The winner Greg Barnes (center) and team Teriyaki Donut

It was a day full of Willy Wonka moments.

From the playful and creative costumes worn by many of the competitors, to the crystal clear crisp cold Seattle morning, to the Amazing Race-like mad dash through the city, to the culmination on a postcard perfect day atop Kite Hill at Gasworks Park, to the big surprise gifted to the crafty winner – it was a sweet deal for all.

Those Canlis brothers sure know how to throw a party – and start off New Year’s Eve 2010 in Seattle with a most remarkable experience that would Light Up Seattle in festive fashion.

If you’ve been following along the past few months, you know that 50 winners of the daily Canlis Menu scavenger hunt were invited to compete in one final game on Dec. 31. They arrived in teams of three at the Canlis restaurant at 10 a.m. on New Years Eve, many adorned in creative costumes, ready to search for the ultimate prize – an annual dinner for two at Canlis, for life! The catch – you have to give away the dinner away, as an act of charity.

Team Scooby Doo!

After teams were finally all registered, and fueled up on donated Top Pot Doughnuts, Mark and Brian Canlis climbed the roof atop the restaurant and launched the race at 10:39 a.m. The teams bolted with five clues, each on a snippet of colored paper, and only a few rules – don’t speed, don’t trespass and you don’t need to do anything dangerous to solve a clue.

And there was one last request – unique but completely appropriate- for a social media event. The brothers asked the teams to maintain “radio silence” in terms of social media, imploring them not to post clues and/or thoughts on Facebook and Twitter. “This game is for you, not them!” Mark and Brian told the racers! Ha, I thought, 90% of life really is showing up – especially today! I know many wanna-be racers, especially those on Facebook, were upset to not be able to follow along, but they should have gotten out of bed and joined the call for volunteers. It was soooo worth it!


The clues were not in any particular order, and it was up to each team to decide in what order to solve them and how to pursue them across the city. Some immediately bolted in their cars to begin the chase, but others decided to remain in the parking lot to solve all five clues first, then plot out an efficient route. Teams were allowed to have “phone a friend” privileges, so many were calling in the clues to their home teams to research on web and help solve.

Once teams figured out a clue at arrived at its location, they received a sticker for their name tags. Once they collected all five solutions/stickers, they were given an envelope with a poem (written by Mark and Brian Canlis) that would give them yet another clue. If they “solved” the poem, they would realize they needed to head to Gasworks Park, where they would find out there was still another clue to decipher to reveal the location of the magical Dinner For Life gold card.

50+ "wandering letters" roamed around Gasworks Park


As the teams raced off down Aurora Avenue to begin their quest, nearly 50 volunteers arrived at the Canlis penthouse about 11 a.m. to offer their services as additional “pieces” to the game. Many were frustrated clue hunters from earlier days of the contest, who wanted to participate somehow, even vicariously through the competing teams. Each was given a black t-shirt to wear, with a large white letter on the back, with every letter of the alphabet represented (except x and z). The shirts also had a slip of paper with a number (nine, two, etc) stapled to them.

“We wanted to include the whole city in our birthday celebration but we had to pare it down (the 50 clues contest),” Mark Canlis explained to the volunteers. “ But today we are including the whole city again. The teams are all hunting for something they can’t have, with the idea to give it away is better than receive. But they need your help, because they can’t do it alone. You are an integral piece of the game.”

As the volunteers, including the Canlis brothers, restaurant employees and their extended families (even me!) donned their shirts, Mark and Brian told us we were headed down to Gasworks Park, perfectly framed outside the Canlis windows, to “mill around” and essentially just wait for something to happen. Our only instructions: if a competitor comes up to you and “asks” for something, all you can tell them is the number you were given. So for example, I was wearing a t-shirt with an “H” on the back, and if anyone asked me for a clue, all I could tell them was “nine”.

The final clue - key was "light up Seattle"


So at high noon, about 50-60 of us arrived at Gasworks, ready for anything (we didn’t know where the prize was hidden). I trudged up the frozen grass of Kite Hill, wanting to get a great view of whatever was to happen – and I kept a keen watch on both Brian and Mark, figuring they would be where the action was! Of course they were playing Frisbee much of the time so I was a little worried about how long we would be out here! It was pretty funny to watch our Zombie walking letters roaming the park, and the stunned looks of other visitors to the park, wondering what they had stumbled into here!

