Bellingham restaurant continues to evolve through stronger community ties

Ciao Thyme owners Mataio and Jessica Gillis address the crowd at their Uncommon Pairing dinner, which capped off Bellingham Beer Week last September. The company is planning to expand its use of the event room, known as Ciao Thyme Commons.
Ciao Thyme owners Mataio and Jessica Gillis address the crowd at their Uncommon Pairing dinner, which capped off Bellingham Beer Week last September. The company is planning to expand its use of the event room, known as Ciao Thyme Commons. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The evolution of a business can be long and deliberate, but it appears Jessica and Mataio Gillis have enjoyed every step of the journey because they’ve been able to do it in Bellingham.

The couple founded Ciao Thyme in 2001 as a catering business, but over the years it has become many different things to its customers. Many connect with Ciao Thyme through its lunch cafe at 207 Unity St., or its incognito dinners, classes and other events. Or maybe it’s the company’s to-go meals, where customers can swing by and pick up a restaurant-style dinner.

With the different pieces in place, Jessica and Mataio are ready for the next step: Reaching out to more of the community. In the past year they’ve completed a major remodel to create an event space in their building’s upper floor. They’ve been having around four events a month in that space, but are planning to increase frequency, particularly expanding the number of company events. An electronic system was added to allow companies to have laptop-style meetings and other presentations.

A cafe and event space wasn’t in the original plans when Ciao Thyme was founded – Mataio Gillis wanted to stay focused on catering. Business started off well, and through mostly word-of-mouth, the owners developed a solid customer base. They eventually realized that even with a loyal following, they would only see customers at special events where caterers are needed, such as weddings and other celebrations. In order to see customers more often, Jessica and Mataio needed to create an establishment. While Mataio stayed focused on cooking, Jessica took on the role of designing the spaces in the Unity Street building.

James Reynolds and Ciao Thyme co-owner Jessica Gillis prepare tapas for a Spanish-themed wedding in the Ciao Thyme Commons. The event room was completed about a year ago, but the company is planning to add more events to expand its use. Gabriel Rodriguez, Gabriel Boone Photography Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

While pondering the idea of a cafe, Jessica and Mataio thought back to the experiences they enjoyed in Europe, which led to the concept of the long tables – where strangers could sit down and have meals together. That concept has led to their customers becoming friends, strengthening the community ties. It’s exactly what Mataio and Jessica hoped would happen.

“Friendships are made, and now some of them travel together,” Mataio Gillis said, adding that success was a factor in creating the bigger upstairs event space, the Ciao Thyme Commons.

“We only do this because this is a place we love to live,” Mataio Gillis said.

With the cafe, which Jessica and Mataio started nearly five years ago, the goal was to keep limited lunch hours, leaving evening hours available for family time, catering and special events. A steady stream of requests came in for regular dinners, so the couple came up with the to-go menu that involved a complete meal using local ingredients. Mataio Gillis put together eight pans in the first week and it quickly grew in popularity. Production of to-go pans is now up to 120 a week.

Jessica and Mataio also have seen changes to the Bellingham restaurant scene. They said it has become more of a community that enjoys trying out different types of dishes, particularly with local ingredients. One factor in that change was the education done by organizations like Sustainable Connections and the Bellingham Farmers Market, Mataio Gillis said.

“I’ve seen a public shift when it comes to food awareness in Bellingham,” he said. “That awareness led to the public buying more local products, and then restaurants have responded.”

Jessica and Mataio will open the Ciao Thyme Commons event room area to the public and will be showing artwork by Sharon Kingston during the Art Walk on Sept. 1. On Sept. 27 the company will have an anniversary celebration and will have its traditional carrot cake and champagne during cafe hours, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., followed by a pizza party from 5-7 p.m.

For details about Ciao Thyme and its upcoming events, visit ciaothyme.com.


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