Tilth: Letting Your Inner Philosophy Be Your Guide

If you’re new to Seattle and looking for that list of three things you have to experience, here they are: the mountains, the sea…and Tilth. The experience is everything everyone has told you and more – just the sort of cozy dining you wish were in every neighborhood, the kind of quality you wish every eatery would aspire to and the sort of mission-based execution you hope more businesses adopt.

Tilth: Overview

Tilth opened in September 2005 and specializes in “New American” cooking. It features the best local ingredients from regional producers. Nestled in a renovated a Arts and Crafts bungalow that once housed a Burmese restaurant, Chef Maria Hines brightened the look with a buttery interior and soft-green exterior (using eco-friendly paint). The goal: to have customers to feel warm and welcomed when they dine at Tilth.

What does it mean? Tilth, n. 1. The most fertile and bountiful layer of the earth’s soil, tilled to begin life. 2. The food experience of Tilth, a restaurant.” Concept: all-organic menu (certified by nonprofit Oregon Tilth—one of only two such restaurants in existence) and all-incredible-delicious food (with a reputation growing faster than a brush fire in summer). 

The thing that separates Tilth from similar ventures is its ability to make a hard-line commitment to organic ingredients a topic of mainstream conversation. Eating at her place is one small way to participate in a movement. The restaurant is one of a handful in the nation to achieve formal organic certification. It’s the second one in Seattle (Sterling Cafe is the other), and the second in the country certified through Oregon Tilth.

About Maria Hines

When thinking back if there single moment when she decided to make the leap higher pay might have kept her a little longer, but opening her place was inevitable. “With Tilth, I have the pressure of managing the overhead, making payroll, managing the house repairs, etc.”

There is more to the day than being a chef, it comes with a lot of responsibility and stress and is quite an accomplishment when it all happens. Hines finds her greatest satisfaction from the people she works with and when she sees regulars.

The media paints a very romantic picture of what it’s like to work for yourself, which is not altogether off base. You get a fair amount of autonomy in determining what you work on, how you structure your day, with whom you work (to some degree). There is the other side: access to funding, getting comfortable with debt, managing finances –all things that most people would opt out of if given the chance.

Aside: during this interview, she was in NYC, accepting her second James Beard nomination…and looking forward to coming back to Seattle where she’s in the midst of putting in a new deck.

How Tilth Gives Back

Sustainable and social enterprises do things that are good for profit, staff, environmentally/socially responsible. Hines buys from buying from local businesses, keeps the cash in the community ecosystem as well a ensuring the freshest ingredients. Everything Hines buys is green—from the paint on the walls to the wood for the deck (managed by the FSC); she can track the lumber back to the village it came from.

Hines has a passion for education and gives lectures on topics like dish composition, and sustainability and organics. She pays 50/50 medical for her staff, closes on holidays, subsidizes a portion of her staff’s bus fare.

Espresso Shot Insights what’s this?

  • Learn As You Go, get Comfortable With Risk
  • Know Your Business & Be Succinct
  • Actively Create Your Environment


Learn As You Go, Get Comfortable With Risk

With the exception of her early mentor, Hines has not had a lot of mentoring types in her career. “I’ll talk to (peers) when something (I’ve not seen before) comes up” but for the most part, she learns as she goes. Her scariest business moment happened early on when she faced the prospect of having to shut down the restaurant for 2.5 service days because of a funding issue and another time for 6 weeks due to a plumbing issue. Working through both of these issues made her a stronger leader and more secure in her ability to manage surprises. “If I had it to do all over again, I would do the same thing. ….but if things weren’t going well, I would not put everything on the line, like my house.” Hines paused a moment and added, “It was a big risk and happened to pay off.”  

Know Your Business & Be Succinct

Customers can tell when someone is following a formula or going through the motions. To have soul in a place, there has to be passion. Starting a business is a long term relationship. To manage it, you have to know every aspect of it. “Don’t open a restaurant so you can hang with your friends—that just won’t work.” Honing in on purpose and intent helps attract the skills you need to whatever venture you engage in and she cited her staff as a source of her energy for going to work each day. Writing my business plan was a pain in the neck, but really helped me summarize my vision to staff and guests.”

Hines has no plans to expand the vision currently as the restaurant is still in the early stages, but she does do some consulting and mentioned that a cook book might be a future project. The business plan was more than an academic exercise and keeps her focused to the task at hand: creating and serving a stellar experience to her customers.

Actively Create Your Environment

In life, you can’t get anywhere worth going alone and Hines mentions her staff with great respect. “All of us working toward a common vision really inspires me and I think it’s important to do what you can to make everyone that you are in contact happy.” So much attention to the relationships she comes in contact with goes a long way in creating a place she and her staff enjoy coming to each day.

Parting Words…

  • My most rewarding business moment whenever I see regulars
  • My scariest business moment the idea that I had to shut down the restaurant 
  • Every entrepreneur should know their business, have a good business plan (provides focus for you to relay the vision to your staff your guests, etc) otherwise your vision gets lost
  • Success to me means you make an effort to make everyone you come into contact with happy


This profile was completed by social venture labs, a company that leads focus-group style sessions for those leading small mission-driven businesses or organizations looking to create relationships, share ideas and get feedback on common business practices.

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