Picking out the New Yorkers in the crowd at a recent gathering at The VUDE in South Lake Union was easy: They made a beeline to the back table, took in the rainbow of pickles set out in the shadow of a spice-crusted pastrami, closed their eyes, and sighed. The VUDE (rhymes with “food” and stands for Velvet Underground Dining Experience) is the tasting room and event space of Jon Staenberg and his winery, Hand of God Wines, and, on that Thursday, the crowd was tasting its way through a series of malbecs. However, the New Yorkers seemed stuck at the end of the food table, watching wide-eyed as David Youssefnia sliced juicy slabs of smoke-ringed meat while telling the story of how his business, Pastrome, came about.
Pastrome and Hand of God Wines were born from passion and enthusiasm, but, more than that, both found success when Youssefnia and Staenberg, respectively, transferred their corporate-world know-how to food-startup can-do.
Like the gawkers around the pastrami, Youssefnia comes from New York and was raised on food from the corner Jewish deli. Seeking better quality of life and a strong Jewish community, David, his wife, and their two kids decided to try Seattle for a year. Youssefnia runs the data analytics firm Critical Metrics, which is focused on using data to improve employee engagement, culture, and talent retention, and Seattle was a great place to build his business. But there was a drawback to living on this side of the country: no pastrami. No Katz’s, no Second Avenue Deli, no Ben’s. So one night, while hosting a poker game, he shared some that he’d made. It was a hit. He improved it and served it again. And again. Soon, instead of five or six people showing up for a game, a few dozen would — and some just came to eat. Now eight years, another kid, and a house later, Youssefnia owns a slice of Seattle’s pastrami market.
Instead of following a traditional restaurant model, Youssefnia drew on his corporate experience to strategize by batching the meat into packages and events where he sells it to between 20 and 80 people, instead of one sandwich at a time. He produces 50 to 100 pounds of meat each week, which has been brined, rubbed with a spice mixture, and smoked for 10–14 hours. Once it cools, he steams it before serving or packaging it with Macrina Bakery rye bread, mustard from Mustard & Co., and his house-cured pickles. Currently, patrons of pastrami can order it online at pastrome.com and pick it up at select locations. (The pastrami isn’t kosher, but interested parties have requested a kosher run.)
Youssefnia doesn’t want just to sell meat; he wants to create experiences. “We want pastrami not to be eaten solo, but to be something that’s an event,” he says. That’s how he wound up serving a batch alongside a wine flight at The VUDE.
Serial startup guy and angel investor Jon Staenberg stumbled upon his newest business — Hand of God Wines — when he looked up a business school classmate while visiting Argentina’s wine region. The friend, Santiago Achaval, shared some wine he’d made from local grapes, and Staenberg was so impressed that he entered the boutique wine business with him. Like Youssefnia, Staenberg knew traditional routes wouldn’t work for him. Instead of going through distributors, he went straight to the consumer. “We swing above our weight,” he says, “because we’re thoughtful with how we
connect to people.”
Part of that networking is through The VUDE, which is currently housed in a South Lake Union building slated to be torn down and replaced by an office building — almost five years and more than 400 events after Staenberg opened it. He hopes to open again elsewhere, but he’s not too worried: The VUDE is about more than physical space. “We’re just a little business hoping to make it,” Staenberg says, “to connect to people, to make them go beyond day-to-day life, to enjoy downtime, a respite, a moment of Shabbat.”