Last year became notorious for so many famous and exceptional people passing away. Even Eastlake wasn’t immune. One of its stars, Susan Kaufman, founder of the restaurant Serafina and its “bratty little sister,” as Susan called Cicchetti, passed away last July due to complications from cancer. She was 64.
“Creating community was the most important thing for her,” said her niece Kika Westhof, who was part of Susan’s Brooklyn and New Jersey roots. Kika remembers seeing Susan a lot on the East Coast where the family lived and on the West where she and her sister helped out at the restaurant when they were about five or six bringing customers cups of coffee.
One of the first things Susan did before Serafina was even open, recalled Chris Leman, long-time neighborhood activist and Eastlake Community Council volunteer, was donate a dinner for two gift certificate to an ECC fundraising auction. After Serafina opened, Susan held many community appreciation gatherings at the restaurant, taking out a full-page ad in the Eastlake News in the form of a handwritten invitation to all.
She was involved in countless community events and activism including serving on the ECC board of directors and co-chairing the Main Street committee charged with developing the business district portion of the Eastlake Neighborhood Plan, a plan that was adopted by the city in 1998. In 2015 she helped with the redesign of welcome signs for Eastlake, signs that will soon mark major entrance roads.
Serafina was a hit from the day it opened in 1991, popular in the neighborhood and regionwide, earning rave press reviews for its food, ambiance, music; known as a place to come for special occasions or to make any occasion special.
Before eating locally grown food became popular, Susan grew vegetables and herbs for the restaurant at her nearby home on Franklin Ave.
As Seattle Weekly contributor, Zach Geballe, noted in a personal tribute to Susan, his stepmom, last July shortly after she died, “… Italian food in Seattle was rarely more than spaghetti and meatballs, or maybe fettucine Alfredo if you were feeling bold. Her embrace of the rustic cuisine of Italy—a cuisine that may not have been hers by birth but was certainly a fixture in her life—helped pave the way for the legion of similar restaurants that have followed in its wake. Yet all I can think about in this moment is the profound impact she had on my life.”
Marilyn and Michael de Guzman, long-time Eastlake residents, echoed that sentiment. “She had a larger impact than most people on her surroundings,” one of them told me as we sat around the kitchen island in their home.
They could recall the exact moment Susan came into their lives and also what had been at the corner of Eastlake Ave. and Boston Street, before Serafina took root.
It had been a deli known as Nick and Sully’s whose owner, Lisa, sold the place to Susan and two of her business associates and took a job as a cook on a fishing vessel, the last they knew of her.
Brown paper went up on the windows of the vacant storefront, but you could tell the place was abuzz with activity. One day as Marilyn and Michael were walking by, the door was ajar. They poked their heads inside where they saw a lot of construction and a short, dark-haired woman working away.
“What’s going on in here?” Marilyn called into the space.
“Oh my god, you’re from New York!” cried the woman, Susan. “Come on in!”
“We loved her from the time we met her,” said Michael, “She was a good person to have in our lives.”
They saw Susan through a lot of life transitions: the opening of Serafina, her original business partners moving on, a marriage, the adoption from Mexico of her daughter, Isabella, divorce, the opening of Cicchetti, and cancer. She never stopped planning for the future, they said.
And “she never bit her tongue,” said Kika with a smile. “She always said exactly what was on her mind.”
As a teenager Kika worked at Serafina during summers and eventually moved to Seattle to work there full time, rising to a management position. She has since moved on but keeps tabs on the restaurant. We spoke at a café near where she lives in Hillman City.
“In her Brooklyn way, she was a bold force that, maybe people in Seattle especially when she first came here (in the 1980s) weren’t used to. Everyone knew her when she went out in the neighborhood. She was compassionate and interested in people. She had an amazing way of communicating with people.”
“She had a wonderful sense of humor,” Marilyn said.
She designated a group of her regulars, her consiglio or consiglieri, the de Guzmans told me with a laugh. Do you know what that is? Like the advisor in The Godfather? Yes!
They explained; Susan’s consiglio was a group of about 12 people including them, whom she met with regularly to get feedback about the business. It changed over the years as people moved in and out of the area, and she was sincere about getting advice and listening, they said.
Not that she went along with everything the consiglio advised. David Weeks, the General Manager for both restaurants, wrote in an email, “When Susan dug her heels in…man!”
She had an idea of what she wanted for Serafina – the food, the place, the people, and she never stopped striving to achieve it. She knew how to hire people “who got the culture,” said Kika. A few of the servers have been there for over a decade, and others who’ve left come back to work again.
“She was good to people,” said Michael, adding “she was like an orchestra conductor trying to get each section to perfection.”
