adds $17,000 a year alone.”

Kamala  states that it’s her goal to keep Marination’s prices reasonable. She adds, “I want it to be affordable so that a family of four can have a meal out.” At Marination Ma Kai on Alki, it’s not only the food that draws, but the ambiance of outdoor seating and the great view. When schedule permits, Kamala and Roz offer the outlet to PTAs and other nonprofits as an event venue, contributing a percentage to worthwhile causes.

Marination2

The very popular kimchi and kalua pork quesadilla

On a recent August day when the Seattle legislative staff water-taxied over, Marination’s indoor and outdoor tables were full of a happy lunchtime trade. We sampled the famous Hawaiian-Korean tacos as well as kalua pork sliders, perfectly grilled slices of spam on a paddy cake of rice, a kimchi quesadilla, specially spiced slaw and, of course, the unique Nunya sauce, which can be purchased for take home.  The popular fish and chips are renowned, having won “best in Seattle” twice.

Roz and Kamala’s fearless next step is to open in Pioneer Square, although the enterprise will debut mainly as a bar.  As they’ve discovered, the economics favor bar operations over food outlets.

Despite obstacles, Kamala likes owning her own business, likes self-determination and being her own boss. Asked how she manages to stay so trim when she’s constantly surrounded by such tempting foods, Kamala replies that in her spare time – what little there is, she’s a crossfit coach, teaching a 5 a.m. class in Columbia City.

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