About 12:20 p.m., nearly two hours after the shotgun start, team #17 (finders of Menu 17 at Marsh Island near UW) was the first team to arrive, wearing a variety of racers gear. After a few bewildering glances around the park, they eventually figured out to ask the “wandering letters” if they had something for them, and began gathering pieces of the answer, and sharing them via cell phone with their helpers at home. The second team on the scene was team #39 (found Menu 39 at Museum of Flight), named “Teriyaki Donut”, and they all oddly headed for the fence surrounding ironworks, appeared to be looking for answer in there.

Team Frango For The Gold thought they had won! But no...

Next on the scene was was Team #34 “Frango For the Gold” (Menu 34 at Nordstrom) all adorned in yellow costumes. They ran up Kite Hill and began to celebrate, apparently thinking they had won and it appeared to surprise them all that just arriving there was NOT the solution! A few other teams arrived shortly after that, and quickly clued into gathering info from the “wandering letters”. Many collected all of the letters “numbers” clues, but then seemed puzzled about how to solve that info. That was the key – what kind of order do we put these letters and numbers in to find the prize location?


New Year’s Eve of 1873 was the first time that gas lamps lit 42 private homes and five public streets, thanks to the Seattle Gas Light Company. The gas for the region’s first private utility was manufactured from coal, and in 1906, Gasworks was built to construct a plant to manufacture gas from coal. After nearly 50 years of gas manufacturing, the plant became obsolete (thanks to natural gas) in the 1950’s and later became a city park.

“We are always at the restaurant looking down here at the city and Gasworks,” said Brian. “We wanted to figure out how we could ‘Light Up Seattle’ and ignite people’s hearts to give back.”  So, here we were, New Year’s Eve 2010, at Gasworks Park!


The big prize - annual Dinner for Life

About 1 pm, I spied Greg Barnes from team Teriyak Donut”, race over to Brian and begin asking questions. He then darted off to a patch of grass behind a bench overlooking the lake and he and his teammates began digging madly and combing fingers through the grass. Others teams noticed the activity and began racing towards spot and digging too! But something was definitely wrong, as even Mark and Brian were helping them dig to no avail. Did someone steal the clue? I envisioned a dog trotting around the city with the coveted gold card.

After a few panicked moments, there was a cheer and Greg held up a small envelope – the winner! And guess what? Inside was not just one Gold Card to give away to a charitable group or individual (per contest rules) but a second card, which was for Greg to enjoy – truly a Willy Wonka moment. Yup the Canlis brothers did it again, throwing another delightful curve/prize into the game, just when it seemed they had done it all.

Solving the puzzle using a clue from the poem


So you are probably wondering how they knew where to dig. Here’s the story:

In the poem, the last three words were in bold, Light Up Seattle, which is the Canlis’ motto for their 2011 philanthopic campaign. If teams took the number associated with each of those letters, and put them in order to spell that phrase, it would indicate a latitude/longitude that would tell them where to dig (found by using Google maps)

L = 47 dot I= 6 G= 44 H = 9 T= 3 U=1 P= comma, space S= -1 E=2 A= 2 dot T= 3 T=3 L= 578 E= 2

That gave you the coordinates: 47.644931, -122.335782

Entering that info in Google Maps showed you exactly where to dig to find the cards


As I thought about the day, my overriding thought was “giving” – teams that competed so hard for a prize they had to give away; volunteers giving up 4-5 hours of time in freezing temperatures on New Year’s Eve; Canlis’ generosity for doing the contest in the first place, let alone giving a second “Dining For Life” card to the winner.

As a Social Media professional, I’m still stunned that the Canlis Menu Hunt hasn’t become a national story because it has so many intriguing elements. At the very least it’s a beautiful case study for social media contests, especially for a restaurant, although that would be so limiting to say this is unique to their industry. Any company could learn a boatload about Social Media by studying the Canlis’ effort over the past three months – building a community, maintaining daily engagement, importance of authenticity, extreme generosity, creating excitement, to name a few. And for naysayers who still think it’s still just about getting “butts in the seats” and making more money for the restaurant, I say boo-hoo to you! You MISSED IT, both the point of the contest and the amazing outcome, and for that I am disappointed for you. The Canlis brothers created a unique social media engagement model that will be copied and spun off into variations for months and years to come. And for that, we thank you!