For inspiration and ideas, she took frequent trips to Europe, especially Italy, visiting wineries and restaurants, taking the chefs, or the wait staff, or the sommelier with her.
On one trip she went to Borgo Antico a restaurant in Florence that the de Guzmans loved and recommended. It was right under the apartment they had stayed at and waiters would shout up to their window when their table was ready. As Michael was telling me this story he pointed out two placemats framed, on the wall behind me. They had two different designs of Borgo Antico, from two different eras. One the de Guzmans had brought back, the other Susan had.
Michael took it off the wall to show me. Across the bottom, as if she wanted to get a word into the conversation, was her hand-written note, “Some memories stay with you forever. This one we get to share. Love always, Susan.”
Eighteen years after opening Serafina, Susan opened a new restaurant, Cicchetti, next door. The following year, 2010, she was feted with the Nellie Cashman Business Owner of the Year award given by the Women Business Owners association. The legendary Cashman had been a nurse, restaurateur, gold prospector, and philanthropist.
Susan similarly had a wide variety of interests and passions she made successful. As a teenager she designed and made handbags that were sold at Bergdorf’s in New York. She started numerous businesses over the years; the seed money for Serafina came from selling off a salad dressing business; and she was an incredible photographer, said Marilyn. Some of her photography is on display at Serafina.
“She was very empowering for other women,” said Kika. “She was a self-made woman who did everything on her own. She advised a lot of people. It was important to her to be a role model and help people figure out careers or personal things.”
“She was a mentor to hundreds of people,” added Marilyn. “If you had a problem, you went to Susan, and she helped you. She was a fast friend and took care of a lot of people.”
“She had a huge heart,” added Kika. “She cared so much for other people and it showed in how she managed the business, cared for employees and took care of her daughter.”
Last summer, when she heard the news that her aunt had just three weeks to live, Kika flew home from a sojourn in Spain. She helped her mother and Susan’s close friend Kokie take care of Susan. At first Susan was fine joking about how well she felt. “Are they sure I’m dying?” she asked. She saw friends and entertained just about every night as she always had; many people came by.
It was a good time, but by week three Susan was slowing down. She was ready, said Kika. She had fought breast cancer for twenty years, a recurrence happened every four or five years, but she would largely brush it off. “I haven’t finished yet,” she would say. But this time was different. She accepted she was dying, which made it easier for her inner circle to accept. Easier but not easy. A role model to the end.
“Serafina was never better than in the last couple of years,” said Michael. “It was as if all the instruments seemed to come together.”
Always planning for the future, Susan had a succession plan in place for the restaurants.
It was her intention that the people who had been with the restaurant a long time, including her lawyer and accountant, carry on Serafina and Cicchetti. She did not want an outside buyer, Kika noted.
She set up a board of directors, which Kika’s mother, Lisa Frigand, serves on. Last spring, Susan hired David Weeks as General Manager. “She was looking for someone she could trust to carry out her legacy.”
Weeks along with Christian Chandler, Executive Chef of both restaurants, Cody Westerfield, Head Chef of Cicchetti, Annie Kuclick, Manager of Cicchetti, Kelley Kieser, Assistant General Manager for both restaurants, and Salomon Navarro, Sommelier, are involved in the day-to-day running of the restaurants.
The board of directors helps guide the bigger picture and of course there is the consiglio, and all the regulars, to keep everyone on track. No one is shy about speaking up if they think things aren’t going the way Susan would have wanted them.
Susan left a big hole, said Kika, and it is still difficult for the people who worked with her, but everyone is helping out.
“My vision and ambition were greatly influenced by Susan prior to her passing,” wrote Weeks in an email. “We discussed many things about the culture and business that she had worked so hard to develop over the years. So her coaching me from the beginning, helped me understand what it is that she would have wanted. Susan welcomed every guest into these restaurants as if she were opening the front door to her home.
“All I want to do is freshen up both spaces and continue to offer great food, excellent hospitality, and wonderful drinks! Christian and Cody have their menus dialed in,so I feel like we are doing well on that front.”
Most of the updates over the next few months will be aesthetic, he notes. Serafina is well-established, Cicchetti is the big focus. “It is such a special place that Cody, Annie, and the rest of the crew have worked so hard for the last seven years to build.” He encourages the 98102 neighborhood to check it out.
The restaurants are in really good hands, added Kika with a smile, with their distinct vibe and atmosphere and where Susan would want them to be.
“Nothing’s changing,” said Marilyn, “She’s still there!”
Photo of Susan Kaufman above. Sketches of Serafina, Cicchetti, and Cicchetti’s chandelier by Karen Berry.