Faced with the coronavirus pandemic and resultant restrictions against large gatherings, restaurant owners across the Seattle area are closing earlier or shutting down, laying off cooks and servers as they negotiate with landlords and vendors to delay payments while their dining rooms and bars sit empty.

Since Feb. 29, when a Washington resident became the first American to die from COVID-19, the novel coronavirus has spread through the Greater Seattle area and the fallout has been swift. Servers and managers say they were hustling during a lunch rush one afternoon then coming to work the next day to nearly empty dining rooms where, in some cases, staffers outnumbered diners. By The Seattle Times’ informal count, at least 50 restaurants and bars have closed their doors in the past two weeks, though many hope to reopen when the crisis passes.

Across the Seattle area, many bars and restaurants are facing a reality that eerily resembles the Great Recession, only on hyperdrive, with lunch crowds disappearing and a flood of dinner-reservation cancellations and catering events wiped off the books overnight, forcing many companies to slash staff and pivot to takeouts and deliveries to make up for lost revenue, several restaurant owners and investors said.

Breweries and corner pubs that are entrenched in neighborhoods appear to do better, still drawing patrons during happy hour and running close to their usual capacity. But many businesses around downtown, South Lake Union and Capitol Hill haven’t fared as well.

On Wednesday, Tom Douglas, the city’s most celebrated chef, closed a dozen restaurants for at least two months after his management team told him business was down by as much as 90%, informing Douglas that he could not afford to pay his employees beyond March 15. Also, management told Douglas, every single catering event they had booked had been canceled.

Chef Tom Douglas announced Wednesday that he is closing 12 of his restaurants. (Kyle Johnson / The New York Times)
Chef Tom Douglas announced Wednesday that he is closing 12 of his restaurants. (Kyle Johnson / The New York Times)

Douglas’ announcement underscored just how tough the climate is getting for many restaurant owners. Shawn O’Donnell Jr., who owns four namesake Irish pubs (Pioneer Square, Fremont, Everett and Spokane), has asked family members, from his wife to his 60-year-old dad, to help “tend bar and wash dishes.”

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“This is the worst that I have seen it. It’s unprecedented,” said Larry Kurofsky, owner of the Heavy Restaurant Group, which runs 10 Seattle-area bars and bistros, including what industry insiders say is one of the most profitable brands in the area, his three Purple Café and Wine Bars in Seattle and on the Eastside. He said layoffs are coming but did not specify how many.

“We are focused on group dining and catering, and pretty much most of that have gone away,” Kurofsky said.

“To be frank, we are flat-out scared right now,” said James Weimann, who owns 11 restaurants in the Seattle area, including Rhein Haus on Capitol Hill and Bastille Café & Bar in Ballard. Weimann is in talks with his landlords to negotiate a rent reduction during the slowdown.

“The prediction and forecast of the virus’s growth in the Seattle area could very well force us to close some or all of the restaurants at some point, temporarily,” Weimann said.

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Some have succumbed

A handful of restaurateurs have already thrown in the towel. On Tuesday, in a span of five hours, three Seattle restaurants that were skating on thin margins — Local 360 Café & Bar, Arriba Cantina and Cursed Oak — announced they were closing because empty dining rooms put them in deep financial holes that they could not dig out of. The next day, the owners behind Pintxo and Branchwater in Belltown closed because their sales figures “fell off the cliff” over the past 10 days. Owner Cory Chigbrow said sales were up 15% compared to last year’s until the coronavirus outbreak. He decided to cut his losses rather than ride it out — especially after Wednesday morning, when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus crisis a pandemic.

Washington state’s latest unemployment data isn’t in yet, but in three dozen Seattle Times interviews conducted with restaurant owners and managers this past week, every establishment reported that their owners have either laid off or reduced the shifts of servers, cooks or bartenders due to low sales volume. Douglas alone has had to lay off about 800 workers.

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Several restaurants say they’re now relying on rainy-day funds as they expect sales to plunge next month after Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday prohibited all gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. As a safety precaution against the spreading virus, the governor wants people to practice social distancing instead of standing “shoulder to shoulder in bars.”

