At the Mighty-O doughnut shop in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, Wednesday opening was both horrific and, if not routine, normal.
About an hour after the cafe’s doors opened at 6 a.m., a woman walked in brandishing a knife and locked in a crisis, Mighty-O CEO Ryan Kellner said. She waved the knife around before wandering across Northwest Market Street, where police eventually contacted her. Kellner said he believes officers took her to get medical care. The employee and customers were traumatized but uninjured.
“It shook a lot of people up, including the customers and the employee,” says Kellner, who has been making doughnuts in Seattle for 22 years. “It’s not a single incident, and it’s not just us.”
Kellner’s complaint ― that crime, chaos and people in crisis have become fixtures in many of Seattle’s shared spaces ― is neither new nor particularly controversial, even among activists, service providers and elected officials who remain at odds as to how it should be addressed. Public spaces, from parks to parking spaces, across the city are occupied by people short on better options. Those people, to Kellner’s eye, need help. And so does he.
Kellner describes a string of incidents spread across his company’s five cafes. At his downtown Seattle shops, a string of grab-and-go thefts prompted him to stop putting items on the counters. A woman who, like the Wednesday visitor, appeared to be experiencing a crisis walked into the lobby and urinated on the floor. Workers regularly find the detritus of drug use when cleaning up outside.
Last year, the Mighty-O at Green Lake was robbed and then robbed again the following week, Kellner says. They didn’t bother calling the police the second time. There didn’t seem to be a point if the call would just be routed to a nonemergency line and not solicit a response.
Because of staffing issues, responses to “priority one” calls — reports of violent crimes — currently take about 7½ minutes, up from 6 minutes a couple of years ago, Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz said recently. For lower priority calls, it can take 30 to 60 minutes for officers to respond.
“Does it do anything when you call them is the question,” Kellner says. His answer? Not really.
Most of the trouble he and his employees are facing, he says, isn’t best addressed by someone with body armor, a badge and a gun anyway.
“They need a different kind of help,” Kellner says. “They need mental health help, professional care.”
Regular run-ins with people in crisis exacerbate a challenge that’s become increasingly acute for Kellner and almost all other employers — hiring and retention. Major employers like Amazon are scooping up an increasingly large number of available lower-wage workers — a scarcity in a region that’s seen the costs of living skyrocket in recent years. Day-to-day chaos makes it harder for restaurants to compete. Front-line service workers, at Mighty-O or anywhere, aren’t paid to be first responders.
“No one signs up for this as part of their job,” Kellner says.
That there’s no ready solution isn’t lost on Kellner, but he hopes to see more consequential action that’ll make the city cleaner and keep all its residents safer. He recalls a recent bicycle ride over the Dr. Jose Rizal Bridge on Beacon Hill; the green belt below looked, he says, like a garbage dump. While it is cleaner than it once was, Green Lake Park near his home had come to resemble a campground.
“I love this city,” Kellner says. “We need to dig deep as a society and find a new way out.”