Cheri Esselstrom, owner of the new Dukko’s eatery in the Fifth Street Public Market’s International Food Court, knows a bit about hard times, perseverance, community and family. Oh, and food. She and her husband, Duck alumnus and football player Matthew Esselstrom, own a 40-acre farm on the Entiat River in central Washington, where they lived until his job transferred them here. At the farm they grow an abundance of orchard fruits and vegetables, putting up enough for their own family (six kids and eight grandchildren between them), supplying a restaurant called Casa Grande that Esselstrom owns and leases, selling at farmers markets in the area and donating to a food shelter.
Esselstrom is originally from New Orleans, and lived there until her first husband passed away. She has managed wineries in the Lake Chelan, Wash., area and has a catering license, providing farm-to-table meals. She’s also traveled the world, including several trips to Italy.
And Esselstrom’s a do-er. She’s a fast talker, but never with an air of impatience, it’s just that she doesn’t like to be idle. “I moved here without knowing anyone,” she says. “Without my grandkids or kids here, I had a lot of free time.” She wanted her own restaurant, because she wanted to be able to be creative and add her personal touch to the menu. She began looking at restaurants that were for sale, and settled on the former Noli Italian restaurant. Esselstrom began providing Italian food similar to what Noli offered, but with an expanded menu led by customer demand.
Dukko’s had been open for six weeks last November when Esselstrom’s daughter in Washington died in a car accident caused by someone who was texting and driving. “I had been working 105 hours a week here,” she says. “And then all of a sudden I just wasn’t here anymore.” That was a setback, but now, she says, “things are going along as they should be.”
Ms. Cheri, as her employees know her, makes almost everything herself, save the bread from Provisions and the fresh pasta from Pasta Plus. “I just can’t buy anything processed,” she says. “We have such a wonderful variety of food here. I want to cook what’s fresh, what’s in season, from local people in the farmers market.” Her menu includes fresh sauces, meatballs, soups, salads and dressings made from scratch. Parents like that Dukko’s offers a kids’ menu, featuring buttery noodles made with fresh cheese and cream, Nutella and jam sandwiches or pasta with one meatball. Lighter fare will follow in the summertime, as well as later hours. “We are talking with the Market as a whole about staying open later so we can have more of a dinner crowd,” Esselstrom says. “They’re open to it.”
Esselstrom, 57, grew up in foster homes, and her husband was formerly a high school teacher. “We’ve both mentored kids our whole lives,” she says. Their restaurant is an extension of that philosophy. They pay their employees a higher-than-usual starting wage. “We hope this is a stepping-off place,” she explains. “We want every single person to go on to bigger and better things. We give them an opportunity and tell them they can go on to do anything they want.”
Dukko’s has been well-received, she says, enjoying many repeat customers. By all accounts, they come for the Southern-style camaraderie as well as the good food. Every day Esselstrom gives a meal away, at random. “It’s my way of giving back,” she says. “We don’t have the same community here with family that we had in Washington, but we’re trying to make our own community.”
Part of the appeal of the food court for Esselstrom was that it allows people to come together. “It’s open seating so someone who eats from Cafe Glendi may sit right here,” she says, gesturing to her bar. “There’s so much variety of food here that someone can get something at one place and their friend can get something from a different place and they’re both happy. It’s a shared experience. I’m really happy that we chose this place.”
Dukko’s Eatery is open 11 am to 7 pm Monday through Friday, 9 am to 7 pm Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm Sunday at 296 E. 5th Ave, Suite 201, Fifth Street Public Market, 743-0862.
Photos by Trask Bedortha.