The pronouncement was the latest blow to an industry already reeling after Microsoft, Amazon, other companies and King County health officials encouraged employees to work from home. Dozens of restaurants, many around South Lake Union and downtown, have either stopped lunch service or locked their doors until workers return.

Ethan Stowell has likened the current coronavirus-crippled restaurant climate to how bad things were in the last recession. Except this is worse, he says. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Ethan Stowell has likened the current coronavirus-crippled restaurant climate to how bad things were in the last recession. Except this is worse, he says. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

This is worse than the 2008 recession, said respected restaurateur Ethan Stowell, because back then, “there was never the message of ‘don’t go out.’”

In Redmond, District 1 Saigon bistro near Microsoft is closed until March 25 (the date tentatively set for when tech workers might return to campus).

In the Denny Triangle, celebrated chef Renee Erickson has stopped lunch service at Willmott’s Ghost inside the Amazon Spheres, and her nearby bar, Deep Dive, closes two hours earlier on weekdays.

On Capitol Hill, the critically acclaimed Altura and its younger sibling Carrello restaurant will turn off the lights after dinner service on March 14 “for at least four to six weeks.”

In the Chinatown International District, House of Hong Restaurant is now open only three days a week and about 10 other restaurants have planned drastic cuts due to steep sales declines since January.

Downtown, Andare Kitchen & Bar inside the Hyatt Regency has temporarily closed, leaving only its bar open from 2-8 p.m.

Some fight on … but for how long?

Kelly Nordberg, a full-time server at Andare, now gets a single six-hour shift a week at the hotel bar. Like all her friends in the industry, Norberg said she can’t find another waitressing job because other restaurant managers have told her that people are not dining out. She has canceled class registration for spring quarter at Seattle Central College so she can make rent on her one-bedroom apartment in the University District.

“I am worried about how this is all going to play out,” Nordberg said. “I started selling my artwork online. It’s not going to pay the bills, but it is something at least.”

Some concerned restaurant owners are reaching into their own pocketbooks to help cover their employees’ expenses. Owner Taylor Hoang of  District 1 Saigon said she has called the landlord of one of her line cooks and agreed to cover the rent if her employee can’t make payment on her affordable-housing unit.

Taylor Hoang, owner of District 1 Saigon, is trying to come up with creative ways to help her employees through this financially stressful time as the restaurant industry reels from the coronavirus pandemic. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Taylor Hoang, owner of District 1 Saigon, is trying to come up with creative ways to help her employees through this financially stressful time as the restaurant industry reels from the coronavirus pandemic. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Two other workers who are living paycheck to paycheck will be paid during the closure, Hoang said.

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With diners scarce, some restaurants (especially around Capitol Hill) have started curbside pickup or — taking a page out of the Uber Eats playbook — by delivering themselves. The storied, white-cloth-table Canlis announced on Thursday that it will drop its fine-dining experience at the end of this week, turning its parking lot into a drive-thru burger joint and offering dinner delivery to keep its employees on the payroll in hope of getting through the virus outbreak.

On Broadway East, Olmstead restaurant tells customers to just pull their cars out front (by the disco ball) and servers will bring out their takeout orders.

Shawn O’Donnell Jr., owner of four iterations of Shawn O’Donnell’s American Grill and Irish Pub, stands in his nearly empty Pioneer Square restaurant Thursday. He said the coronavirus scare has cut his business by 61%. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Shawn O’Donnell Jr., owner of four iterations of Shawn O’Donnell’s American Grill and Irish Pub, stands in his nearly empty Pioneer Square restaurant Thursday. He said the coronavirus scare has cut his business by 61%. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

For pub owner O’Donnell, most of his income around this time of year revolves around St. Patrick’s Day, which is now a bust. The Seattle St. Patrick’s Day Parade that runs near his Pioneer Square restaurant and the popular St. Patrick’s Day Dash 5K he helped to sponsor have been canceled. And 11 out of his 12 catering events next week are gone as well.

Like many of his struggling peers, O’Donnell has asked his landlords and food vendors to defer some bills. If there is a luck of the Irish, he needs it now.

“Not just myself, but my employees rely on the overtime wages and the tip income that comes through the door at this time of year. That is not there,” O’Donnell said.

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